The Bahrain Grand Prix had dramatic moments from beginning to end. Sebastian Vettel had his fair share and took them early on with forceful attacking moves as he dealt with a fast-starting Fernando Alonso and, three laps later, the pole position Mercedes of Nico Rosberg.
Once in front, Vettel was able to control the race and, crucially in the heat, look after his tyres to become the first driver to score two wins this season. But it would be a sign of the see-sawing fortunes in 2013 when neither Rosberg nor Alonso finished in the top six at the end of 57 laps.
Rosberg lost consistent pace very early on and Alonso fell victim to a sticking DRS flap that brought two unscheduled pit stops and handicapped the Ferrari driver when the rear wing overtaking device was inoperable for the majority of the race.
DRS was heavily used in the two permitted zones as drivers changed places according to their pit stop strategies. Vettel, by running on his own at the front, was able to stop three times without coming under threat. Kimi Räikkonen, starting eighth, used a two-stop tactic to work his way into second place, the day being made complete for Lotus when Romain Grosjean, putting previous accusations of inconsistency behind him, came through from 11th on the grid to finish on the podium with a well-worked drive.
By failing to make it into Q3, the final part of qualifying, Grosjean had used the saved rubber and the free tyre choice that comes with starting outside the top 10. This advantage, although being slightly artificial, allowed the Lotus to catch and eventually take third place from Paul Di Resta, the Force India driver being powerless to save what would have been his first podium finish as he ran a two-stop strategy. The Scotsman was happy nonetheless, describing this as the strongest performance in his 43-race F1 career.
When Lewis Hamilton, the winner of 21 Grands Prix, declares himself happy with fifth place, you know it’s another sign of the continuing learning curve at Mercedes, the 2008 champion having been outside the top 10 for the first half of the race with a car that had no grip or traction; two key factors on a circuit dominated by slow and medium speed corners. ‘And then, for some reason, the car came good after the second stop,’ said Hamilton. ‘I don’t know why that was.’ Whatever the reason, it was good enough to take him past Rosberg, who had started eight places further ahead on the grid.
Two races ago in Malaysia, the Red Bull drivers had provided the talking point as they raced against each other in robust fashion. On Bahrain, it was the McLaren drivers, free to run the race as they pleased, who grabbed the headlines. Sergio Perez redeemed a lack-lustre season so far with a hard-charging drive that turned out to be too aggressive for the comfort of his team-mate as they ran wheel-to-wheel while disputing sixth place. ‘Tell him to calm down,’ was Button’s plea to the McLaren management when Perez lightly damaged his nose wing against Button’s right-rear tyre.
It was a move that could have prevented them from finishing sixth (Perez) and tenth. Even so, the points scored were not enough to stop Force India from moving ahead of McLaren into fifth place in the Constructors’ Championship. McLaren could count themselves lucky, Force India’s potential having been cut in half when Adrian Sutil, starting sixth, had been the victim of a brush with Felipe Massa’s Ferrari half-way round the first lap.
Red Bull, meanwhile, stretched their lead over Lotus at the top of the table. Ferrari are third after a disastrous race, Alonso’s problems compounded by Massa, who had started fourth, having two tyre failures and finishing outside the points.
Alonso, refusing to give up, struggled home eighth. The Spaniard and his home crowd will want a much better result in three weeks when the scene shifts to Europe and Barcelona. From the evidence so far in 2013, anything is possible.
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