ON A day when none of the feared disruptions happened, Sebastian Vettel's biggest threat in Bahrain came in the form of Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, before the world champion delivered a telling victory for Red Bull.
The German took the lead immediately and quickly outpaced McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and his own team-mate Mark Webber. But it did not take long for the Lotus challenge to emerge. First it was their French sophomore Romain Grosjean who came thrusting up to pass Hamilton on the seventh lap. Then Raikkonen moved up to third place as the first round of pit stops began two laps later.
Paul di Resta, who opted for a two-stop strategy in contrast to the three selected by most of the front-runners, led a grand prix for the first time for Force India on the 12th lap after Vettel had pitted on the 11th, but after that the champion was headed only briefly by Grosjean on the 40th lap during the third and final pit calls. But Raikkonen did not make it easy.
The Finn had hunted Grosjean down by the 20th lap and moved ahead on the 24th before immediately pitting. And then the real chase began. Vettel held a 6.3 seconds lead at one stage before the second stops, but now Raikkonen was only 2.2sec behind, and closing in. The gap shrank steadily to a mere second and the moment of truth came on the 36th lap as Raikkonen edged to the right going into the first corner. But Vettel blocked it, and that would be the closest the Finn got to the win.
Both of them made their last stops on lap 39, and thereafter Vettel opened up a 2.9sec lead straight away, and then built it to a little more than three as the pair of them balanced their speed with tyre conservation to the chequered flag. The Red Bull was still 3.3sec ahead of the Lotus when they got there, but Vettel knew he'd been in a fight.
"It was an incredible race, extremely tough," he said. "I was able to pull away immediately and that turned out to be a big advantage because we always had to go on a used set of tyres as we used nearly all of them new yesterday in qualifying. We could see Kimi was very quick, and so was Romain. With the strategy everything seemed to work so I can only say a big thanks to the boys in the garage. It's an incredible job they've done over the first four races, the amount of work they've done.
"So given the fact that Kimi found a dealership somewhere where he got some new tyres from, which allowed him to start every new stint on new tyres, it was extremely tough to keep them behind us."
Raikkonen admitted that an error cost him a lot. "It's a bit disappointing that I didn't manage to do it. But I made a small mistake at the beginning and lost one place to Massa. I had to re-overtake him and it took a little time. I got past the people quite easily but if you look in the end I think we still took too long and we couldn't win the race. But at least we got the podium with both cars."
Grosjean held on to finish third and on the podium for the first time in his revived career, to make it a great day for Lotus, and Webber took a lonely fourth for Red Bull, unable to match his team-mate's pace but untroubled by Nico Rosberg who just edged ahead of Di Resta on the 52nd lap.
The Scot drove a beautifully-judged race to take a deserved sixth, just keeping Fernando Alonso and Hamilton at bay. It was a timely boost for the Force India team after their scares on Wednesday and Thursday. "It's massive for us," he said after his best day in an F1 cockpit. "The team did an amazing job all weekend, the strategy came together and the pit stops were perfect. We knew it would be a big ask to make only two stops and it was a close-run thing at the end because my tyres completely went away on the final lap.
"I had Fernando very close behind me, but I saved a bit of Kers coming out of the final corner and managed to stay ahead. Apart from that, the car has been awesome. We go away from here as a very happy team, with a few weeks to reflect on things."
As will many people after the most controversial race in recent F1 history.
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