Bahrain battle promises big things for F1’s European return

Fears for Formula One’s demise under 2017’s new regulations were proven premature by back-to-back thrillers in China and Bahrain.

The spoils of the double-header were divided equally between Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel respectively, and the two races painted a picture of a championship on a knife’s edge.

Wins in Australia and Bahrain have Vettel leading Hamilton in the drivers title by seven points, and Ferrari holds a slender three-point advantage over Mercedes on the constructors championship table.

Though the Chinese Grand Prix on 9 April was enthralling courtesy Friday practice’s cancellation in poor Shanghai visibility, conditions for the Bahrain Grand Prix on 16 April were perfect, and in the Sakhir International Circuit the teams had a representative track on which true performance could be tested.

Pleasingly the sport delivered. The Bahrain Grand Prix was replete with lights-to-flag wheel-to-wheel action, and though Vettel and Hamilton are yet to duel at close quarters, the high-speed strategising of their powerhouse teams to negotiate them to the front was engrossing nonetheless.

But a fascinating side-story for Formula One’s new competitive narrative, refreshing after three consecutive seasons of single-team dominance, is the dynamic between Vettel and Hamilton’s teammates, who are fast casting themselves as mere supporting players in a bigger championship fight.

The grid’s oldest driver, Kimi Räikkönen, is yet to rediscover his 2007 championship-winning form in the fourth year of his reunion with Ferrari, while Valtteri Bottas, replacing reigning champion Nico Rosberg after his shock retirement, is still finding his feet in the big leagues at Mercedes.

Though none laments a Vettel-Hamilton straight fight, the closeness of the unfolding championship battle has quickly written out these other drivers, who could have turned the season into a full-blooded four-way title battle.

Bottas, the better of the second drivers, is already 30 points — more than the 25 points awarded for a race win — behind Vettel, and Räikkönen is four points further back.

If Bahrain proves a template for the season, both men should be worried. Räikkönen was so far off the pace early in the race that Ferrari’s strategists appeared to neglect him while tending to Vettel’s lead, whereas Bottas, though he won his first F1 career pole on Saturday, was twice asked to move aside to help Hamilton’s victory chances on Sunday, so much faster was the Briton.

Ferrari has never been shy to prioritise the interests of one driver when the other is perceived to be a poorer performer, which in 2017 should ensure Vettel is guaranteed victory on the days his car is fastest.

Mercedes, however, is still grappling with its philosophy of equality between its drivers. In Bahrain Bottas was allowed to hold Hamilton behind him until it became obvious his pace wouldn’t improve, but those crucial laps arguably cost the Briton victory.

If the Mercedes pair continue to split points amongst themselves — or worse, lose points to Ferrari while they privately squabble — Mercedes will quickly find itself on the back foot in its pursuit for a fourth straight set of titles.

On the other hand, with Vettel and Hamilton trading wins, keeping the second drivers motivated to beat the other will be key to winning the constructors title, an equally important piece of silverware for the teams.

It begs the question: will management at Mercedes be willing to make the cruel but calculated call to back just one driver in the championship race?

It’s an excruciatingly difficult decision, but just three rounds in the clock is already ticking on the sport’s soon to be second-fiddle Finns.