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Vettel hangs on to deny Raikkonen victory

22 April 2012

If Sebastian Vettel's pole position for the Bahrain Grand Prix had been unexpected, then his win on Sunday was even more dramatic. But his thunder was very nearly stolen by the Lotus F1 duo of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, with the Finn coming within inches of pulling off a major upset in the middle of the race.

But to get to the end, there had to be a start. Once the lights went out and the race got underway, all the distractions and controversies that had been swirling around the Bahrain Grand Prix melted away, leaving the attention fixed firmly to the action on the track rather than outside it.

What we got with the race was a neat summary of the start of the 2012 season as a whole: a wildly unpredictable affair with front runners that no one saw coming, and fierce battles up and down the running order throughout as car performances varied almost lap-to-lap. Drivers that were flying one minute would suddenly look sluggish the next as tyre wear or the difference in tyre compounds took effect, making it virtually impossible to tell at any given time who had the upper hand.

What did emerge is that Sebastian Vettel was looking back to something like his old self, but still far from his 2011 dominance; McLaren have some serious issues with set-up and pit stops; Mercedes and Ferrari look some way off repeating their early season Grand Prix wins any time soon; and then there's the small matter of both Lotus F1 drivers now looking in stunning form.

Vettel got a decent if hardly flying start, while Lewis Hamilton overcame the dirty side of the grid to slot into second ahead of Mark Webber. But Jenson Button had a tough time of it, crowded out from the outside by Webber and then squeezed on the inside line by an opportunistic dive from Nico Rosberg. That dumped Button down to sixth place, although it didn't benefit Rosberg who had to back out of the hairpin and then found himself forced wide onto the dirt by an uncompromising Kimi Raikkonen, dumping the Mercedes down to ninth place by the time the first laps were done.

Raikkonen's Lotus F1 team mate Romain Grosjean had the benefit of a seventh place starting position and put that to great use to dive through for fourth position at the start, although as good as that start was it still took him everything he had to stay ahead of Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari who slotted into fifth place ahead of Button. There were battles right through the field, with the early big losers being Heikki Kovalainen who was forced to pit straight away for a puncture, and Daniel Ricciardo who fell out of his mighty sixth place on the grid with front wing damage that had to be attended to in an early first pit stop at the end of lap 8 after the Toro Rosso had fallen to 19th place.

Once the eventful start was taken care of, Vettel emerged not only in the lead, but with a 2.2s lead by the end of the first lap. It painted a picture of a resurgent and utterly dominant Red Bull, but that impression was to prove somewhat deceptive and as much as result of the lack of pace of the cars immediately behind him in the opening laps as it was the speed of the winner. The early warning for Vettel came when his team mate Mark Webber lost third place to Romain Grosjean on lap 4 who applied a touch of DRS into turn 1.

Lewis Hamilton's McLaren was simply not looking good: he was holding back the rest of the field, and it was actually rather a relief when Romain Grosjean cruised into DRS range and finally dispatched him at the start of lap 8. Behind them, Raikkonen was restaging the Lotus/McLaren battle and shortly afterwards similarly pushed past Jenson Button, who by now was complaining of massive understeer and rapidly failing rear tyres.

Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, Button was quickly into the pit lane for new tyres and soon everyone was similarly ducking in for a service. It was incident-free for most of the drivers, but a mini-disaster for Lewis Hamilton whose stop stretched agonisingly long as the pit crew grappled with a problem on the left-rear wheel nut which ended up putting Hamilton back out onto the track in 12th position right into a fierce battle being waged between Nico Rosberg and Felipe Massa.

It looked like a touch of red mist on Hamilton's part when he refused to surrender any more time and positions as a result of the bungled pit stop and kept his foot down even when driven off into the dirt by Rosberg. But as the race progressed and Rosberg managed to repeat his unyielding line and ended up under a post-race stewards' investigation for not just this first incident but also for a similar one with an incandescent Fernando Alonso, the feeling was that it was Rosberg who was letting his maiden Grand Prix victory last week in Shanghai somewhat go to his head and compromise his better sense of racing etiquette.

Vettel finally came in for his own first pit stop at the end of lap 12, but three drivers - Force India's Paul di Resta, Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi and Marussia Racing's Charles Pic - were pushing even longer in the hope of achieving a two-stop strategy. Vettel's meant that di Resta briefly led the Grand Prix (making his appearance on the television world feed unavoidable, despite any conspiracy theories!) before Vettel quickly took the place back on his fresh tyres.

Di Resta hung on for a few laps more despite the old tyres until Grosjean breezed past him as well, at which point he surrendered and came in to pit lane. That meant the leaders were once again Vettel, Grosjean and Webber in third, but on lap 14 Kimi Raikkonen cruised past the Australian with ease and set about closing on his team mate in second place. Moreover, both of them were starting to cut into Vettel's lead now that the likes of the slower McLarens, Red Bulls and Ferraris were firmly out of the way.

By lap 22, the two Lotus cars were running line astern and Kimi clearly felt that he had the faster car and should be allowed past Romain. In the end, no team orders came from the pit wall and Raikkonen had to do it the old fashioned way, deploying DRS and sailing past Grosjean into turn 1 a couple of laps later, albeit only just in time for the next round of pit stops.

This left Vettel on the softer compound tyres and Raikkonen on the hard, but the situation suited the Finn and he was soon tearing into Vettel's lead. By lap 33 he was entering into DRS range and the threat was clear to the Red Bull pit wall who were advising their man of the various tools at his disposal to boost his speed down the start/finish straight. Raikkonen's best chance came at the sart of lap 36 but a slight jink from Vettel just broke his momentum at a critical moment and Vettel kept the lead, and after that the reigning world champion was able to keep Raikkonen just far enough back to thwart his hopes for a rematch.

Vettel and Raikkonen came in together for their pit stops at the end of lap 39, both men opting for the hard compound in order to be able to be sure of making it to the end of the race without needing any further tyre changes. Raikkonen's stop was slower, and the new tyres initially suited Vettel better even though Lotus were assuring their man that the Red Bull was harder on its tyres and degradation would play into their hands later on.

That was true to a degree, but not enough to allow Raikkonen to come back as strongly on the leader as he had done in the previous stint. Although he closed to within 2s of the back of the Red Bull, Raikkonen couldn't quite seal the deal and remained outside the DRS activation zone until the end of the race. As the chequered flag came out, Vettel had it by a margin of 3.3s over the Finn. It had taken everything that the Red Bull had, as was demonstrated by the car immediately crawling to a halt just metres past the finish line and parking at the end of the pit lane exit.

Despite the disappointment of losing out on a victory, it was nonetheless an impressive display from Lotus - especially with Grosjean easily maintaining his third place by almost half a minute over Mark Webber by the end. Questions will doubtless be asked over whether Lotus's hesitation to instruct Grosjean to let Raikkonen past during the critical second stint affected the chance of victory, but it's just as well that the race result wasn't decided under the inevitable cloud that team orders invariably produce.

Sebastian Vettel was of course jubilant with returning to winning ways, although he'll be aware that this was no runaway victory. The fact that in four races we've had four different winners from four different teams merely underlines how tight and unpredictable it is at the top, and while Vettel won through this time there is no assurance that the situation will be repeated next time out in Spain.

Just ask Nico Rosberg, who went from being the hero of Shanghai to the villain of Bahrain (for many, at least - just ask Hamilton and Alonso.) In the end he won a prolonged DRS battle with Paul di Resta for fifth place, which was a decent showing all things considered but still almost a minute off the race leader at the end of 57 laps. Like Vettel before him, Rosberg barely managed to cross the finish line before parking up at the end of the pit lane, while his team mate Michael Schumacher recovered from his poor qualifying and grid penalty for a gearbox change to finish five spots back in tenth place.

Alonso will be fuming over what he will see as Rosberg's dangerous blocking moves, and overall the Ferrari form was still no better than the back end of the top ten, as proved by Alonso's finish in seventh place and Massa - who had driven like a man possessed in the first laps to try to hold off Raikkonen's early charge. All in all this was a good result for them in what they hope will be the last of their 'damage limitation' races before they return to Maranello and get down to some major revisions of the F2012 before Spain.

It certainly seems that Ferrari are in a better shape than McLaren, who had a shocker. Their race started badly with Button's poor getaway and understeer, then there was Hamilton's slow first pit stop, and the race went rapidly downhill from there. Hamilton's second stop was almost as disastrous as the first (although if that was down to earlier wheel nut cross threading, it's possible that the damaged nut made further trouble inevitable in the circumstances.)

But the worst luck went to Jenson Button, who never appeared comfortable with the car despite repeated set-up adjustments every time he came into the pits, and was then wrecked altogether by a late puncture and finally a mechanical problem which forced the team to put the sick-sounded car out of its misery in the garage just before the end of the race. It certainly seems a very long time ago indeed since the team marched confidently into Melbourne and delivered a season opening win.

Button was still in the classified results, as was Bruno Senna who had retired a few minutes earlier, leaving only two cars listed as official retirements: Williams' Pastor Maldonado exited the race on lap 26 after a burst tyre sent him into a dramatic 360-degree spin at turn 4, during which the pursuing drivers did well not to plough into him; and Charles Pic stopped out on track soon after with an unspecified mechanical issue, the Marussia Racing team's first retirement this season.

As the dust settled on a thrilling and all-over-the-place, the fact that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were now back on top of the driver and constructors' world championships seemed to suggest that some sort of stability and normality had been restored to the F1, despite the unrest swirling in Bahrain outside outside the circuit perimeter. But that sense of calm and normality will likely last no longer than three weeks, when the next Grand Prix in Spain will no doubt throw the pieces up into the air all over again.

A fifth race of the year with a fifth different winning driver and team? No surprises for guessing just how much the Lotus team and drivers would love that to be the case; and no one would comfortably bet against it happening on this showing, either.


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