LEWIS Hamilton edged Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg after an intense race-long duel to take victory by just one second at the Bahrain Grand Prix yesterday.
The two Mercedes were predictably in a different league to their rivals and recorded their second one-two finish in eight days after Hamilton’s victory last weekend in Malaysia.
With no team orders, the two were allowed to race for the lead and there were several close calls when the pair came inches away from colliding, providing a thrilling spectacle under the lights at the Bahrain International Circuit.
“It was very, very fair and it was very hard to keep him behind,” Hamilton said. “He was very fast on the option tyres and I was on the knife-edge the whole time. Me and Nico haven’t had a race like that since back in our karting days. In our first [karting] race, he led all day and I overtook him on the last lap and won, and I thought for sure he is going to do that to me today.”
Force India’s Sergio Perez was third in his first podium finish since 2012 and his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg fifth. Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth, getting the better of his Red Bull team-mate and defending four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, who finished sixth. Vettel suffered the ignominy of being ordered by his team to let the quicker Ricciardo pass when they were fighting for position early in the race.
Williams drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas had looked poised to challenge for a podium place but they were hurt by the timing of a late safety car and finished seventh and eighth, with the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen filling the final two points positions in ninth and tenth.
The race was closely fought up and down the field throughout, providing a boost for the sport after a tepid opening two races of the season, and the safety car set up a nail-biting shoot-out for the final 11 laps.
Hamilton was ahead but on the harder of the two tyres while Rosberg was on the softer rubber. While behind the safety car, both drivers were cautioned by team racing director Paddy Lowe to race fairly and ensure both cars made it to the finish.
Twice Rosberg was able to pull off passing moves at the end of the main straight, but both times Hamilton was able to get better drive out of the ensuing corners and narrowly stayed ahead in some enthralling wheel-to-wheel racing. Rosberg’s tyres began to wear out and he was not able to mount a challenge over the final three laps.
“It was the most exciting race [of] my career,” Rosberg said. “Lewis did a great job defending – it was a massive fight. I thought I’d got him about nine times but it didn’t work out; he always got the run back on me.”
Rosberg did have the comfort of staying ahead in the drivers’ championship with 61 points compared to Hamilton’s 50.
The safety car came out after Lotus driver Pastor Maldonado emerged from the pits and ploughed into the side of Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, flipping the Mexican’s car in a frightening accident, but Gutierrez was able to walk away. Maldonado was judged by race stewards to have caused the incident and given a stop-go penalty.
Meanwhile, Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone said he expects to get the required unanimous agreement from teams to change the sport’s “unacceptable” engine rules, despite leading team Mercedes opposing any alteration. Ferrari and Red Bull have led the charge against the sport’s new fuel limits that restrict usage to 100 kilograms per car per race, with the flow never exceeding more than 100kg per hour. The muted sound of the new 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid engines has also attracted criticism. “They can do something about the noise, and they need another 10kg of fuel or something,” Ecclestone said ahead of the race. “Everybody will agree to that.”
However, Jean Todt, president of the sport’s governing body FIA, said any change would need unanimous support. He also said Australia, Bahrain and Canada were the only races this season in which teams would come close to using up their fuel.
“If we can implement it, with unanimous agreement on how to apply it, we will do it. I will have a problem if [only] half the teams are in favour.”
Todt was more accepting of the need to inject more sound into the cars to improve the on-track and television spectacle. “To get passion and to get emotion, you need to have some noise,” he said.
Any agreement from Mercedes will be hard to achieve, as the team has dominated the season so far, and its engine customer teams have also largely outperformed Ferraris and Renaults. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff slammed any attempt to change the rules. “Some engine manufacturers or teams are saying ‘we have not managed to make the car efficient and fast with 100kg [of fuel], so let’s add 10kg’,” Wolff said. “Well, sorry, they didn’t do their job in the way we have done. I find this discussion absurd.”