Lewis Hamilton Wins Berserk Bahrain Grand Prix After Ferrari Catastrophe
If the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix wasn't a race for the ages, we don't know what is.
Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton became the unlikely winner of the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix following a series of events that will make this race one to remember.
Seeds for early-race drama took root on the warmup lap when polesitter Charles Leclerc of Scuderia Ferrari crept onto the main straight, his teammate Sebastian Vettel warming his tires, but Leclerc not. Vettel's tires, presumably warmer as a result, helped the German get the leap on the Monegasque driver at the start, which left Leclerc to fend for himself against a pair of hungry Mercedes. As Valtteri Bottas fought to get past the struggling Leclerc, Racing Point's Lance Stroll and Haas' Romain Grosjean came together, damaging both drivers' cars. Bottas would manage to get past Leclerc, but by the end of the first lap, Vettel already had a 1.4-second gap on the Finn.
But Leclerc wanted those 1.4 seconds to be his and lunged back past Bottas into Turn 1 of the second lap, opening the door for Lewis Hamilton, who would also step his foot in. It would not be Hamilton that grained ground, however; it would be Leclerc who began to reel in race leader Vettel. Back in fifth place, Red Bull's Max Verstappen dueled with his former Scuderia Toro Rosso teammate—now McLaren man—Carlos Sainz, who lunged at a gap left open by the Dutchman on Lap 4. But Max closed the door on him, causing a small collision which punctured Sainz's left front tire and damaged his front wing.
Up at the front, Leclerc having caught Vettel, radioed to the Ferrari pit wall, hinting that he could benefit from team orders that the team gave Vettel in Australia. His drag reduction system (DRS) was all he needed to squeeze past his teammate into Turn 1 of Lap 6, though, and the young race leader proceeded to quickly build a gap of over a second to his teammate.
Hordes of cars began dipping into the pits for tires around Lap 10, with the first stopping frontrunner being Verstappen, who picked up a new set of mediums after 11 laps. Leclerc would follow suit after 13 laps, switching to the mediums as STR's Daniil Kvyat spun after colliding with Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi, though third-placed Hamilton would opt for softs instead. They would exit behind Verstappen, who passed Bottas early on Lap 14, though Bottas would return the favor with DRS.
Vettel relinquished the race lead to Bottas by pitting for medium tires, but came out behind undercutting Hamilton, whose soft tires allowed him to build a gap to the Ferrari driver over the following laps (during which Grosjean retired due to floor damage, and Kvyat got a five-second penalty for speeding in the pit lane). But Hamilton began to falter on Lap 20, running wide in the last corner, then reporting that his tires were burning out. Vettel's pace, now better, allowed him to approach DRS range of Hamilton. Shortly after Vettel used DRS to inch past Hamilton on Lap 23, the Brit complained of being a "sitting duck."
Verstappen pit again after 32 laps for medium tires, coming out seventh behind Kimi Räikkönen. The Finn would prove an insignificant obstacle for Max in his faster Red Bull, who slipped around Kimi less than a lap later. One more lap and Hamilton would give up on his soft tires, switching to a set of mediums on which he could finish the race. Räikkönen would disagree, changing to soft tires from mediums, and after coming out behind both Toro Rossos, battled past both over the span of a lap.
While the Finn fought the Honda-powered cars, his former teammate Vettel went for another set of medium tires, exiting the pits sandwiched between Bottas and Hamilton. Leclerc, still with a healthy lead, told his pit wall on Lap 36 that he was "struggling a lot" with his tires and made his final stop for a set of mediums, exiting still two seconds ahead of Bottas.
Hamilton, within striking distance of Vettel on Lap 37, mounted a DRS-aided attack on Vettel into Turn 4, careering around the outside of the German in a spectacular move that nearly worked—Vettel somehow held on into the esses, the two mysteriously avoiding contact. This pair closed up on Bottas by the end of the lap, Vettel barging past in the final corner before Bottas dropped into the pits for medium tires.
Hamilton stuck to Vettel's rear wing along the pit straight, both cars with their DRS gaping, Vettel given the boost by the slowing Bottas, but he had no such luck exiting Turn 2. The Brit again opened his DRS, pointed his Mercedes at the outside of the track, and launched a second all-or-nothing attack on the Ferrari. This time, Hamilton was an inch ahead at the corner exit, and when Vettel tried to keep up, his Ferrari—either caught by one of the race's many, gusty crosswinds, or beyond the limit of its traction—spun around in spectacular fashion.
Again, the two somehow didn't collide, but Vettel wasn't out of the woods yet; his tires were badly flat-spotted and caused a vibration so severe that his front wing shook itself to pieces on the next straight. By the time he rejoined the race with a new wing, and soft tires, he was ninth, behind both Renaults and McLaren's Lando Norris. Said Renaults made their pit crew's hearts collectively skip a beat on Lap 40 when dueling for position; Daniel Ricciardo locked up on the inside of the corner, putting his front wing in the path of Nico Hülkenberg's rear tire, but the German miraculously ran over the corner of the wing, only bending its endplate out of shape.
Vettel, on a recovery drive, pipped Norris in Turn 1 of Lap 41 for seventh place, then Ricciardo a lap later for sixth, and at last, on Lap 43, Hülkenberg, with the aid of DRS. The Ferraris, now running first and fifth, looked set for a healthy finish, but fate had other ideas: Leclerc called his pit wall on lap 46 reporting "something strange with the engine." The leading Ferrari's pace tanked, falling by more than five seconds per lap, but the pit wall was silent. "What's happening?" asked Leclerc, this time more worried, on lap 47.
Leclerc's Ferrari SF90 had lost its energy recovery system, worth about 160 horsepower, and on a circuit as fast and overtake-friendly as Bahrain, it spelled a death sentence for his race win (not so in Monaco, as Ricciardo knows). Hamilton, with DRS enabled, sauntered past the stricken Ferrari on Lap 48 and opened up a multi-second gap over the rest of that single lap. Leclerc's pit crew told him they'd try to help him finish ahead of Bottas, but the gap was starting not to look big enough.
Suddenly, Hamilton reported on Lap 52 that his downshifts were feeling "clunky," suggesting the new leader to also be at risk of a car failure, in theory opening up the race win to any of the top four drivers—third-placed Bottas and the following Verstappen too. Bottas zipped past Leclerc on Lap 54, seeking the lead, and Verstappen's pit wall told the Dutchman that he had just enough time to get Leclerc before the race ended for the final podium position.
And then, on Lap 54, both Renaults coughed to a near-simultaneous halt off Turn 1. Hülkenberg's R.S.19 made an ugly grinding noise during the downshifts and lost all power, and Ricciardo's car, as he put it, "just cut out." The Renaults' hazardous locations at the end of the pit straight meant there was only one safe recovery option: the safety car, which froze the race.
In crossing the line to start the final, 57th lap, the safety car secured Lewis Hamilton his first race win of the season and extended his string of consecutive seasons with race wins, now at 13, only two behind Michael Schumacher's 15. Valtteri Bottas finished second, making for Mercedes-AMG's second straight one-two of 2019, though the Finn still leads the championship courtesy of his fastest lap in Australia.
Though he missed out on the race win he so thoroughly earned, Charles Leclerc, the 99th polesitter in the history of F1, came home third at F1's 999th Grand Prix, securing the first podium of his career and the first for Ferrari in 2019. Though this career milestone and his first fastest lap (and the extra point that comes with it) prevented his Bahrain from being a total bust, he couldn't hide his disappointment with finishing third when he should've been first. Audiences knew it too—they voted him Driver of the Day.