With the introduction of major technical changes in 2014, Mercedes emerged as the dominant package.
No one would be able to come close to Mercedes pace, so the title would be decided by the battle within the team. Not yet used to this dominance, Mercedes had not yet established their rules of driving etiquette to eliminate risky direct combat between their two drivers, and in Bahrain we were treated to a thrilling head to head duel between the two Mercedes drivers.
F1 fans in 2017 will no doubt be asking if Bottas will ever challenge Hamilton like Rosberg did?
Lewis Hamilton had taken pole at the season opener in Australia, but his retirement had handed Nico Rosberg the win and a huge advantage in the points table. In round 2, Hamilton took an easy win over Rosberg in Malaysia, but needed to continue that form into Bahrain to hope to claw back the deficit caused by his opening round DNF.
In Bahrain however, Rosberg, who had starred at the track ever since his F1 debut, looked genuinely quicker, and he stormed to pole position, his first of the season, as Lewis was forced to abandon his final qualifying run after locking up while trying to match Rosberg’s pace.
On the grid, Rosberg on pole started on the outside, and when the lights went out he veered across the track to try to block off Hamilton. Hamilton however got off the line better and was able to get his car far enough alongside Rosberg to hold the inside line, with Lewis then braking later into the first corner and forcing Rosberg to back off into second place. Rosberg was determined to press his advantage though, and stayed with Hamilton, challenging around the outside of Turn 4, but Lewis was having none of it, running Nico wide off the track on the exit of Turn 4.
Rosberg looked to have a slight pace advantage on Hamilton on the day, and he stayed with Lewis through the first stint, just dropping back enough to preserve his tyres, but never allowing Hamilton to escape up the road. As per the Mercedes racing rule book the driver in front gets the preferential call on pit stop strategy, so if Lewis maintained track position he would be brought in first for soft tyres and almost certainly hold track position. So it was no surprise then towards the end of the first stint to see Rosberg use his pace advantage to close the gap to the lead Mercedes and look for an opportunity to take the advantage prior to the pit stops. Rosberg was on Hamilton’s gearbox on lap 16, and started to probe for an opening. On lap 18 Rosberg outbreaked Hamilton into Turn 1, both cars locking up as the fought for position, But Rosberg was too deep into the corner, and Hamilton chopped back across him and regained the position on the exit, both cars running side by side to the horror of the Mercedes pit wall, with Rosberg heard on team radio complaining that Hamilton’s aggressive driving was ‘not on’!
Rosberg had another go on lap 19 into Turn 1, again getting his nose in front, and this time looking to have the job done as Hamilton locked up into the corner. Lewis stayed with him and attacked back, pulling out of Nico’s slipstream on the outside on the run down to Turn 4, but rather than trying to hang around the outside and leaving himself exposed to being run wide as Rosberg had on the opening lap, he instead cut back and caught Rosberg on the exit, giving Hamilton the inside line as they came to Turn 6, with Rosberg forced to back off as he ran out of road. So Lewis had prevailed, and he took the priority for pit strategies, coming in for a fresh set of soft tyres at the end of the lap.
At this point Mercedes split their drivers strategies (despite the fact that such a move was only aimed at the internal fight between the two Mercedes), putting both sides of the garage into direct competition. Rosberg was put on the medium tyre when he made his stop a few laps later. On the split strategy Hamilton now needed to open a gap to give him a cushion for a late Rosberg charge on the soft tyres. It seemed to be working out for Lewis, by the lap 41 he had almost a 10 second advantage over Rosberg and looked set for victory, but further down the field, Lotus Pastor Maldonado got it all wrong exiting the pits, ploughing into the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez into Turn 1, flipping the unfortunate Mexican into a roll across the track. This brought out the safety car, which meant the gap between Hamilton and Rosberg would be eliminated, both drivers coming in for the final set of tyres, and Rosberg now on Hamilton’s tail, with the soft tyre to attack for the final stint while Hamilton was now stuck on mediums.
From the safety car pulling in at the end of lap 46 to the finish on lap 57, the Mercedes pit wall were helpless onlookers who could only implore both drivers to bring both cars home, as the two Mercedes cars fought it out for the victory, side by side, on and off the track. Nico had the advantage of the soft tyre, and was pushing everywhere to find the opening, while Lewis was resolute in defence of his lead. On lap 52 Rosberg dived up the inside into Turn 1, going wheel to wheel with Hamilton on the exit before backing off – could Rosberg perhaps have been more assertive and run Lewis wide? Rosberg had better traction out of Turn 2 and was again alongside Hamilton trying to go around the outside of Turn 4, but Hamilton showed no such kindness and ran Rosberg wide off the track again on the exit of Turn 4. Rosberg was forced to tuck in behind Hamilton, and bide his time for his next attempt. At the start of lap 53 he again took advantage of DRS to dive up the inside into Turn 1, but braked way too late this time, allowing Hamilton to nip past him comfortably on the exit.
Having pushed as hard as he could but failed to find an opening, the life in Rosberg’s soft tyres started to go, and he was too far back to challenge as they crossed the line at the start of lap 54, and he ended up having to back off and follow Hamilton home for second place, Mercedes relived to have survived with a 1-2 finish after the intense battle between the title rival team-mates.
Oh, and behind Mercedes there was a race too! Force India’s Sergio Perez (aka Mr Gentle-On-His-Tyres!) delivered when the opportunity arose to claim third place for Force India, with Daniel Ricciardo storming through the field to claim fourth place after being hit with a 10 place grid penalty for an unsafe release in the previous round in Malaysia, his day surely made by coming out on top of the battle with Red Bull team-mate, 4 time world champion Sebastian Vettel, Ricciardo diving up the inside into Turn 1 on lap 50, before resisting Vettel and eventually putting the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg between them at the finish.