Kimi came up 3.3s short, but could Ferrari have made better decisions to allow him to beat Lewis Hamilton?
The phrase “if only the race were a few laps longer” is a well-worn racing driver excuse. Kimi Raikkonen didn’t use it on Sunday in Bahrain, but there was at least one other way he could have won that race.
Raikkonen is rarely prone to talking at the best of times; he’s certainly not one to waste his words on excuses. “We had good speed all the time,” he said, praising his Ferrari. “We did more or less the maximum.”
But don’t mistake his recalcitrance for speaking so that you gloss over what he actually says. “More or less” isn’t the absolute maximum, which is always what Kimi seeks.
He probably woke up on Monday, no doubt after a vodka or three (well, he does have a few weeks off now!) with some nagging doubts about how he could have won his first grand prix since the 2013 season opener…
Pressure on Mercedes caused problems
Let’s not kid ourselves, Raikkonen didn’t have much hope of winning this race unless the Mercedes duo hit trouble. The way Nico Rosberg steamed past him and Sebastian Vettel (twice) showed an ultimate pace deficit to the Silver Arrows – especially in this DRS era.
However, the Ferraris are certainly fleet enough to put pressure on Mercedes. “We have the speed, more or less, to follow the Mercedes,” said Kimi – using that caveat again. “But when you get into a fight with them you lose.”
Certainly – if they’re healthy. But the way Mercedes setup its cars in Bahrain, compromising brake cooling to maximize laptime, eventually turned its brake-by-wire system into brake-by-haywire in the dying moments on Sunday.
Rosberg overshot Turn 1, gifting Raikkonen second place, as his pedal went soft – the system going into “fault mode”, as Hamilton would refer to it later. Lewis too hit trouble, but caught the warning message on his dash – radioing in straight away that he had a problem and adapting to it by lifting and coasting.
Raikkonen had been closing at just under a second per lap, and with Hamilton backing off to the tune of 2s on the final tour, there was just 3.38s between them at the chequered flag.
Had Raikkonen been closer… Had Hamilton’s issue come a few laps earlier… Had Raikkonen made his last stop sooner… Which of these were circumstance, and which could have been altered by design?
What Ferrari could have done differently
Hindsight is 20/20, of course. How was the Scuderia pitwall to know that the thus-far flawless Sebastian Vettel was about to turn in his scruffiest performance in red? In the early stages, after being passed by Rosberg soon after making a big error at Turn 1, Vettel was clearly hampering Raikkonen’s pace in the opening stint.
Their track position (or was it Vettel's elevated position in the world championship standings?) also led to Raikkonen being placed on the alternate, riskier strategy of the medium tyre for the middle stint. It had been anticipated this tyre would be much slower than it actually was, but also consigned him to running a long stint, to avoid him ‘hitting the cliff’ on softs at the end.
Fast forward: Raikkonen produced a 1m38.015s on his final lap; Hamilton hadn’t gone that quickly for the preceding eight laps – even before his brake problem (2.8s slower than Kimi on that last tour). There was plenty of life left in those Pirellis, so the Kimster could have stopped earlier – thereby saving the time of a couple of slow laps on worn mediums too.
Perhaps the real clincher was this: what if Ferrari had kept Raikkonen on the planned soft-soft-medium strategy? Vettel ruined his race by that last-corner ride through the gravel trap that broke his front wing. Remember, he was battling Rosberg at the time, and Kimi should have been right behind him.
I actually think Ferrari did the right thing in splitting its strategy – it gave Mercedes another variable to the equation, something else to think about, the sort of thing that had forced them into being marginal on brake cooling in the first place.
The clincher for me would have been the possibility of a late safety car, which would have undoubtedly won Raikkonen the race.
There was plenty of late-race battling, not least between the Ferrari-engined Saubers. Recall that it took Pastor Maldonado’s lap 41 inversion of Esteban Gutierrez last year, and resultant safety car, to truly spark that great final scrap between Hamilton and Rosberg.
An identical occurrence this year would have meant Kimi on soft tyres (his lap 40 pitstop would have been perfectly timed) that were seven laps younger than Hamilton’s mediums.
Then he wouldn’t have needed “just a few laps longer”. He’d have won at a Prancing Horse's canter.