Bahrain Grand Prix: Three races in, little separation between Vettel’s Ferrari and Hamilton’s Mercedes

It is a credit to this entertaining and unpredictable Formula One season that after three races we are still not completely sure who has the upper hand between Ferrari and Mercedes-GP.

Sebastian Vettel leads Lewis Hamilton during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 16, 2017. Lars Baron / Getty Images
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It is a credit to this entertaining and unpredictable Formula One season that after three races we are still not completely sure who has the upper hand between Ferrari and Mercedes-GP.

Yes, it was Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel who were the ones celebrating come the end of Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, but Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes put in a big surge in the final laps that, while ultimately futile, highlighted that the German marque still have strong raw pace.

The first half of the race belonged to Vettel, and that was where he won the race.

He overtook Hamilton at the start to move to second, behind Valtteri Bottas, the pole-sitter in the second Mercedes.

Vettel was glued to the back of the Mercedes during the first stint, unable to pass but able to sit comfortably within a second of Bottas, with Hamilton a further second back.

Ferrari made the call to pit early at the start of Lap 10 in an attempt to gain track position for Vettel, something that paid off as his speed on new tyres was strong.

But what helped him more was when Lance Stroll’s Williams was struck by Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso at the start of Lap 12, which brought out the safety car.

Vettel’s speed on fresh rubber had guaranteed that he was going to leapfrog Bottas regardless, who was struggling with his tyre pressures, but the full caution period actually hurt his real rival, Hamilton.

Because he was still running behind Bottas, Hamilton was obliged to have to pit right behind Bottas on the same lap, with too much track position and time to be lost by staying out.

Hamilton knew he would suffer by having to sit for a few seconds behind Bottas as the Mercedes mechanics serviced him first, so he slowed a little coming into the pits to try to minimise his waiting time.

Unfortunately he slowed too much, holding up the Red Bull Racing of Daniel Ricciardo, and this would prove costly as he was penalised with a five-second time penalty by the race stewards.

That was served at Hamilton’s second stop later in the race, when the mechanics had to wait five seconds before they could touch his car.

Hamilton had moved to second after the safety car by overtaking Bottas, but his long second stop had left him back in third, more than 20 seconds behind Vettel.

But in the closing laps Hamilton began to make up ground rapidly, overtaking Bottas easily, and then circulating sometimes as much as 1.5 seconds a lap faster than Vettel.

Some of this can be explained by Vettel being caught up in traffic, and also the fact the Ferrari driver had no reason to try and match Hamilton’s lap times, given he had an advantage and was running comfortably at the front on his own.

But, even if it was for show, it was great entertainment as Hamilton closed to within six seconds by the time that Vettel crossed the line to claim his 44th career win.

It is now 2-1 to Ferrari this year in terms of race wins in what is rapidly unfolding into a private duel between them and Mercedes for race wins in 2017.

It has been interesting that in each race, Mercedes have had the raw speed advantage on a Saturday in qualifying, but it has been much more evenly matched on race day.

Vettel and Ferrari were quicker than Hamilton in Australia, but the Briton could rightly lament the time lost after his first pit stop behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen for costing him a chance to stay ahead of Vettel there. Then in China, Hamilton had led in the damp conditions, but Vettel had pitted early, but a safety car period actually worked against him and he lost ground and had to fight back to second from fifth, and by the time he got there Hamilton was long gone.

Yesterday was an odd one, as both men were held up by Bottas in the opening stages.

Both drivers showed bursts of impressive speed and Ferrari and Vettel probably deserved the spoils for their strategy call to pit early.

But it sets things up nicely for the rest of the season.

After the past three years of Mercedes domination it is great to actually have genuine competition, at least between two teams, for the wins, and if the narrative continues of Mercedes taking the poles and Ferrari having the edge on Sundays then it should add up to many more fascinating next few months.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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