Four races into the season and I’m running out of superlatives. Yet another fascinating race in Bahrain brought the fourth different winner; the first time that’s happened since the start of 2003. And it also brought another upset to anticipated form. Gone from the podium were McLaren and Mercedes, replaced by Red Bull – and Lotus!
Even allowing for Sebastian Vettel’s pedigree as a consistent winner during the last two seasons, it’s fair to say that, on the evidence of Australia, Malaysia and China, a win for the double world champion was not really expected. However, if that was a surprise, then the powerful form of Lotus was a shock – but a very pleasant one.
The pace of the black and gold cars was very real, Vettel pushed all the way to the chequered flag. But what made this even sweeter was the astonishing form of Kimi Raikkonen and the remarkable reinvention of Romain Grosjean’s F1 career as he took third behind his team-mate.
For Raikkonen fans – and there are many around the world – here was proof that Kimi is back, particularly when, after the race, he said in all sincerity that he was disappointed with second place – four races into his comeback after a two-year absence from F1. It was classic Kimi.
So, too, was his driving. Raikkonen was slightly downbeat (it’s always difficult to tell with the ‘Iceman’!) because he was blaming himself for missing out on a possible win by choosing the wrong side when challenging Vettel for the lead early in the race.
The fact that he was in a position to do that was remarkable in itself, Raikkonen and Lotus having opted to save tyres, missing out on the final part of qualifying and starting from 11th on the grid.
It was a clever move because, as has been the case so far this year, tyre management has been the key to winning. In China last week, Lotus got it horribly wrong when asking too much of their Pirellis, Raikkonen dropping from second to an eventual 14th place in a matter of laps. But not this time. The three-stop strategy and the right tyre choice brought the former Renault team a near-perfect result.
By contrast, the mood a few doors down at McLaren was very different. The erstwhile leaders of the championship were right off the pace – and didn’t really know why (another typical tale of 2012). It’s true that the track temperature was between 8 and 10 degrees lower on race day than it had been during practice and qualifying but McLaren’s problems went beyond a lack of grip and balance. Jenson Button, never in the reckoning all weekend, suffered a broken exhaust and a puncture before retiring with a broken differential.
As for Lewis Hamilton, having started from the front row and held second place early on, his race was wrecked by more trouble with the left-rear wheel during not one, but two pit stops. Hamilton finished eighth.
Nico Rosberg, the winner in China, made a small error during qualifying to start from fifth – which promptly became ninth after a poor first lap. Rosberg did well to claw his way back to fifth, but at the expense of dubious blocking moves which, at one stage, had Hamilton with all four wheels on the dirt.
Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team boss, summed up the race: “We saw again today that if you get the car right on the day, it makes a great deal of difference, with Red Bull and Lotus clearly getting their cars in better shape than we did.”
Just who will get it right in Spain for Round 5 on May 13 is anyone’s guess. Good, isn’t it?