2014 Bahrain GP race analysis: Delving into the detail and strategies from Sakhir
Was Sakhir the win that got away for Rosberg? How does the pecking order look behind Merc now? How did Ricciardo nearly grab a podium?
By James Galloway and Pete Gill
Last Updated: 08/04/14 2:18pm
Was Nico Rosberg the faster Mercedes?
It's not very often after a grand prix that you hear both the top-two finishers admitting that the man who finished second had been the faster of the two in the race. Yet that's exactly what we heard from Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on Sunday night after their riveting desert duel ended with them taking the chequered flag just one second apart.
A frustrated Rosberg was particularly adamant he had held an edge - "I'm very disappointed, I was quicker and just didn't manage to get past him" - while Hamilton even acknowledged "I didn't have the pace today" despite ultimately emerging on top. So how and why did the win get away from Rosberg?
Having arrived in Bahrain on the back of what essentially amounted to an on-track humbling by his team-mate the week before in Malaysia, Nico certainly showed he was back on it by taking pole by nearly three tenths of a second - even if Hamilton did compromise his own chances with a mistake at Turn One on his final qualifying lap. Yet, at the start of the Sunday's race, Rosberg's hard-won advantage was immediately undone when Hamilton outdragged him from the front-row into the first corner. Whatever the timesheet says thereafter, that was arguably the decisive moment of their entire battle.
In the lead, Hamilton immediately opened up a one-second advantage over the sister car, which he soon stretched and then held at around the 1.5-second mark. However, with the first stops approaching, Rosberg began to make his move and within the space of two laps from lap 15 was right with the race leader and able to line up passing moves, only to be rebuffed on successive laps.
This is when the Mercedes strategy split. Having held track position, Hamilton was able to pit first on lap 19 and keep on the optimum strategy of a second stint on softs. Rosberg, meanwhile, stayed out two laps longer and then switched to the medium tyres. It was the slower race strategy, but with Hamilton still needing to go to the primes at the end, Rosberg knew he would hold the tyre advantage, if not track position, for the deciding final stint.
While over the course of the second stint Rosberg, on the slower tyres, dropped 9.5 seconds behind Hamilton the timesheet shows that six of those seconds were actually accounted for by the pitstop phase alone. While Hamilton, on his fresh softs returned to the track and started lapping three seconds quicker than he was before (1:39.765 and 1:39.468), Rosberg had an extra full lap on his worn softs and then in- and out laps to navigate. So, discounting the six-second loss, once up to speed Rosberg only lost a further 3.5 seconds to Hamilton over the next 19 laps before their Safety Car-prompted second pitstops - or an average of 0.18s, several tenths less than the performance difference seen between the soft and medium compound in the cooler evening conditions all weekend.
The resultant Safety Car of course means we will never know if Rosberg would have caught Hamilton back up at a quicker rate than he fell behind once their tyre compounds were reversed for the final stint. In any case, the reset of the field meant that Nico was immediately on the sister car's tail and on the faster tyres for what turned into a thrilling, no-holds barred 11-lap sprint to the flag. However, despite his rubber advantage and the access of DRS which presented him with more tries into the first corner, the German couldn't make a pass stick. That doesn't mean Rosberg wasn't the quicker of the two - as Lewis himself admits, Nico did arguably have the edge - but the race just underlined that Hamilton - in attack or defence - is right on the top of his game at the moment.
What's the pecking order now?
The one constant we can be sure of at the start of the 2014 is that Mercedes are out in front. But behind the runaway leaders, it's the closest of close-run things.
The results from Saturday's qualifying hour are worth dwelling on because the session was the first dry qualy of the season so far and thus offered perhaps the most accurate depiction of the pecking order so far.
What's immediately apparent is the proximity of the chasing pack to each other with the lead Williams, Force India, Ferrari and McLaren separated by less than two-tenths of a second and the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo a smidgen further ahead. Given that a Red Bull started on the front-row in both Australia and Malaysia, albeit in the wet, and finished on the podium in both races (although Ricciardo was later disqualified) the World Champions' RB10 can legitimately be regarded as the second-fastest car on the grid. Just.
Yet the balance of power is finely poised and the RB10's best-of-field aerodynamic advantage, but lack of power saw the team overtaken by both the Force India and, prior to Jenson Button's retirement, McLaren on race day and braced for another tough weekend at power-hungry Shanghai.
Easily overlooked in the wake of their double retirement, McLaren had some cause for cheer with their speed on track on Sunday. After falling off the pace in Malaysia, when the improvement derived from a new front-wing was offset by the penal characteristics of the Sepang track, the team were in the mix this weekend. But where exactly? Even the team itself sounded unsure. According to Jenson Button, "In terms of pace, we took a step forward this weekend." In contrast, Kevin Magnussen thought "we were actually a little less strong here than we were in Malaysia". The middle ground, filled by team boss Eric Boullier, is that the team are currently treading water until next month's Spanish GP.
And that brings us on to Ferrari. While reliability continues to prove the F14 T's strongest suit - they are the only team to get two cars to the finish in each race so far - Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen struggled with tyres, traction and power en-route to lowly ninth and tenth place finishes respectively. "We just don't have the speed overall - we are lacking a bit in a straight-line, we are lacking a bit of downforce," was Kimi Raikkonen's frank assessment. Ferrari's two-second deficit to the Mercedes on the fastest-lap charts alone will make depressing reading all the way to China.
At present, they are, at best, the sixth-fastest team on the grid.
How did Daniel Ricciardo go from 13th to fourth?
From the unpromising beginnings of the ten-place grid penalty he carried into the weekend from Malaysia, Daniel Ricciardo finally got rewarded for the impressive start he has made to his Red Bull career with - at the time of writing ahead of next week's appeal hearing over his Australia podium DSQ - his first points of 2014.
The 24-year-old's surge to fourth from 13th was all the more commendable given he overtook a succession of cars - including his quadruple World Champion team-mate - with a series of clean, incisive moves despite the RB10 being down on top-end straightline speed. Starting on the soft tyres, the Australian's initially made little headway aside from passing Daniil Kvyat's Toro Rosso on the first lap, spending the opening 11 laps running behind Kevin Magnussen before finally nailing the McLaren on the inside of Turn Eleven. This put Ricciardo behind Sebastian Vettel for the first time, but with the German on the slower prime tyres, the Red Bull pitwall ushered the younger man through in what Christian Horner later confirmed had been a scenario discussed with the drivers pre-race.
Ricciardo eventually pitted on lap 18 having moved into third on the road as other cars pitted, and after rejoining back in 13th made swifter work of dispatching the early-stopping Magnussen and Kvyat once more. Kimi Raikkonen, unsurprisingly, proved a tougher nut to crack next and it wasn't until lap 32 before the Red Bull finally moved ahead. Although Ricciardo was almost immediately overtaken by Valtteri Bottas, the three-stopping Finn had just pitted for fresh tyres, as Ricciardo did himself at the end of lap 35. The stop cost him track position to Raikkonen and, yet again, Magnussen, but Ricciardo made full use of his brand-new rubber to sweep past both of them, and the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado, on his out lap. His gap to Vettel was three seconds but Ricciardo managed to all-but wipe that out by the time the Safety Car neutralised the field on lap 41.
Running sixth and seventh at the restart, both Red Bulls suddenly looked racy on their soft tyres and, after following Vettel through past the ailing McLaren of Button, Ricciardo then put the manners on the World Champion heading into the first corner on lap 50. Three more laps was all it took to take fourth from Nico Hulkenberg, and although the second Force India of Sergio Perez - and the final podium berth - proved just out of reach before the chequered flag, Ricciardo had more than made his presence in the race - and intra-Red Bull pecking order - felt.
How does Mercedes' dominance compare?
The Bahrain GP provided the most emphatic example yet for how Mercedes currently have a stranglehold on the top of F1. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg between them finished one-two in all of the weekend's sessions (P1, P2, P3, Qualifying and Race) at Sakhir and, perhaps surprisingly, that's a feat that had only once been achieved this century.
Despite Red Bull dominating F1 for the previous four years, the World Champions have never actually achieved a race weekend whitewash - although they have naturally come close on several occasions, most recently at the 2013 Abu Dhabi GP, when they only missed out on P1.
The last team to actually achieve the weekend clean sweep before Mercedes were Ferrari 12 years ago, when Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello finished one-two in all the weekend's five sessions at the 2002 Hungarian GP (P1, P2, Qualy, Warm-up, Race). To underline how rare a feat it is in recent time, you have to go back four more seasons to find another team to pull it off when McLaren twice managed it in the early months of 1998 (Brazil and Spain).
In winning in Bahrain, Mercedes have also become the first team since Renault in 2006 to complete a hat-trick of victories at the start of a season. The year before was the previous occasion that a team, also Renault, had started the season with pole and victory in each of the first three rounds. You have to go back to 1996 and Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve at Williams for the last time a team started with four consecutive pole/victory doubles, something Mercedes are already hot favourites to achieve themselves in China.
For comparison's sake, the last team that arguably started a new season with as big an advantage as Mercedes, Brawn GP in 2009, won six of the first seven GPs with Jenson Button (Vettel the only driver to break the sequence with Red Bull's first ever win at the rain-hit third race in Shanghai) but then only two of the following ten as the field caught up.
However, if Mercedes' early-season stats aren't ominous enough, then their 67-point lead in the Constructors' Championship is by far the biggest of any team after three races since F1's latest points system was introduced in 2010 (the biggest previous advantage was McLaren's 24 points in 2012) and only four times since 2003 has the outfit leading the standings after three rounds not gone on to claim the crown at the end of the season. So, while the chasing pack are certainly not giving up, recent history of a dramatic mid-season turnaround is not on their side.