The Bahrain Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Pete Anderson from The Red Line.
The Bahrain strategy report
Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas scored Mercedes’s second consecutive one-two finish, but third-placed Charles Leclerc was the moral victor, having comfortably led almost every lap of the race until a combustion fault in one of his six cylinders forced him down the order in the final 15 laps of the race.
So good was Leclerc that strategy almost didn’t come into his race at all, but behind him the battle for the podium was tight, as was the fight to be best of the rest in the midfield.
The Bahrain Grand Prix has become a favourite in recent times, perhaps in part thanks to the less extreme conditions post-sunset allowing a little more variability in strategy. Helping matters is that Bahrain is a particularly abrasive circuit, meaning that predictable wear rather than hard-to-manage degradation is the principal matter for consideration when selecting tyre strategy.
Passing is also far easier in Bahrain than in Australia, particularly with the addition of a third DRS zone this season, and this combined with the track characteristics and the thinner-gauge Pirelli tyres made the race a nailed-on two-stop — except for one driver, whose attempt at a one-stop served only to demonstrate its implausibility as a strategy.
The Bahrain Grand Prix
The race-winning move
The decisive strategy call came on lap 34 in the battle for second place between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. The Ferrari driver, unhappy with the balance of his SF90 and showing none of the performance of his then race-leading teammate, had remained within around three seconds of the pursuing Mercedes, making him vulnerable.
The pair differed on their middle-stint tyre choice, Hamilton switching to the soft while Vettel stuck with mediums, and the lack of longevity on the red-marked compound meant Hamilton was forced to pull the undercut trigger as his rubber reached the end of its life on lap 34.
Vettel, stopped on the next lap, had his advantage slashed from 4.6 seconds to just 0.8, which was small enough for Hamilton, with a lap of extra heat in his new mediums, to mount an attack.
They sparred for two tours, but on lap 38 Hamilton got around Vettel’s outside at turn four thanks to a headwind-enabled late-braking move. Vettel, attempting to keep up the pressure, lit up his rears on exit, spinning his car and destroying his new tyres and subsequently breaking his front wing. He dropped to ninth after his reparatory pit stop and recovered to fifth by the end of the race.
Had he held second place, as his faster car suggested he ought to have done, he would have at least limited the damage inflicted on Ferrari by Leclerc’s faulty engine.
Leclerc marks himself as Ferrari’s main man
Before his power unit calamity, the only fault in Charles Leclerc’s weekend was his fall to third after a slow getaway, though by lap two he was back up to second and preparing to challenge Vettel for the lead.
At this point he was told to wait two laps before making his move, Ferrari apparently preferring to wait to see if the German would be able to come to terms with his lack of early race grip, but Leclerc, insisting he was the faster driver, launched his move on lap six. He made it stick, and as he immediately began building a buffer, it became clear Vettel would be unable to match him.
Any concerns about Ferrari’s preseason suggestion it would favour Vettel proved unfounded. The team gave its leading driver priority to cover off Bottas and Hamilton on lap 13, keeping him comfortably in the lead. This, however, put Vettel in a particularly vulnerable position, and when the German took his stop on lap 14, Hamilton had successfully undercut him, though the Ferrari was able to power back past him nine laps later.
Leclerc’s gap over the field was big enough at the second pit stop window that there was no risk of him losing a place.
Verstappen accidentally undercuts, loses anyway
Max Verstappen kicked off the frontrunning pit stops earlier than expected when his team detected a rear-tyre slow puncture. He was brought in for new mediums on lap 11, before the leading Mercedes and Ferrari cars had had a chance to build a gap over the slower RB15, and ended up jumping Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn had stopped the following lap, and his faster Mercedes took just one tour get back past the Dutchman, who had a lonely race thereafter. His earlyish second stop on lap 32 was timed to bring him out ahead of struggling teammate Pierre Gasly.
Renault butchers its own race
Though Renault showed some promising signs in Bahrain, the team left the Middle East with nothing after a horror weekend.
The Renault power unit’s notorious unreliability bit hard in qualifying, when software faults locked Nico Hulkenberg in 17th and Daniel Ricciardo into 11th, and though both drivers made good progress early in the race — Hulkenberg rocketed up to 11th and Ricciardo picked his way to ninth — an inexplicable decision to put Daniel on a one-stop strategy threatened to drop the Australian out of the points before dual late-race engine failures eliminated both drivers anyway.
Pirelli suggested getting the soft tyre past 15 laps would require severe management, a marker that coincided with a drop in Riccardo’s pace. The team nonetheless kept him out until lap 24, at which point he was the slowest car on the field.
He was switched to a new set of mediums to run with until the end of the race, and though he worked his way back up to sixth when the midfield took its second pit stops, he was quickly relegated down to 10th before his engine failed on lap 54.
It was a strange decision for Renault to give its highest-placed driver on a circuit that is notorious for its tyre wear, doubly so considering the team started him on the delicate softs rather than the more durable mediums for his first stint, notwithstanding the one-second difference between compounds.
Hulkenberg’s relative comfort in sixth place towards the end of his conventional two-stop race suggested the team had gambled away a six-seven best-of-the-rest finish, though unreliability would’ve put paid to even this result.
Lando rises to the top
Renault’s only competition — other than its own mistakes — came from McLaren and Lando Norris, who impressed in just his second grand prix.
The rookie Briton fell from ninth to 14th on the first lap, but his recovery to sixth was owned to simple racecraft rather than strategy. All bar two of his passes up to sixth place — those excluded two being Carlos Sainz dropping down the order after picking up damage on lap four and Nico Hulkenberg’s late retirement — were made on the track, making this a thoroughly deserved first points finish for Norris.
The McLaren car in general looked quick in Bahrain, with Sainz attempting to dice with Verstappen in the first four laps before contact with the Red Bull Racing machine effectively ended his race.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: soft (used) to lap 13, soft (new) to lap 34, medium (new) to the flag.