SAKHIR, Bahrain -- Sebastian Vettel claimed the outright lead of the Formula One championship by winning a tense Bahrain Grand Prix, despite a late charge from Lewis Hamilton.
In a race which saw Valtteri Bottas, Vettel and Hamilton all lead at different stages of the race, Ferrari's decision to pit early ultimately won it, as did a Safety Car period which forced Mercedes to double stack its drivers at the pit stop. It was at that moment Hamilton made a crucial mistake, holding up Daniel Ricciardo on entry to the pit lane and earning a five-second penalty, meaning he had to sit stationary at his final stop.
Vettel won by a clear six seconds at the end but Hamilton's pace set up a grandstand finish as he dramatically cut the gap, helped by teammate Bottas moving over to concede second in the final stint. Kimi Raikkonen took fourth for Ferrari after a poor start ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who was in the mix at the start but lost ground when he switched to soft tyres for the second stint. Felipe Massa took sixth for Williams ahead of an impressive drive by Sergio Perez from 18th on the grid, Romain Grosjean in eighth, Nico Hulkenberg in ninth and Esteban Ocon taking the final point on offer in tenth.
At the start of the race Hamilton got wheelspin away from the line, allowing Vettel to pass him around the outside into Turn 1 and filter in behind Bottas, who held the lead from pole position. Max Verstappen made a brilliant start from sixth to get ahead of teammate Ricciardo in fifth while Raikkonen dropped from fifth to seventh behind Massa.
The opening laps looked more like a go-kart race as the top five cars snaked through the desert circuit split by as little as 3.5s. It soon became clear that the pace of Vettel's Ferrari was being bottled up behind Bottas, but without the necessary performance advantage to try an overtake Ferrari started looking at its strategy options. Hamilton also appeared to be struggling and had Verstappen close on his tail throughout the opening laps as the Red Bull seemed to extract a remarkable amount of performance from the super-soft compound tyre.
For the third race in a row, Ferrari went aggressive with its strategy and pitted Vettel on lap 10 in an attempt to undercut Bottas in the lead. It was a bold move as the German returned to the track in 12th and soon came up behind a series of much slower midfield cars. Verstappen, keen to get in on the action and get a similar advantage on Hamilton, called on Red Bull to do adopt the same strategy and a lap later also pitted for a new set of super-softs. But Verstappen's potential charge was brought to a end on his outlap when his car ploughed straight on at Turn 4 and into retirement with brake failure.
The marshals managed to deal with the stricken Red Bull without resorting to a Safety Car, but one lap later Carlos Sainz T-boned Lance Stroll at Turn 1 and the Safety Car was deployed to clear up the mess. Mercedes took the opportunity to pit Bottas and Hamilton from first and second, but in doing so was forced to double stack its cars in the pit lane. Hamilton slowed as he entered the pits, seemingly to back Ricciardo up as he waited for Bottas to clear the Mercedes pit box, but the stewards took a dim view. To stop teams gaining an advantage in such circumstances, drivers must remain within five seconds of the car in front under the Safety Car, and as Ricciardo nearly went into the back of Hamilton as the entered the pit lane, Hamilton exceeded that limit and was hit with a five-second penalty. To add to Mercedes' woes, Bottas and Hamilton both endured slow pit stops, allowing Vettel to take the lead behind the Safety Car while Hamilton dropped to fourth behind Ricciardo.
The five-second penalty would hang over Hamilton for the rest of the race and hamstrung his chances of mounting a fight back. Mercedes had fitted his car with soft tyres while Vettel and Bottas had gone for super-softs, which in theory meant Hamilton could attempt to go to the end of the race while the lead two still had to stop. But with the penalty adding an additional five seconds to Hamilton's race time if he did not make another stop, even if Vettel finished behind the Mercedes on the road he only had to be within five-seconds to secure victory.
Racing resumed on lap 16 with Hamilton immediately passing Ricciardo for third as the Red Bull driver struggled to get temperature into his soft tyres. Bottas tried a move on Vettel around the outside of Turn 4, but the Ferrari was positioned so that Bottas would always run out of track on the exit and Vettel retained the lead.
From that point onwards Bottas' race completely unravelled and on lap 27 he was passed by Hamilton at Turn 1 before pitting for soft tyres on lap 30. Vettel pitted three laps later and dropped to third behind Raikkonen, who had recovered from his slow start but was still yet to make a second stop. On lap 36 Vettel caught Raikkonen and the Ferraris traded position, giving Vettel a clear road to hunt down Hamilton who was still in the lead.
Mercedes had a choice of trying to get Hamilton to the end with a five-second advantage over Vettel or pit him and allow him to fight back through the field, but with Vettel catching at around a second a lap and the gap already down to 10.3s by lap 40, Mercedes ceded to the inevitable and pitted Hamilton from the lead for a new set of soft tyres on lap 41. After serving his five-second penalty, Hamilton rejoined in third with nothing to lose. He had a 10.5s gap to teammate Bottas and a 19.7s gap to Vettel, but with his fresher tyres immediately set fastest laps and closed the gaps.
By lap 47 he was past Bottas, delivering a psychological blow to his teammate who let him by with a lift of the throttle at Turn 14, and continued to press on in pursuit of Vettel. He was closing at a rate of a second a lap, but Vettel was not going to let the race slide away from him and managed to control the gap once it was under seven seconds. It was a valiant effort by Hamilton after his error in the pit lane, but ultimately Ferrari had the pace to beat Mercedes and the mistakes made under the safety car proved costly for the world champions.
The result sees Vettel take a seven point lead over Hamilton in the drivers' championship and Ferrari move three points clear of Mercedes in the constructors'.