Reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel cruised his way through the desert heat on Sunday to claim his first Bahrain Grand Prix victory.
The win was also the first at the circuit for his Red Bull team, and came on a day when none of the German’s championship rivals were able to match him.
Vettel made a good getaway from pole to maintain the lead into the first corner, with Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber trailing in his wake ahead of the lightning-starting Lotus of Romain Grosjean who passed both Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg into turn one. Kimi Raikkonen had made a similarly fast start to run close behind Button in the opening laps, as Grosjean passed both Webber and Hamilton before eating into the lead of Vettel who had sprinted clear of the one-second DRS zone needed for those behind to pass him effectively. Raikkonen though was on a charge and after climbing past those in front, began to hunt down the Frenchman and passed him on Lap 23 before immediately pitting. Button, Webber and Rosberg had all pitted for the harder Pirelli compound on Lap 9, but the strategy didn’t seem to contain any benefit for any of them as they struggled to stay on the leading pace. By this point Vettel was leading Raikkonen and Grosjean ahead of Hamilton and Webber.
However, when Hamilton pitted a lap after team-mate Button, Mclaren’s pit-stop gremlins surfaced again and the proverbial left rear wheel nut which caused such damage to Button’s race in Shanghai would not go on as planned, costing the 2008 World Champion valuable seconds. Webber swept past, and the damage was done. Hamilton experienced another shoddy pit-stop in his second pitlane foray which dropped him behind both the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and the Mercedes of Rosberg.
The Chinese Grand Prix winner looked oddly-aggressive as he ran Hamilton clean off the circuit on the exit of turn 3, Hamilton kicking up dust at over 150mph as he complained bitterly to his team on the radio about his former karting-companions defensive antics. Rosberg was under investigation but it didn’t stop him pulling a repeat move on Fernando Alonso when the Spaniard tried to overtake in the same place, the 2005/2006 World Champion also trying to obtain a penalty for the young German.
No penalty was forthcoming, however, and as the carnage raged behind them, Vettel and the two Lotuses vanished into the distance with Mark Webber holding a watching brief in 4th. Raikkonen soon began to spice up the racing at the front when he closed rapidly on Vettel, opening his DRS and lunging for the lead up the inside into the first corner on Lap 36. Vettel closed the door though, and Raikkonen displayed some uncharacteristic hesitation which ultimately cost him the victory as Vettel opened up his Red Bull RB8 and screamed into the desert haze.
Jenson Button fell victim to a puncture in the final laps of the Grand Prix just as he looked set to claim 5th and the Championship lead. The 2009 title holder was climbing all over the back of Force India’s Paul Di Resta, the younger Brit driving an impressive 2-stop strategical race to equal his best ever finish in Formula One in 6th. ‘The result today is massive for us’ said a somewhat sombre Di Resta after the race. ‘The team did an amazing job all weekend, the strategy came together and the pit-stops were perfect.’ Button however retired from 13th with a cracked exhaust, failing differential and gearbox maladies which rounded off a ‘disastrous’ weekend for Mclaren. ‘It’s been a pretty difficult weekend for the whole team.’ he claimed in the Press enclosure after the race. ‘I didn’t have a very good balance today, and I was struggling all afternoon with oversteer.’
Team-mate Hamilton was a dejected 8th at the flag, bewildered by his sudden loss of pace. ‘I guess this was just one of those days. The delays in the pits were a big part of that, of course. For the driver sitting in the car that’s always frustrating because you’re just waiting and there’s nothing you can do to help.’
Williams and Toro Rosso also suffered fruitless weekends, Daniel Ricciardo failing to score points from 6th place on the grid and both Williams cars forced to retire. Sauber also failed to score, and Caterham were thwarted by a puncture for qualifying ace Kovalainen on the opening lap.
On the other hand, Ferrari experienced a degree of upturn in form after a torrid start to their 2012 campaign. Alonso bagged a handful of points for 7th, while Felipe Massa took his first points of the year in 9th. ‘It’s a nice result at this time, but we are well aware that it is not Ferrari’s style to be happy with a ninth place.’ said the diminutive Brazilian. ‘Having said that, it is a performance that gives me confidence for the rest of the season. Clearly we have to improve the performance of the car as soon as possible to be able to fight for worthwhile positions.’
Lotus were rightly overjoyed with scoring a historic 2-3 podium finish and whilst Romain Grosjean finally got his reward after a difficult three years since his first F1 experience, Finn Kimi Raikkonen seemed non-plussed in Parc Ferme. ‘To be honest, I’m slightly disappointed we didn’t take the win because we had the pace. I only had one chance to overtake Sebastian and unfortunately I chose the wrong side to try and get past. If I hadn’t made a small mistake at the start and allowed Felipe to get through then maybe it would have been a different story.’ Team Principal Eric Boullier was thrilled though with the team’s return to form. ‘It was a great team performance today and I’m delighted for everyone, both here in the paddock and back at Enstone. The first three races were very frustrating, as we knew we were capable of a result like this. Until now, small details have hindered our performance, so it’s almost a relief to finally show what we are capable of. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved today.’
Despite a fine performance from the Lotus duo, neither could match race-winner Sebastian Vettel who took the plaudits for a fine victory. ‘I was very happy with qualifying yesterday and all throughout the race. Kimi was fast today and it was close, but I am extremely happy and very proud of the team.’
Close Kimi may have been, but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t close enough to prevent an ominous repeat of the 2011 form that took Sebastian Vettel to the World Championship…