Hamilton triumphant in scintillating Sakhir Showdown | 2014 Bahrain Grand Prix Report

Lewis Hamilton won yesterday’s Bahrain Grand Prix in fine style, fending off from his team-mate Nico Rosberg who was on much faster tyres. The Mercedes duo were merely a sliver of the action, as intense battles behind saw several drivers in contention for the final podium position; which was ultimately gained by Sergio Perez, claiming Force India’s second ever podium.

The third race of 2014 fell on the Bahrain International Circuit in the province of Sakhir. It would prove to be a race of many milestones, the 10th Anniversary of the Gulf Island’s first race, the 250th race for Jenson Button and perhaps most prestigious of all, the 900th Grand Prix in the history of the sport.

The inaugural event in 2004 was in drastically different circumstances, perhaps the fastest year in F1 history. Since then, four cylinders have been lopped off the cars and key individuals have come and gone. One such individual was Michael Schumacher, who happily showed signs of consciousness and awakening this week, giving hope to the millions of anxious fans who await his recovery from a skiing crash in December.

BACKGROUND

Mercedes had been dominant thus far and led the constructors by 25 points from McLaren. Rosberg topped the Drivers’ standings with 43 points, followed by his team-mate Hamilton who stood on 25, just ahead of Alonso with 24, and Button, holding 23 points.

The first back-to-back pairing of four this season meant there was little time to reflect on the events of Malaysia, in which the Mercedes cars were all-dominant. Daniel Ricciardo was informed he would receive a 10-place grid penalty for his unsafe release in Malaysia. For a personal opinion on that decision from the author, click here.

The Qualifying session under the lights saw a couple of shocks, in Vettel and Hulkenberg not progressing to Q3. Q1 will probably be best remembered for a near-collision between Sutil and Grosjean, the former of whom received a 5-place penalty. Rosberg and Hamilton, as you can expect, took the limelight, with the German marginally ahead.

RACE DAY

As darkness fell on the Sakhir track, the teams and drivers were all ready for the first ever night race in Bahrain.

At the start, Hamilton and Rosberg led away from the rest of the field. The Mercedes duo raced one another to the heavy braking zone of turn 4, where Lewis seized the lead. Just behind them, Felipe Massa surged past team mates past and present, getting the better of Raikkonen, Bottas and Perez to move into third. Further back Jean-Eric Vergne got clouted by Romain Grosjean, giving the Toro Rosso a puncture and the team a headache.

Disappointed with 12th in qualifying, Hulkenberg began to make up places. He’d got up to 9th after turn 1, and his first racing overtake came at the expense of Alonso, whose Ferrari seemed to be struggling in the heat. A few laps later he was following Button, and the pair of them manage to sneak past Valtteri Bottas.

Hulkenberg’s team-mate Perez was also highly motivated, and perhaps irked by losing out at the first corner, snatched back 3rd from fellow South American Massa. The podium looked set to be dominated by Mercedes all evening, with the Force India and Williams cars all looking extremely rapid.

Adrian Sutil was the first retirement of the race on Lap 17, after two smashes with Jules Bianchi’s Marussia. Sutil had been on the back foot all race after starting 22nd and last, so was keen to make up places. He banged wheels with the young Frenchman and rubbed off the yellow markings on one of his tyres, but got the pass done. However on the next lap, Bianchi came back at him, locked up, and shoved the Sauber off the track. Bianchi continued after a pit stop for a puncture, but Sutil’s damage was too great, an ailment shared by Jean-Eric Vergne who also retired. Vergne had been lapped pretty much straight away due to his incident at the first turn, but ever-decreasing pace signaled the end of his race.

The Force India and Williams cars formed a handsome train of four cars, with the orange and black machines leading the white ones. Four cars with identical engines all battling for third place – this was exactly what Formula One needed. Hulkenberg was leading his team-mate until a brave move by Perez through the quick chicane (what would prove to be his favourite corner on the track) relegated Nico to 4th. Then, while Bottas pitted, both Force Indias pulled an excellent double-overtake of Felipe Massa.

It was not a foregone conclusion up front either. Hamilton and Rosberg were barely a second apart and occasionally, Rosberg would lunge down Hamilton’s inside, only to brake slightly too late and give the advantage back. This would prove to be the story at the sharp end. Time and time again, Rosberg got close enough to look down the inside, but was always either too far back to make the move, or went too deep and once ahead, was quickly re-passed.

Turn 1 was the site of a lot of action during the race, and on lap 31, one of the more dramatic ones occurred. Following Kvyat and Raikkonen, Bottas was losing time. He was anxious to make up places as they were at the tail-end of the points, but when Kimi braked a little earlier than his fellow Finn, the Williams driver had to take desperate avoiding action. That was merely a precursor for the most dramatic event of the race, though.

Pastor Maldonado pitted on lap 40, and when he emerged from the pits, Esteban Gutierrez was sweeping into turn 1. The Lotus driver tried to sneak past on the apex, while Gutierrez took the usual line through the corner. The Lotus’ sloped nose got underneath the Sauber, flipping it violently. The car went fully upside down at one point, and the car was absolutely wrecked. With so much of the Sauber strewn across the track, the Safety Car was inevitable. It wiped out Lewis Hamilton’s lead; he was nearly 10 seconds ahead of his team-mate Rosberg, but Nico was on the softer tyre, and so the incident gave him a huge advantage.

The Stewards rightly deemed Maldonado to be at fault, giving him three points on his FIA Superlicense, a 10 second stop/go penalty, and a 5-place grid penalty for China in two weeks. His car was amazingly undamaged from the clash. The Safety Car remained on track for six laps while the carbon fibre was swept up, during which most drivers pitted, Kevin Magnussen doing so permanently as his McLaren succumbed to clutch failure; the first McLaren retirement since Hamilton in Brazil 2012. Another rookie, Marcus Ericsson, had also retired with a fuel pipe leak.

The Safety Car came back in on Lap 47 and immediately, Jenson Button was passed by Vettel, Ricciardo, Bottas and Alonso. The McLaren was clearly ailing and with just a couple of laps to go, he retired with similar problems to his team-mate, marking the first double-retirement for the team since 2006.

While that was going on, there were scraps going on everywhere up and down the grid. First and foremost was the fight for the lead between Rosberg and Hamilton. The German clearly had a quicker strategy at that point due to the timing of the safety car, but Hamilton was in full defence mode, so whenever Nico slipped down his inside, the Brit got back past.

The chase for the points was even more fierce; Sergio Perez in the Force India led the pack, with a couple of seconds between himself and the others. Nico Hulkenberg was sitting in 4th place in a slowing Force India, which turned out to have ERS problems later in the race. The Red Bulls were spoiling for a fight, and at turn 1 on lap 50, one of the most important overtakes of the season took place, when Daniel Ricciardo got past his team-mate Vettel. This was one of the most anticipated things talked about in pre-season, and now finally, the public got to see that the Australian really could push the World Champion.

Ricciardo was not content with passing one German though, and got the better of Hulkenberg lap 53, and set about chasing Perez for the bottom step of the podium. Hulkenberg had to defend from Vettel, who himself was under increasing pressure from Felipe Massa. However, everyone maintained position until the end; Hamilton kept Rosberg at arm’s length, Perez just held back Ricciardo, and Hulkenberg stayed fifth.

The fact that there were so many brilliant and brave overtakes for all sorts of positions really has to silence the critics of the new formula, as this was unanimously proclaimed as the best race anyone has seen in ages.

Hamilton and Rosberg play-fought after the race, indicating that they love to challenge one another, and that their friendship (they were team mates when karting as children) can last the strains of being the two fastest drivers on the grid.

The Safety Car meant that the Mercedes could really get the hammer down, as fuel saving was not necessary. Their pace was clear – their nearest challenger was 25 seconds behind. That was Sergio Perez, who brilliantly took Force India’s first podium since Belgium 2009, when Giancarlo Fisichella nearly won the race from Pole.

Fireworks may have been on display after the race, but there was explosive racing all evening. A race that will last long in the memory for sure.

FINISHING POSITIONS

1) L Hamilton, Mercedes AMG
2) N Rosberg, Mercedes AMG
3) S Perez, Force India
4) D Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing
5) N Hulkenberg, Force India
6) S Vettel, Red Bull Racing
7) F Massa, Williams
8) V Bottas, Williams
9) F Alonso, Ferrari
10) K Raikkonen, Ferrari
11) D Kvyat, Toro Rosso
12) R Grosjean, Lotus
13) M Chilton, Marussia
14) P Maldonado, Lotus
15) K Kobayashi, Caterham
16) J Bianchi, Marussia

Out/ Unclassified

J Button, McLaren (Clutch)
K Magnussen, McLaren (Clutch)
E Gutierrez, Sauber (Collision)
M Ericsson, Caterham (Oil leak)
JE Vergne, Toro Rosso (Collision damage)
A Sutil, Sauber (Collision damage)

For more F1 opinion and insight, check out @CGEustice on Twitter.

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