Three rounds into the 2017 Formula 1 season and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has found himself leading the World Championship by winning two Grand Prix’s and finishing runner-up in the third.
However, Vettel’s experienced World Champion team mate, Kimi Raikkonen, has been unable to match this pace thusfar, mustering only two fourths and a disappointing fifth place over the last three races.
The so-called ‘disappointing fifth place’ came at last week’s Chinese Grand Prix. The race was made especially worse when Vettel overtook Raikkonen on track and eventually went on to finish 2nd. Following the race, Autosport reported Sergio Marchionne, Ferrari’s President, had requested talks on Raikkonen’s apparent lack of form and pace.
Fast-forwarding one week later and Raikkonen qualified a meager P5 for the Bahrain Grand Prix and eventually finished the race in a less-than-impressive, P4. The podium consisted of the victorious Vettel, a charging Hamilton, and Raikkonen’s countryman Bottas, who needed to nurse a tire pressure issue for the races entirety.
So, even though on paper this may sound like an under-performance already, but what could Raikkonen have done to perform any better than he did in Bahrain?
It’s no lie Raikkonen’s race begun pretty poorly. By the first corner he had already dropped one place to Max Verstappen.
Then, heading into the slow, 2nd gear, right hander of Turn 4, Raikkonen attempted to go around the outside of Daniel Ricciardo, the man who had out-qualified Kimi for P4 the day before. However, the Red Bull driver was preoccupied fighting his team mate and Raikkonen had no room to sneak through. But, all this battling ahead had a knock-on effect, and it subsequently allowed Felipe Massa to slip past Raikkonen and demote the Finn to P7.
After the race, Raikkonen reflected and said quite simply in every way we’d expect Raikkonen to reflect, “[t]oday I had a bad start.”
Maurizio Arrivabene, Ferrari’s Team Principal, shared similar feelings, telling media, “Kimi was caught up in traffic at the start.”
Raikkonen then explained how he was able to pass Massa “reasonably quickly,” on lap 8. Four laps later, on lap 12, Ferrari’s strategists opted to put pressure on the fifth placed Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo ahead by pitting.
However, luck wasn’t with Raikkonen: Carlos Sainz crashed into Lance Stroll at Turn 1 just as Kimi was leaving the pits. The incident was severe enough to warrant a safety car, giving Ricciardo and Massa a luxurious, free pitstop. This would heavily dent Raikkonen’s progress, as he was now behind both drivers and in effective P6 (would’ve been P7 if not for Verstappen’s retirement) for the restart on lap 17.
“I was unlucky with the safety car,” Raikkonen admitted after the race.
Again, Arrivabene agreed with his driver, saying post-race, “he certainly wasn’t helped by the arrival of the safety car.”
They aren’t making excuses either. Had the safety car not come out, Raikkonen would never have lost a place to Massa in the pits and he would’ve potentially jumped Ricciardo (Raikkonen was roughly three seconds behind Ricciardo when he came in for his stop). If Raikkonen was ahead of both drivers after the first round of stops, he would have found himself in P4 and just seconds behind the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton.
In the end, Raikkonen finished just 2.078s behind Valtteri Bottas after closing down a substantial gap in the final stint. Kimi’s tires were only seven laps fresher than those of Bottas (he did have a reported problem, however), yet he constantly lapped in the low 1:34s, whereas Bottas could only manage an average lap time in the 1:35s.
Raikkonen’s final stint has 18 timed laps available to analyse. Of these, nine were in the high 1:33s and the remaning nine were in the low 1:34s. His slowest time in this stint was a 1:34.569, whilst his fastest was a 1:33.720.
This pace is notable because it’s comparable and actually faster than that of the eventual race winner, Sebastian Vettel. In the same 18 lap period discussed for Raikkonen, Vettel only went below a lap time of 1:34 once. It’s also unlikely that Vettel was in full tire conservation mode during this time because Lewis Hamilton was catching him rapidly throughout the final 15 laps.
This shows in terms of outright pace between the two Ferrari drivers in the final stint, Raikkonen was able to match and go faster than Vettel on a set of soft tires of roughly equal wear – Vettel’s tires were only three laps older.
To make this even more notable, the soft tire is Ferrari’s preferred race tire which they, generally speaking, seem to perform better on.
Because of this, it is wrong for one to say that Raikkonen didn’t have the pace to match race winner Sebastian Vettel during the Bahrain Grand Prix. Raikkonen wasn’t able to make a more convincing impression on the two Mercedes ahead of him because of a poor start (which wasn’t all his fault) and an unfortunately timed safety car that no team could’ve prepared for.
Even Sergio Marchionne, who – as mentioned eariler – called for talks over Raikkonen’s pace after China, was complimentary of his race in Bahrain. He commented in a post-race statement, “Congratulations to Kimi too on a good race.”
Bahrain’s P4 means Raikkonen is now fourth in the Drivers Championship, exactly 34 points behind Sebastian Vettel. Because of Raikkonen’s efforts, Ferrari lead the Constructors Championship by three points from Mercedes – a margin they hope to hold for the upcoming races.