M ercedes started the season as a big favorite. But after two races, Ferrari has won twice and Mercedes was only second winner twice. Sebastian Vettel leads the ranking ahead of Lewis Hamilton with 55:33 points. The forecasts were based on the opposite.
At the Australian GP, the virtual safety car and an input error in the strategy program beat the favorites. A number of reasons came together in Bahrain. It started with the transmission penalty for Hamilton, which cost the Englishman 15 seconds until he had swum free in fourth place on lap 9. And it ended with Valtteri Bottas running out of time. The Finn was up to two seconds per lap faster than Vettel in the final. But all he had left was one attack on the Ferrari. And Vettel easily fended off.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff made no secret of his frustration. “If someone had offered me second and third place on Saturday after qualifying, I would have signed immediately. But the way the race went, it was frustrating. Two Red Bull and Raikkonen are out. And we only needed 2 more laps. Then Vettel would not have been able to defend himself. 'Hamilton said doggedly:' For me it would have been 5 extra laps. '
Bottas disturbed the Ferrari circles
If Mercedes draws an interim balance sheet after two races, the conclusion should be: the GP Australia should have been won. The race in Bahrain could have been won. The engineers see it the same way. Mercedes has many opportunities in BahrainLeave unused.
It started with the transmission penalty for Hamilton. A medium miracle had to happen from 9th on the grid for the world champion to win the race. He really only had one option. A long first stint on soft tires, then the race with the medium rubbers to the end.
For this, Hamilton needed a Bottas, who disrupts Ferrari circles. This plan worked. Bottas split the two Ferraris. Surprisingly, the Finn on the supersoft tires was able to close the gap on Vettel from a maximum of 3.3 seconds to 2.2 seconds at the end of the stint. That could already be seen on the long runs on Friday. The Ferrari ran out of breath in the endurance runs.
The tire problems of the Mercedes on Saturday were suddenly blown away. “The overheating of the rear tires was only a problem on one aggressive lap. The temperatures stabilized over a longer period of time, ”explained the tire experts from Mercedes. Nevertheless, they were self-critical. “We should have let Bottas qualify on soft tires like Lewis in Q2. Then our tactical possibilities would have been even greater. ”
Ferrari chose Plan B
Ferrari and Vettel protected themselves against an undercut by Bottas as early as possible. Raikkonen was used again as bait with his pit stop just one lap later. He should force Bottas to react as soon as possible. But the reaction from Mercedes turned out differently than Ferrari had expected.
While Ferrari clearly made two stops in the second stint with soft tires, the rival did the opposite. Bottas got medium rubbers on the trip. A clear indication that Mercedes reversed the car with the number 77 to a stop. “We saw in Alonso that the medium tire allows fast times. And our car already showed at the long runs on Friday that it harmonizes well with this type of tire, ”explained Wolff.
That was the moment when the Mercedes boss believed that the pendulum would be in favor of Knocked out silver arrows. “We had victory in our hands.” In the 30th lap, Vettel was just 4.1 seconds ahead of Bottas and 22.8 seconds ahead of Hamilton. With that, he had already missed his pit stop window.
Ferrari now had two options to react. Either Vettel would make a second pit stop as planned, fall behind the Mercedes and then blow the big attack with one sentence super soft. Or he would take the risk of wearing the Soft set with his fingertips for 39 laps and waiting for the attack by the Mercedes drivers.
Plan A was the more likely. Because there was no empirical value as to whether a sentence of soft would last that long. “We wouldn't have believed Sebastian to do it. Not because of the wear and tear, but because of the wear and tear and the loss of grip, ”said Pirelli sports director Mario Isolato.
This is how Mercedes thought too. They prepared themselves for Ferrari's Plan A. “If Vettel had changed again, there was a risk that he would run over us with softer and fresher tires. That's why we had to brake our drivers a little so that the medium tires would have enough life in them in the end to defend themselves, 'explained the strategists from the silver camp.
Bottas too timid when attacking
Ferrari tried to pull one last joker with Raikkonen. His early second pit stop on lap 35 should lure Bottas out of reserve. But it didn't work out. Ferrari screwed up the pit stop and from then on only had one cartridge in its quiver.
The Ferrari pit was blocked for two laps due to the care of the injured mechanic. If Vettel had then come to the pits for a second stop, he would have returned 3 seconds behind Hamilton and 17 seconds behind Bottas. It would have been enough for Hamilton. Probably not for Bottas anymore. The longer he would have made the pace on the supersoft tires, the more their advantage would have diminished.
After lap 38, Mercedes knew that their opponent would fall by the wayside and that they would become the hunter instead of the hunted . Two laps later, the Ferrari box confirmed: “Seb, we're going to plan B.” And there were two things that took revenge for Mercedes. Bottas got through the traffic worse than Vettel. Thereby 2.5 seconds remained on the track. And it had been slowed down too much with regard to the service life of the tires.
'Our mistake,' admitted the strategists. “We let our drivers drive too conservatively.” Hamilton later complained that he felt he was being misdirected from the command post. One will have to talk about the communication between the box and the driver. The Englishman could hear his engineers, but they couldn't hear him. “There was too much wind noise. That was definitely a disadvantage. But Lewis didn't lose the race. ”
Vettel was able to keep his pursuer at a distance until 12 laps to go. Bottas was 6.7 seconds short. Thenthe distance narrowed dramatically. Vettel found visibly no more grip. “The last five laps were really difficult. The tires deteriorated rapidly. 'The engineers do not accept accusations against Bottas that he attacked Vettel too timidly:' We know how difficult overtaking is on this track. And Vettel is a driver who is not easily overtaken. It wasn't for nothing that he was world champion four times. ”
For Toto Wolff this season will be a merciless three-way battle between Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes. “Depending on the racetrack, the pendulum will swing to a different team.” Mercedes has to solve its tire problem as quickly as possible, even if it wasn't as dramatic in the race as it was in practice. Wolff commented soberly about the deficit to Ferrari: “We gave away seven points twice. Points that you leave behind are particularly painful. '