Whilst a rather sedate Australian Grand Prix might have seen Lady Luck determine the outcome down under, Formula 1 got off to a proper start in 2018 with a stellar showcase of skill in the desert of Bahrain. Perhaps most impressive was a pair of banzai performances from a pair of drivers outside the small circle of usual suspects, whilst one of the grid’s most naturally gifted and hotly-tipped drivers continued to make uncharacteristic unforced errors.
Top of the class…
Pierre Gasly – Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
It’s very rare that an update package proves to be a silver bullet. It’s even rarer when a rookie has the skill to fully maximize the performance gains from the first race. Gasly’s weekend was simply extraordinary, an unexpected bolt-from-the-blue and an apparent arrival of a new contender among the sport’s burgeoning catalogue of young hopefuls. He produced his finest lap of the weekend when it mattered in Q3, produced a clean opening lap (even momentarily passing Daniel Ricciardo) and subsequently proceeded to inflict a bruising defeat over the rest of the midfield; showing a clean pair of heels to the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Fernando Alonso.
The Frenchman simply could not have done any more in Bahrain. There has been an ambivalence surrounding Gasly in the past. Helmut Marko‘s reluctance to promote him in Kvyat’s stead after taking the GP2 title in 2016 was emblematic of his mixed reputation. Errors in Abu Dhabi and Melbourne also continued to show his rough edges. However, confidence is cumulative, and if Gasly can translate Bahrain into a run of good results he could yet challenge Carlos Sainz Jr‘s status as Ricciardo’s presumptive successor should the Aussie seek pastures new.
Sebastian Vettel – Scuderia Ferrari
For the second weekend in succession, Vettel was the second fastest Ferrari throughout practice, albeit was closer to Kimi Raikkonen than in Melbourne. However, unlike Melbourne, the usual Ferrari inter-team dynamic returned in Bahrain, with Vettel besting the Finn in Q3, albeit via an error in the first run.
His race was superb. Vettel heralded his 200th grand prix with arguably the finest stint of his illustrious career: 39 laps on the soft compound tyre was nine laps further than Pirelli’s expected tyre life. The German might have historically marked himself out as one of the grid’s finest tyre whisperers, however, it was still a remarkable feat to maintain such a linear curve of degradation by avoiding even the slightest error. It surely took all of Vettel’s 200 races of experience to maintain his rhythm on such faded rubber in the final ten laps with the rampant Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas chasing him down. He was perhaps lucky that it was the Finn rather than Lewis Hamilton or Ricciardo on his gearbox on the final lap. However, it nonetheless must surely rank as one of Vettel’s finest victories, and a fitting redemption having inherited the win down under.
Marcus Ericsson – Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team
Whilst team-mate Charles Leclerc went into the weekend on the back of his F2 heroics in Bahrain last year, Ericsson arrived in Sakhir in the knowledge that the rookie was too close for comfort in Melbourne. However, it was the Monegasque who made the unforced error in qualifying, as Marcus eclipsed both Williams drivers. The Swede’s first points since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix came with one of the finest drives of his often rather anonymous F1 career.
Albeit having benefited from following the Mercedes onto the optimal medium-shod one-stop strategy, Ericsson earned himself an impressive pair of scalps by pipping both Force Indias and the Renault of Sainz. In making his first waves in F1 for many races, Ericsson perhaps also announced a Sauber assault on the midfield for the remainder of the season.
Homework to do…
Max Verstappen – Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
An error in Q3 in Melbourne costing him a front row start, a spin in the race and another costly spin-and-bin in qualifying in Bahrain. That’s arguably three more errors than the young Dutchman made in the entirety of last season. He promptly regained his usual place ahead of Ricciardo in the short runs after losing FP1 to a turbo failure, but his weekend came undone with an uncharacteristic error on Saturday. It’s difficult to fully approximate Verstappen’s culpability for his fateful qualifying crash, however, it seems suspicious that a team so adept at criticising Renault didn’t reiterate Max’s “power surge” story. It certainly looked as if Verstappen was approaching T2 on a perilously shallow line…
The contact that saw his race come undone was the definition of a racing incident. However, it seems likely that one of the grid’s more experienced, less combative characters would have afforded Hamilton more room on the exit of T1. It was also unusual for Max that he did not complete the move on the brakes.
Brendon Hartley – Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
Hartley has been a man struggling to find any performance on the back of his unexpected golden ticket F1 promotion. Withstanding a small error in the final corner, his qualifying effort to fractionally miss out on a place in Q3 was perhaps better than it seemed; especially considering that he didn’t have the full complement of upgrades on Gasly’s car.
However, barrelling into Sergio Perez‘s sidepod on the first lap was hamfisted, as was his failure to maintain his grid position during the formation lap. These are probably the unfortunate symptoms of a driver reaching the limits of his capacity whilst juggling too many tasks in the cockpit. If Toro Rosso’s Bahrain renaissance continues in the coming races and if the Kiwi can’t follow in his team-mate’s footsteps, Hartley will soon be a man under pressure to justify his place in F1.
Romain Grosjean – Haas F1 Team
He may have missed out on a place in Q2 by 0.000 and suffered a yellow-flag DRS cancellation on his first run, but the Frenchman cannot exonerate himself from his error at the final corner. Whilst qualifying was already the ruination of Grosjean’s race, he didn’t help his cause with a poor start. His failure to release his freshly-pitted team-mate appeared emblematic of the internal pressure the pacey Kevin Magnussen is inflicting. For the first time in the team’s short history, Grosjean’s status as Haas’ frontman is under threat.
After starring in Melbourne, Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport suffered a recurrence of the same slow-speed traction issues that plagued its car in many of the rear-limited circuits in 2017. Already hobbled by a gearbox penalty, Hamilton didn’t help his cause by qualifying behind team-mate Bottas. Meanwhile, a more combative final lap from the Finn and he could have taken victory. As it stands he remains under pressure to show some of the instinctive aggression of his fellow frontrunners. Prior to his abrupt retirement, Ricciardo looked a probable podium contender, whilst prior to his pitlane catastrophe, Raikkonen’s inconspicuous race belied the superb pace he had shown in practice.
Renault Sport Formula One Team‘s Nico Hulkenberg would have pipped Gasly to sixth on the grid had he repeated his lap from Q2; instead producing a lap four tenths slower. However there was nothing about the German’s race that suggested that he could have beaten the Toro Rosso, whilst balance issues resigned Sainz to 11th. Fernando Alonso enjoyed a typically formidable weekend, whilst team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne produced a commendable recovery drive after a horror start left him last on the road.
Esteban Ocon looked to announce the start of the Sahara Force India F1 Team‘s season by sneaking into Q3, however, he should have able to beat Ericsson in the race. Meanwhile, Perez’s weekend unravelled with battery deployment issues in Q2 and Hartley’s demolition derby effort on lap one. Williams Martini Racing‘s crisis deepened in Bahrain, becoming the undisputed slowest car on the track. In those circumstances, Sergey Sirotkin did well to outqualify team-mate Lance Stroll and the Sauber of Leclerc, but couldn’t match either in the race.