If Ferrari won the Australian Grand Prix thanks to good fortune, then Sebastian Vettel’s nail-biting victory in Bahrain was thoroughly earnt.
Ecstatic and exhausted as he crossed the line just 0.699 seconds ahead of a fast-finishing Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas, the German’s win was befitting of this 200th grand prix start and demonstrated the depth of the four-time world champion’s nous behind the wheel.
Starting from pole ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen on a weekend Ferrari had a small but decisive advantage over Mercedes, victory for Vettel was supposed to be straightforward, but his strategic advantages were gradually whittled away throughout the race until he remained at the mercy of Mercedes.
First Raikkonen lost second place to Bottas on the first lap, allowing the younger Finn to keep Vettel honest in the pit stops.
Those stops would prove crucial, with the grand prix delicately balanced between a one and two-stop strategy. Ferrari backed its inherent pace and put both Vettel and Raikkonen on two-stop strategies, whereas Mercedes committed both Bottas and Lewis Hamilton to making just one stop.
At half distance Mercedes held a tactical advantage. Hamilton in fourth kept himself within 20 seconds of Vettel, meaning the Ferrari would emerge from the pits behind both Mercedes cars when he made his second stop and be forced to pass them both to win the race.
The Scuderia attempted to spook Mercedes by stopping Raikkonen early, but a botched stop — Kimi was released before his rear-left tyre was changed, breaking one of his mechanic’s legs in the process — eliminated him from the race, leaving Vettel to manage both Mercedes cars on his own.
The Silver Arrows sensed vulnerability and sped up, applying pressure to Vettel, who was now on badly worn tyres. It was obvious passing either Mercedes, even with fresh tyres, would be difficult, so Ferrari had little choice but to stay out on the old rubber and hope for the best.
With two laps to go Bottas close to within one second of Vettel. The pair spared briefly, but Sebastian masterfully outfoxed the faster Mercedes for a hard-fought victory.
“I thought that was checkmate,” Vettel said. “I nursed [the tyres] as much as I can and it worked, but just. Fortunately he ran out of laps.”
Bottas, who scored his first pole in Bahrain in 2017, lamented that his push came too late.
“I was trying to get every corner, every lap perfect trying to catch him, but it just was not quite enough,” he said. “Being second with such a close margin is in the end extremely disappointing.”
Vettel stretched his advantage atop the drivers standings to 17 points over Hamilton and 28 points over Bottas.
But while the championship narrative unfolded at the front, the Bahrain Grand Prix was important for both Toro Rosso and Sauber, who scored their first 2018 points.
Pierre Gasly took his Honda-powered Toro Rosso to a sensational fourth place, cheekily shouting over team radio, “Now we can fight!” as he crossed the line, mimicking the same comments made by McLaren’s Fernando Alonso at the previous round in Australia.
Alonso’s McLaren team had split up with Honda over the off-season, blaming it for its lack of results, but Toro Rosso outqualified McLaren in Bahrain and Gasly was easily faster than Alonso in the race.
Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson put in a similarly gutsy performance to finish ninth for Sauber’s first points in almost a year and the Swede’s first score since 2015.
Importantly, Ericsson outperformed his highly rated Ferrari junior teammate, Charles Leclerc, for the second successive weekend.
The 2018 Formula One season continues this weekend with the Chinese Grand Prix on 15 April.