For the second time in as many races, Sebastian Vettel won for Ferrari after a grand prix that was closely contested right down to the final corner and the win came courtesy of a well thought out strategy and the abilities of the driver who managed to make a set of Soft tyres last 38 laps no less, on a track that is one of the hardest on tyres.
Off an all-red front row, Vettel made the most of pole, while Raikkonen who was starting on the dirty side of the track was attacked and passed by Bottas. The virtual safety car was soon deployed when Verstappen had a puncture as a result of a coming together with Hamilton in the middle of the pack.
The race got underway again on lap 4, with Vettel quickest, a couple of seconds ahead of Bottas. In the Ferrari garage, an analysis of their cars’ speeds in individual corners and that of their rivals was taking place as well as working out how much fuel had been saved while the race was neutralised.
A long-distance duel with Hamilton thus began, the Englishman fourth, 15 seconds adrift, but running the harder tyre: Supersoft for the SF71H and Soft for the Mercedes.
19 laps, one third distance, Vettel pitted as planned and fitted the yellow-banded Softs. The order was Bottas, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Vettel. Next time round, Raikkonen did the same. Vettel pushed hard and Bottas, emerging from pit lane on the Mediums, lost ground.
On lap 25, Vettel was in DRS range in his duel with Hamilton, closing to under a second. It was time for wheel to wheel combat and Vettel didn’t lose any time, diving inside his rival under braking at the start of lap 26. Hamilton changed tyres immediately, also fitting the Prime Medium.
Vettel had 5” in hand over Bottas, who was aiming to finish the race doing one less stop. Vettel lost time with backmarkers but Raikkonen made the most of the traffic to close on his fellow countryman.
Lap 36 and something you never want to see happened: Raikkonen came in to change tyres and as he drove off, the mechanic on the left rear wheel was knocked over. The number 7 car stopped immediately, Vettel stayed out on track, but at this time, strategy, racing, counted for much less and with one of Ferrari’s mechanics in the medical centre, the thoughts of everyone in the team went out to him.
Out on track, Bottas pursued Vettel for 20 laps, but the Ferrari driver never gave him room, even though his tyres were finished.
Maurizio Arrivabene: “Today’s result, with a win for Sebastian, is confirmation of the great job done by the team, of an effective car and of a driver who drove like a true champion right to the very end. It was a shame for Kimi, who would have completed a fine result for the team. We chose to take one of our mechanics up onto the podium as a mark of respect to our colleague Francesco who was injured during the pit stop. The whole team hopes he recovers quickly. We are already preparing for the next race in China and as usual we will give it our all.”
Sebastian Vettel: “Obviously, this is a great way to start the season and it wasn’t expected. Obviously, Australia was a different race and if you compare these two races, here we had the pace and won on our own. So, I think it’s been much better, but it was a very tough race. It took a while for the adrenaline to go, but for the next week we are not sure where we are going to be. It is difficult to predict with everything changing so much. In China it will be a different track and a different challenge, but we have to improve our car and work on it. We still need to improve the balance. However, if we should have a similar feeling like here, then I think we should be in a good shape. We were losing a little bit at the end and Bottas was getting closer. We couldn’t wait and see what he was doing. So, in response to that we had to come in first to protect the track as much as I could. We had targeted two stops and that’s why we had chosen Soft tires. But then we had to change strategy; the tires were already wearing out, but then it seemed everything was ok. But after 10 or 12 laps, the tires got worse and the last five laps were very tricky. It feels better winning here than in Australia, because here we had the pace. So, I am very happy, even though it’s sad to see one of our guys getting injured. I wish him to get well soon, I know he’s in very good hands now.
Kimi Raikkonen: “What happened to our guy Francesco today at the pit-stop is very unfortunate. I feel sorry for him and hope he’s going to be OK soon. It’s always a bad thing when someone gets injured but I am sure he has the best people taking good care of him and I wish him a speedy recovery. As for the accident itself, all I know is that I moved when I saw the green light go on. I couldn’t have possibly realised that there was an issue with the rear left wheel, then I saw someone had got hurt and, immediately, I was told to stop by the team. Unfortunately, something must have gone wrong and we’ll need to find out what. The car had good speed today but I had some wheelspin at the start. Anyway, there’s not much I can do now but wait for the next race, where we’ll try to do our best.”
Sergio Marchionne: “First and foremost, I wish our mechanic a speedy recovery and hope to see him back on track soon. The team performed consistently all weekend and we were front runners right from the start of practice. It was a difficult race and Sebastian drove like a true champion. I am sorry for Kimi who could certainly have finished on the podium. This Grand Prix confirms that the Scuderia has a great car, a solid team and two drivers on top form. But it also showed how close things are between us and our rivals, who are very strong. That’s why, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s worth pointing out that there is still a long way to go and we have to maintain a high level of concentration, continuing to work diligently and with passion, which is something we are well capable of. It’s the only way we can give our fans other equally satisfying Sundays.”
Photos: Scuderia Ferrari - 2018 FIA F1 World Championship