Felipe Massa gave the Formula One world championship its most varied opening for several season by becoming the third different winner in as many events by leading from lights to flag at the Bahrain Grand Prix, but it is the three-way tie for the points lead that will grab most attention.

The Brazilian arrived on the grid with the demons from two disappointing races still haunting him, but made no mistake as the lights went out to get the jump on fellow front row starter Lewis Hamilton. Indeed, it was the Briton who made the poorer getaway, almost dropping into the clutches of both Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, as the leading four runners headed into turn one.

Raikkonen was looking particularly feisty, perhaps because his Ferrari was also rumoured to have been lightly-fuelled - but held up - in qualifying, but had to make do with third round the opening couple of corners.

While the leading group kept it clean through the tight complex, however, those further back began tripping over themselves, with Jenson Button and Scott Speed being eliminated in separate incidents just metres apart. Both appeared to have been tipped from behind, but with their engines dead and bodywork shed, neither Honda or Toro Rosso was going any further. Adrian Sutil bore all the scars of contact with the latter, the German rookie returning to the Spyker pit for cosmetic attention to the front of his car, rejoining several laps down as a result.

Whilst the melee was going on, Alonso slipped ahead of Raikkonen, further frustrating the Finn, who then only had himself to blame when the ensuing safety car period ended on lap three. Although Alonso had closed in on Massa and Hamilton, Raikkonen was some distance away from the second McLaren when the field was released, forcing him to push hard to close the gap.

Hamilton, meanwhile, wasted no time in trying to exert pressure on Massa, the rookie taking a look at turn one before being rebuffed. The McLaren was still exuding the same blue smoke under downchanges that it had in qualifying, but Hamilton's pace remained undimmed.

The rest of the top ten had got away roughly in grid order, with BMW twins Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica holding fifth and sixth from Giancarlo Fisichella and Mark Webber. The Italian's team-mate was among the early movers, however, Heikki Kovalainen up to ninth from twelfth, displacing Jarno Trulli and Nico Rosberg. The Williams pilot had a ragged start to the race, running out of room on more than one occasion and ceding places to David Coulthard and team-mate Alex Wurz as a result. Coulthard, more than anyone else, was making rapid progress, the Scot up from 21st to eleventh by lap 15.

By that stage, Massa and Hamilton had eased out a cushion over their respective team-mates, with Raikkonen all over Alonso for third. The Spaniard appeared to be struggling for grip on his first set of the softer Bridgestone tyres, and was having to try all he knew to keep the Ferrari at bay while he waited for the pit-stop window to open.

Although Tonio Liuzzi had been the first unenforced pit-caller when he stopped under the safety car to swap his harder rubber for the more popular option, Coulthard, Wurz and Ralf Schumacher set the ball rolling on lap 17. Hamilton, in line with expectation, was the first of the frontrunners to stop three laps later, leaving Massa with a ten-second advantage over Alonso.

The Brazilian was in next time around, handing the McLaren an unexpected lead, with Alonso, Raikkonen and Heidfeld following suit over the next couple of laps. When the order had shaken itself out, there was one major shift, with Raikkonen having been vaulted ahead of the world champion courtesy of a strong in-lap, the two stops being timed almost exactly to the same tenth of a second.

Anthony Davidson aside, the top ten continued in much the same vein as before, with only the fired-up Coulthard making in-roads. The Red Bull driver was right up behind team-mate Webber by lap 25 and, with the Australian struggling with a fuel flap that had refused to close after his stop, was soon up another spot. Both RB3s then hunted down the lacklustre Fisichella, the Italian clearly struggling with an ill-handling Renault, taking seventh and eighth as Davidson's long opening stint finally ended.

Fisichella was not the only one in handling trouble, with none other than Alonso struggling to put his car exactly where he wanted it. Later reporting both under- and oversteer, the world champion provided little resistance to the charging Heidfeld, who underlined BMW's latent potential by sweeping around the outside of his Mercedes-powered rival for fourth at turn four on lap 32.

Neither McLaren appeared particularly happy on its second set of tyres, with Hamilton unable to regain ground lost to Massa during the pit-stops. The Briton was now nine seconds adrift, and in danger of falling into Raikkonen's clutches as the Finn attempted to make it a Ferrari 1-2.

Coulthard's assault on the points ended on lap 37, the Scot pulling into pit-lane with his right-rear driveshaft having failed, joining Button, Speed, Liuzzi and Takuma Sato on the injury list. The Japanese driver had suffered a massive engine failure on the home straight three laps earlier, and the problem sadly heralded a similar fate for Super Aguri team-mate Davidson, who made to six laps from home before his V8 followed suit.

Red Bull's hopes of taking anything home from the three 'flyaways' took a hit on lap 38, when Webber had his airbox-mounted 'mid-wing' break off, probably as the result of the deflected airflow caused by his still-open fuel flap, and then parked up five laps later, clearly frustrated that his Williams reliability record had followed him to his new home.

Not that Williams was having much to shout about, Rosberg still mixing quick laps with wayward ones, surviving a brush with former GP2 rival Kovalainen to claim a place on lap 20, but then dropping behind the Finn again with one of several off-course excursions. Team-mate Wurz was keeping his nose cleaner, but not making much headway towards the top ten, eventually dropping back behind his younger team-mate by the flag.

Kovalainen eventually finished ahead of both Williams, in ninth, with Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and the two Spykers completing the runners, and could have had something for team-mate Fisichella had the race continued for a few more laps. In the end, however, the veteran managed to keep eight seconds between the two Renaults, despite chasing Trulli's Toyota closely for the last ten laps. The two Italians were split by just 0.3 secs at the chequer.

Massa was the first of the leading quintet to pit second time around, the Brazilian taking on the harder Bridgestone rubber and temporarily handing the advantage to Hamilton. Contrary to expectation, the Briton was not the next man in, McLaren opting to run him longest of all in the middle stint, despite his MP4-22 not looking entirely at ease on its option tyres.

Raikkonen and Heidfeld swapped second and third for fourth and sixth - split by the later stopping Kubica - when they pitted together on lap 41, but were easily able to move back ahead of Alonso when the Spaniard made his call, along with Kubica, on lap 43.

Hamilton, meanwhile, waited a further tour before finally changing to his last set of tyres, but almost immediately began to make inroads into Massa's advantage. Lapping at around half a second a lap quicker than the leader into the final stages, the question remained whether there was enough time for him to complete the overhauling and claim a maiden F1 win.

At the same time, Alonso had found happier handling from his car and was closing on Heidfeld but, in both cases, the car ahead had just enough to hang on over the waning stages, Massa taking the chequer 2.3secs clear of his young pursuer, and Heidfeld surviving by only a fraction more.

Massa was naturally overjoyed at having banished the opening rounds of the year to history, claiming his third F1 win with a consummate performance when many were questioning his mental fortitude, but the result set up the intriguing prospect of Formula One returning to Europe with a three-way tie at the head of the championship standings - and involving a rookie to boot.

While Alonso and Raikkonen could have been expected to go neck-and-neck for much of the season, few would have included Hamilton in such a scenario, but the Briton added another landmark to his already impressive resume by claiming a record third straight podium to start his career and will return home on top of the world and having drawn a definite line in the sand with regard to his rivals.