Niki Lauda summed up the Bahrain Grand Prix. ‘This race,’ said the three-time World Champion, ‘has shown that all this bullsh*t that was talked about racing in general – the noise, the engines – is rubbish.’
It’s true that Lauda was speaking in his role as non-executive chairman of Mercedes F1. It is also true that he was giving his typically direct opinion not long after Mercedes had scored a one-two finish for the second race in succession.
But there was a lot of truth behind the adrenalin-charged statement. Lewis Hamilton may have beaten Nico Rosberg but no one – least of all Lauda – knew if that would continue to be the order as the Mercedes duo started the last of 57 laps. Indeed, there was reasonable doubt they would they finish at all, such had been the intensity of the competition from the start.
A small mistake by Hamilton had given pole to Rosberg. You could say that Hamilton then won the race when he sat it out with his team-mate and took the lead into the first corner. Hamilton stayed in front – just – as the silver cars pulled out 20 seconds on huge battles for places in the top 10.
It was clear that the Mercedes race would be decided on strategy, Hamilton choosing to leave the slower tyre until the final stint whereas Rosberg got rid his of Hard tyre between the two pit stops.
It seemed that Hamilton had called it right when he opened a nine-second gap over Rosberg with 20 laps and the final stop to go. But the race – and Esteban Gutierrez – was turned on its head when Pastor Maldonado emerged from the pits and tipped the passing Sauber into a roll at the first corner, bringing out the Safety Car.
As the leaders dived into the pits and the field closed up, not only had Hamilton’s advantage disappeared but he was also on the Hard tyre, Rosberg on the Soft, for the final stint. In a truly no-holds-barred breath-taking battle, the Mercedes pair ran wheel to wheel, Hamilton maintaining his position by the narrowest of margins.
‘Man, that was some race!’ exclaimed an elated Hamilton. ‘Being on the Prime (Hard) was a killer. It was to the max; the hardest thing. Nico was so quick at the end. I thought he was coming by at some point But I just managed to do it. It was real racing. By that I mean it as like when Nico and I used to be in karting. Really great racing.’
Rosberg concurred but made no attempt to hide how disappointed he had been not to win from pole.
‘For sure, I’m not happy with second,’ said Rosberg. ‘I was quicker today and didn’t manage to get by him. He did a better job. I need to go one better next time. It was very, very intense out there; really aggressive; we were putting everything into it. So many times I thought I’d got him and he came back at me.’
Inter-team battles were not confined to Mercedes. Felipe Massa jumped from seventh to third at start, Valtteri Bottas getting the jump on his team-mate at the first pit stop. In the end, Massa was back in front but such was the fierce competition elsewhere that the Williams pair finished seventh and eighth.
A strong performance saw Sergio Perez produce his best F1 performance as he battled long and hard with Nico Hulkenberg to finish third. The Force Indias were split in the final stages by Daniel Ricciardo, the Red Bull driver laying down another marker when he overtook Sebastian Vettel in another very close in-house battle. Such was the remarkable competitiveness near the front of the field that Ferrari were left struggling and had to be happy with the final points positions as Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen came home ninth and tenth, a long way off the Mercedes pace.
‘For sure we’re strong as a team and it’s a nice moment to be in,’ confirmed Rosberg. ‘Yeah, I’m disappointed but, at the end of the day, I’m still leading the championship by 11 points. Onwards and upwards to the next race!’
Round 4 will be the Chinese Grand Prix on 20 April.