IT was incredibly dramatic at the start and immensely strategic at the end; and in between it had everything an Agatha Christie or an Alfred Hitchcock at their prime would have been proud to have authored or directed respectively.
Yes, we are talking about last night’s Gulf Air Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix at the brilliantly lit Bahrain International Circuit.
In a stunning display of defensive driving with severely-worn tyres, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel held off Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas by the skin of his teeth to win his second successive Grand Prix of the season while defending champion Lewis Hamilton, in the second Mercedes, finished third in a nail-biting and intriguing race.
Toro Rosso had a mini-celebration of their own with rookie Pierre Gasly surprising everyone, including himself, finishing fourth ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen following a battle within a battle of their own.
Ferrari could, and should have under normal circumstances, completed a 1-2 after dominating Friday practice and Saturday qualifying where Vettel and Raikkonen topped the time sheets and locked the front row but for the Finn’s botched pit stop on the 36th lap.
Raikkonen was released prematurely even as the left rear wheel was not even detached and he ran over a crew member’s leg. He was shouted to stop but by then the damage was done and his hopes of a podium finish went, literally, up in smoke.
Ferrari could have, by contrast, also ended empty handed if Bottas was successful in extracting that extra fraction of power on Turn One of the final lap to overtake Vettel and race to victory. It was so agonisingly close for the Mercedes driver.
It was Vettel’s second win in as many races this season, the 49th of his career in his 200th Grand Prix, and extended his lead at the top to 17 points against Hamilton, who finished only six seconds adrift.
Vettel’s reaction after taking the chequered flag summed up the event.
“Wow!” screamed the German with Bottas still breathing down his neck. “These tyres were done – they were done for the last 10 laps.”
He was remarkably candid too: “I came on the radio to say everything was under control, but that was a lie! I thought Bottas would catch me and I just tried to keep it as clean as possible.”
But for his teammate Raikkonen it was a heart-breaking race.
He was not only overtaken by Bottas at Turn One and stuck in third position for most of the race, the Finn also had to see his mechanic taken to the BIC medical centre with a suspected broken leg.
“We were on the harder compound and I knew there was a chance. I tried to catch him, but it was just not enough. Extremely disappointing,” said Bottas while Hamilton was a happy man after having been handed a five-place penalty grid on Friday for a gearbox change.
“I am happy,” he said. “It was damage limitation. I started ninth so third is not that bad.”
The early action included the early retirements of Red Bull duo Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo while Vettel made a flawless start and remained ahead till he pitted in the 19th lap.
The Dutch youngster, who stated from 15th on the grid, ran out of luck after having entered the top ten when he banged wheels with Hamilton and punctured his left rear tyre.
Verstappen reached the garage with the damaged tyre a mangled mess.
He did re-enter with a new tyre but just a lap later had to slow down, like his teammate Ricciardo, and retire.
Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg was sixth ahead of three-time champion in Sakhir Fernando Alonso and his McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne.
Marcus Ericsson grabbed two points for Sauber by finishing ninth ahead of Esteban Ocon, who was 10th for Force India.
At the other end, Vettel pitted after 19 laps and re-entered fourth, passing the lead to Bottas. Two laps later, Raikkonen also pitted just ahead of Bottas,
Hamilton was 5.3 seconds clear at one stage before Vettel rallied brilliantly to trim it to less than half a second by lap 25 with Bottas a further five seconds adrift.
The then decisive moment came when Vettel finally dazzled past Hamilton to regain the lead on lap 26. Hamilton duly pitted in the next lap.
But that was not the end as Ferrari were forced to go in for one-stop strategy which almost came unstuck but Vettel dug deep to keep Bottas at bay till the chequered flag.