Sebastian Vettel said he feared Mercedes had pulled off a tactical “checkmate” move in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, before he hung on for a nail-biting win by six-tenths of a second.
The four-time world champion, who now leads Lewis Hamilton by 17 points in the embryonic 2018 title race after two races, said he feared Ferrari’s gamble on worn tyres would not pay off.
“Them going onto the medium tyre . . . I thought that was checkmate as we had to come in again,” he said. “That was the original plan, but we diverted again and tried to make them last and to nurse them as much as I could. And it worked, but only just.
“There wasn’t much left! Valtteri [Bottas] had a bit of a sniff, but fortunately he ran out of laps so I am really happy.”
As his Ferrari teammate Finn Kimi Raikkonen stuck to his two-stop plan before being forced to retire by a bungled pit-stop that saw a Ferrari mechanic run over, Vettel simply drove on and hoped.
It was his 49th career victory and his second in a row to start the season.
“It put us under a lot of stress and pressure, but we had nothing to lose trying, at that point, to stay out and to win, or finish third,” he said.
“I feel really pleased. If you manage to get the win under these conditions, it tastes even better.
“I came on the radio with 10 laps to go and said I had everything under control – and that was a lie.
“There was nothing under control. When they told me the pace of Valtteri at that time, I said no way I can do that.
“So I did the maths in the car and I thought he was going to catch me.”
Wolff relieved with double podium
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was relieved more than satisfied after seeing Bottas and Hamilton finish on the podium.
Wolff conceded that his team’s relative success came as a result of both Red Bulls and Raikkonen in the second Ferrari being forced to retire.
“We need to stay humble,” he said. “We weren’t great Friday or Saturday, but we take P2 and P3, benefiting from Red Bull and Raikkonen. For me it’s just not great.
“I think it will vary from track to track. The heat is not something we like. We’ll come back strongly in China hopefully.
“Red Bull would have been there with us and Ferrari fighting. That is 100 percent clear in my opinion. Today it was two cars interacting with each other, but next time it could be six.”
The Mercedes chief also said he felt that defending champion Hamilton had not done anything amiss in the early collision with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen that preceded the Dutchman’s retirement.
“I think it was a racing incident. Max dived on the inside, a good manoeuvre, but a bit aggressive,” he said. “I think anyone would have done it and it cost him the race.”