2013 Bahrain Grand Prix analysis: Where Sunday's race was won and lost
Examining the difference in speed between the two Red Bulls, the split in Lewis Hamilton's race, and if it ought to have gone so badly for Fernando Alonso...
By Pete Gill and James Galloway. Last Updated: 14/05/13 4:23pm
Just how impressive were Vettel's middle stints?
If you were watching Sky Sports F1's live coverage of Sunday's race you'd have heard Ted Kravitz practically purring over Sebastian Vettel's first stint on the hard tyres as he welcomed the lead Red Bull into the pitlane at the end of lap 25:
"That is really, really impressive how long Vettel has managed to go in that stint. That's surely race-winning tyre management."
Ted, as ever, was spot on.
So, just how eye-catching was Vettel's middle stint? Well, there are several things to point out. Firstly, there's the stint's sheer length - 15 laps - but more than that is the astonishing consistency of the World Champion's lap times. From an initial time of 1:39.849 on lap 15, Vettel's speed had only dropped by a mere nine tenths of a second by lap 24. And his final eight laps during the stint were all within six tenths of a second of each other.
While other stints on the orange-marked compound were longer (Romain Grosjean's own second stint lasted 19 for example) none had the sustained speed of Vettel's, the obvious caveat being that the race leader largely ran in clean air throughout. The wisdom of Red Bull's decision to stockpile fresh hard tyres for the race was further vindicated by Vettel's third stint as the German ran even longer - 17 laps - with all but four of his laptimes in the 1:38-39 bracket whereas the likes of Webber, the McLarens and Rosberg were all generally lapping in 1:40 and above. It was the stuff of brilliance.
Could Raikkonen have gone even faster?
Second place in Sunday's race was as much as Kimi Raikkonen could have expected to achieve after lining up eighth on the grid. But could Kimi have reached the chequered flag in an even better time?
The Finn's push to the front was built around a two-stop strategy which saw him pit on laps 16 and 34 before running without interruption for 23 laps to the finish. Remarkably, Raikkonen set his fastest lap on his final tour, suggesting that, if anything, he over-protected his tyres and they ended the race in far better shape than either he or Lotus had calculated.
It may have also been the case that his Lotus ran for too long on the softs at the start of the race - the final lap of Raikkonen's first stint was a 1:42.575 compared to a 1:40.512 at the conclusion of his second. Raikkonen himself was heard on his car-to-pits radio accusing the team of bringing him in too early. They probably did. However, with second place effectively safe from the halfway stage onwards, and Vettel out of reach, it was understandable if Lotus played safe - even if doing so cost their driver a couple of seconds in overall race time.
Did Fernando Alonso's second unscheduled stop cost him a podium?
While Fernando Alonso's chances of claiming back-to-back victories effectively ended the moment his DRS flap jammed open on lap five, there's a strong argument to suggest it shouldn't have consigned the Spaniard to such a minor points finish.
True, the timing of his lap seven pit-stop for the mechanics to briefly assess the wing, and manually wedge it shut, was out of kilter with Ferrari's strategy for the first stint, but it was probably only two or three laps ahead of his expected stop for new tyres anyway. Indeed, what really did for Alonso was his out-lap when he reactivated the faulty DRS when rounding the Marussia of Max Chilton for 17th. It's easy to be judge and jury in hindsight, but quite why the Ferrari pitwall hadn't already decided not to risk any further DRS malfunctions and instructed the Spaniard against reactivating it again straight away is anyone's guess, even if Stefano Domenicali did point to time pressures when quizzed on the matter after the race.
Alas, the swift return to the pits cost Alonso an additional 21 seconds of wasted time and meant he stayed behind Romain Grosjean when the Lotus made his own earlier-than-planned debris-induced stop on the same lap. Furthermore, by the time the first round of pitstops had filtered out around lap 14, the Lotus had jumped a closely-bunched group four cars including Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton that Alonso now had to catch up.
By the end of the race, Grosjean was up on the bottom step of the podium, whereas Alonso was some 18 seconds back in eighth place. That's approximately the net lost time for a pitstop at Sakhir, so did that ill-advised lap-eight DRS activation really cost the Ferrari man a podium? Well, given Alonso admitted his final set of tyres had gone off by the closing laps on Sunday - his mid 1:39 times over the final five laps compared with Grosjean's mid 1:38s certainly bear this out - it's perhaps a stretch to say he would have been able to hold off a charging Lotus. But fourth, and definitely fifth ahead of Lewis Hamilton, would have been within his grasp.
A tale of two races for Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton's Bahrain GP was a strange curiosity, shaped into two distinct halves. Having been, in his own words, "nowhere" in the first half of the race, Lewis' Mercedes was one of the fastest cars on the track for the final 35 laps. So what happened?
Hamilton reported afterwards his car had simply started to react differently, with the team themselves pointing to a slight drop in track temperatures, but the lap charts simply suggest Mercedes erred in electing to run Hamilton on two stints on the difficult medium tyres.
The 2008 World Champion was, in fact, the only leading driver to put on another set of the options at the first round of pit-stops, a particularly puzzling choice given that he had been so far off the pace over the first ten laps. His second stint proved no better with Hamilton never once lapping below the 1:41 mark before he finally put on the hards on lap 23.
From that point onwards, Hamilton's Mercedes was an altogether different beast, both quick and consistent, with every lap in his third stint faster than any of those recorded in his first two. After stopping again on lap 39, Hamilton continued to set a searing pace, recording 12 consecutive laps between 1:38.204 and 1:39.177 either side of his third and final visit to the pits. Only when briefly delayed by Mark Webber on the penultimate lap did Hamilton return to the 1:40s.
So could Hamilton have finished, for a third race in a row, on the podium had he run three stints on the hards rather than two? Judging by his second-half speed, it's possible. Despite its reputation for being a tyre-eater, the Mercedes was a model of consistency after lap 24 and Hamilton's times were only fractionally adrift of Vettel's. We'll have to assume that - unlike Vettel, who saved three brand-new sets of the hard tyres for race day - Hamilton was short of hard rubber on Sunday. Otherwise, Mercedes' mistake was a spectacular miscalculation.
An unhappy anniversary for Mark Webber
Sunday's timesheets make for grim for the Australian and his supporters. Excluding the laps when either of the two RB9s made a pit-stop during the race, Webber was faster than Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel on just ten laps over the course of the entire grand prix. Only on lap 39, long after the race had reached its halfway point, did Webber finally dip below the 1:40 watershed. In contrast, Vettel had already bettered the 1:40 mark on 15 different laps by that stage of proceedings. There was a chasm between the pair.
The benefits enjoyed by race-leader Vettel in running in clean air must have been a large factor in the discrepancy, with Red Bull reporting Webber overcooked his tyres at the start of his second stint. The lap charts don't immediately indicate as much, with Webber's out-laps slower than Vettel, but the Aussie would have been running in traffic at this point.
Still, there's no disguising the scale of the speed differential between the two Red Bull drivers on Sunday. Whereas Vettel's fastest lap was a 1:36.961, Webber could do no better than a 1:38.557. Remarkably, that was only three-tenths quicker than the best of Jules Bianchi in a Marussia.
How did Grosjean go from 11th to third?
Lotus are making a handy habit of turning mid-grid positions into podium finishes in Bahrain after Romain Grosjean repeated team-mate Kimi Raikkonen's 2012 trick of making the top three from 11th on the grid.
Grosjean's Sunday surge was all the more commendable given he did it via the same three-stop strategy employed by most of the cars that started ahead of him - making it a result he really had to work for. The challenge was increased when Lotus had to bring forward his first pitstop to lap eight after debris from a McLaren front wing endplate had lodged itself in his E21's radiator intake, a stop which dropped the Frenchman from tenth to 17th. However, with the earlier stop nonetheless serving as an undercut, Grosjean was back into the points two laps later, and after shadowing Felipe Massa until the Brazilian's puncture-induced pitstop, ultimately inherited second as the second round of stops commenced. It wasn't until lap 27 - some 19 laps after his first stop for hard tyres - that Grosjean was called back in, bringing him right back on schedule for a strong result.
It was this stint on the mediums where he really went on the attack. Aside from laps 32, when he overtook the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, and 33, Grosjean was in the 1:39s in every tour of the 15-lap run with only Vettel, Raikkonen, the two Ferraris and, from time to time, Hamilton able to match or better his pace. After stopping for the final time on lap 42, Grosjean strong-armed Jenson Button on his return to the track to snare fifth and within two laps was up to third after an easy DRS move on Mark Webber's Red Bull. From there his deficit to Paul di Resta in third stood at six-and-a-half second but Grosjean took just eight laps to obliterate that, ultimately passing the Scot down the main straight to firmly, albeit belatedly, announce his arrival in the 2013 season.