Defending champion Lewis Hamilton admits he already faces a daunting task to catch Sebastian Vettel after his chief rival continued his perfect start to the season at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.
Vettel held off Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas with a gutsy and skilful drive to increase his lead over the Briton to 17 points after just two races of the 2018 season.
Hamilton drew solace from converting a ninth-placed start – following a grid penalty – into a podium finish but could not disguise his concern at slipping further behind Vettel.
“My thoughts are already on the world championship. I’ve lost two races now,” said the four-time title-winner.
“I am 17 points down already after just two races. The penalty this weekend was difficult for us all to swallow, but I think the team did a really good job.
“Hopefully when we go to the next race we’ll have a better understanding of the tyres and hopefully put up a better fight with the Ferraris.”
Vettel’s win crowned an eventful race for Ferrari in which one of their mechanics suffered a double leg break when Kimi Raikkonen was prematurely told to pull away during a pit stop.
The German – like Hamilton, chasing a fifth world championship – saw the fast-finishing Bottas devour his lead in the closing laps but held on to win by 0.7 seconds despite badly deteriorated tyres.
“I came on the radio with 10 laps to go and said I had everything under control – that was a lie, there was nothing under control,” joked Vettel, who said he feared a Mercedes change in strategy had outfoxed Ferrari.
“When they told me the pace of Valtteri at that time, I said: ‘No way can I do that.’ I did the maths in the car and thought he was going to catch me.
“Going onto the medium tyre, I thought that was checkmate as we had to come in again. That was the original plan but we diverted again and tried to make them last and nurse them as much as I could. And it worked – but only just.”
Hamilton took advantage of a virtual safety car period, following the retirement of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, to overtake Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg in the first five laps.
By the eighth lap Hamilton – who overcame a 25-point deficit to beat Vettel to the title last year – had passed Kevin Magnussen and Pierre Gasly, who finished an impressive fourth for Toro Rosso.
Magnussen was fifth for Haas and Renault’s Hulkenberg sixth followed by the McLarens of Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.