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In The Driver's Seat

Simply no room for manoeuvre at the top of F1's leaderboard

More and more, it looks like the outcome of the 2017 Formula One World Championship is going to come down to the smallest details.

There is zero margin for error - not just from the drivers, but from everyone on the teams. They all talk of putting together the perfect weekend. And they really aren't joking.

Such is the white-hot intensity of the fight between Ferrari and Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, that you simply can't afford minor things to go wrong. Not if your rival is getting the job done.

"If anyone ever thinks that any driver, or I, should feel happy with second, I don't know what to say," Hamilton said, after the superb drive he had staged to set a string of blistering fastest laps as he strove to overcome a pit-stop delay, and a five-second penalty in order to catch Vettel's galloping prancing horse.

"I had a second before (to Vettel in Australia) and when you have a strong fight, it's a good feeling.

"Today I felt quite good on the podium, I'd had a good fight, but then I got to thinking later how I lost two-tenths in Turn 10 to 11 when the DRS didn't engage in qualifying. I lost half a tenth out of the last corner. I should easily have been on pole. Then today I lost position at the start, solely my fault, then there was the time lost in the pit lane…

Like the Australian and Chinese Grands Prix, Bahrain demonstrated again that races this year will very often be decided by the little things. There is zero margin for error.

"You have only 20 opportunities in a year. It's painful, there's no other way of saying it.

"In Australia, I don't remember any of the things being massively my fault, I just ran out of tyres and had to pit, that was just the circumstances I was faced with. But today there were certain things that, had they been perfect, I would have been much better placed to fight for the win."

Like the Australian and Chinese Grands Prix, Bahrain demonstrated again that races this year will very often be decided by the little things, such as that DRS glitch that momentarily hampered Hamilton and cost him pole position. Or the high tyre pressures that hampered his pole-sitting team-mate Valtteri Bottas in the first stint.

"It's all about small percentages now, which is what racing should be all about," he said.

"You want to be operating in the top end of those percentages, not having 1 per cent divide the win, not doing a good enough job by 1 per cent losing you the race. That's ultimately I think what it will be about this year, and I think that's exciting.

"It just means all of us in the team have to be operating at our maximum, weekend in, weekend out. Just performing at our optimum.

"Every year my goal is to increase the number of the awesome races, and reduce the number of dips that you have. The first race this year was a high, the second was still a high, but this one was a bit of a dip."

Once again, Ferrari were slightly the quicker marque, and once Vettel had made the most of the safety car intervention for the accident between Toro Rosso's Carlos Sainz and Williams' Lance Stroll, there was little Mercedes could do.

Hamilton's penalty, for which he apologised to his team, proved costly, as at one stage, he got within 5.8sec of Vettel, and finished only 6.6sec in arrears.

But that's the way it will go in 2017, as their fortunes see-saw. One will get it all right one weekend, the other the next. It's why this is going to be such an epic season.

"It's about firing on all cylinders, race on race, race on race," Hamilton said. "If I'm a V12, as I like to think, maybe this weekend I was just a V10.

"I've got these next two weeks to make sure that I'm firing again on all 12 cylinders for the next race."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Simply no room for manoeuvre at the top of F1's leaderboard'. Print Edition | Subscribe