After the lacklustre opener in Australia, Bahrain delivered in both tension and drama from the very start.
Pole sitter Sebastian Vettel set himself up for a second win of this season with a clinical start, unchallenged off the line by either Kimi Raikkonen or Valtteri Bottas. Instead, the two Finns were left to battle amongst themselves for second place in the early running, with the Mercedes man coming out on top.
The major tussle in the early laps saw Lewis Hamilton, who started P9 after a gearbox penalty, versus Max Verstappen, who made a flying start from 15th place. The duo didn’t have much space to work with because of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren on the racing line, with Verstappen looking to squeeze the Brit wide, only to end up running over the Mercedes’ front wing. He was left with a rear left puncture and limped back to the pits for new tyres before retiring the car due to damage from the early incident.
Red Bull’s troubles were doubled as Daniel Ricciardo, who was running fourth and was tipped to push the Ferraris in terms of race pace, parked his RB14 on the side of the track with a gearbox failure.
The racing continued to flow, with Hamilton in the thick of it. His rise through the field saw the exclamation point of a triple overtake over Nico Hulkenberg, Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon to nab sixth place spectacularly.
Magnussen was quickly passed for P5, which turned to P4 once Gasly was dealt with. From starting just inside the top ten, Hamilton was now less than 10 seconds from the podium and under 20 from the race lead itself.
The pit window came into play by lap 16 and Gasly managed to hold on to his P5 ahead of Magnussen, Hulkenberg and Alonso.
Vettel was the first of the top four to pit, coming in on lap 18 and handing the lead to Bottas. Raikkonen came in a lap later, with the Ferraris falling to P3 and P4 before leader Bottas stopped on lap 20. He re-emerged in P3 place with Hamilton inheriting the lead from his teammate. Mercedes lack of pace had been attributed to the overheating of the softer compound tyres, so Bottas’ switch to the medium compound was a counterbalance to this.
Vettel with his fresh soft tyres quickly caught Hamilton and passed him into the first corner on lap 26. But with Mercedes leaning towards a one-stopper and Ferrari seeming to be two-stopping, the playing field was a lot more even than it looked. Hamilton finally stopped a lap later, swapping his soft tyres for mediums.
Magnussen dropped to 10th when he came in for his second stop and wasn’t impressed with his team-mate Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman was lapping with a damaged car and held up the faster Haas before pitting himself. Magnussen voiced his disapproval over the airwaves.
Back at the front, Vettel tried to pull away from Bottas but could only build up a consistent gap of four seconds.
Raikkonen in a comfortable third place, 16 seconds ahead of Hamilton, but recorded his second consecutive retirement when he was forced to stop in the pits due as Ferrari failed to change his rear left tyre.
The Finn was given the green light to leave the pits before the left rear wheel had even been removed and his rear wheel smashed into the leg of the mechanic in front of it waiting to remove it.
The man was taken to hospital and Ferrari later confirmed a broken leg – a shinbone and fibula fracture. Ferrari has been fined 50,000 euros by race officials for an unsafe release.
On-track Vettel appeared to be preparing for a two-stop race but his commitment to a one-stop became clear as his pace held up and Bottas failed to make significant inroads.
The gap dipped below five seconds heading towards the final 10 laps, and suddenly Vettel’s lead began to quickly diminish.
Bottas entered DRS range with two laps to go but a half-hearted look at Turn 1 on the final lap was as close as he got.
Vettel raced to the victory by an eventual 0.699 seconds ahead of Bottas. Hamilton, who voiced his frustrations over the radio on several occasions, completed the podium in third place, 8.5 seconds behind the front pair.
Gasly raced to a highly-impressive fourth place ahead of Magnussen, Hulkenberg, Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson banked his first points since the 2015 Italian Grand Prix in ninth place after running an extremely long first stint on softs and switching to mediums to execute a one-stop strategy to good effect.
Esteban Ocon opened Force India’s account for 2018 with a hard-fought world championship point in 10th.
His team-mate Sergio Perez, and Brendon Hartley were both given 30-second penalties after the race for a mix-up on the formation lap, relegating them from P12 and P13 respectively to the bottom of the standings.
“With 10 laps to go, I came on the radio and said I had everything under control,” Vettel said after the race.
“That was a lie. I tried to make it as clean as possible. By them going onto the medium, I thought: ‘That’s checkmate.’ Because we had to come in again. It was a great strategy and put us under a lot of pressure. I had to nurse the tyres. It worked but only just. Valtteri had a bit of a sniff but he ran out of laps.”