Sebastian Vettel's first win of 2013 was hard fought and contentious, but the German had no such worries as he cantered to victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Despite being squeezed out of second spot as the field headed into turn one, Vettel was barely troubled during the course of 57 laps where the main action took place further down the order.
The German made a good start, but his challenge for first place was firmly rebuffed by polesitter Nico Rosberg, who closed the gap between his Mercedes and the pit-wall and forced Vettel back into the clutches of Fernando Alonso, who duly claimed second place around the outside of turn one. The world champion was not to be denied, however, catching Alonso unawares with a move into turn five.
Rosberg, meanwhile, was unable to break away while his pursuers were squabbling, and Vettel took another look at his countryman heading into turn one second time around. Once again, the Mercedes held firm, but it was clear that Rosberg was already in trouble with his tyres, and it only took another lap for Vettel to assume control, passing the polesitter into turn three.
Although Alonso was also quickly by Rosberg, taking second spot under the dual influence of KERS and DRS down the main straight at the end of same lap, any hope of a battle royale between Ferrari and Red Bull was dashed, not only by Vettel's early pace, but also by Alonso's rear wing, which refused to return to its closed position after the DRS was activated.
Pitting at the end of lap seven, the Spaniard combined his first tyre stop with a hasty re-setting of the offending element but, when the wing jammed again the next time it was used, the ensuing stop effectively ended any hope of a follow-up to his success in Shanghai a week ago.
Vettel's progress at the front was interrupted only by his own pit-stops, the first allowing Paul di Resta to lead the grand prix for Force India, but the second and third only allowing his pursuers to close the gap for a while. Rejoining in front both times, it appeared that only Vettel or fate could affect the result and the German duly cruised to his 28th career victory, moving him ahead of fellow three-time champion Sir Jackie Stewart in the process.
di Resta's spell at the front lasted just four laps, but the Scot was enjoying his best showing of the season as Force India continued to build on a strong weekend. di Resta was flying the orange, green and white colours solo, however, as team-mate Adrian Sutil, who had started alongside the Scot on row three of the grid, had made contact with Felipe Massa at turn four on the opening lap and had to limp back to the pits. Although he rejoined after repairs to his car, the German was never a factor and eventually finished an unrepresentative 13th.
As the strategies unfolded, di Resta's candidature for a maiden podium became more real, with only the two Lotus drivers – recovering from an opening lap that saw them running seventh and eleventh – posing any real threat. Kimi Raikkonen, who actually slipped to the foot of the top ten early on, once again made his tyres last as well as anyone, clawing his way back up the order as he pressed on and others stopped, taking the lead from di Resta when the Scot pulled in on lap 14.
The ageing rubber was no match for Vettel on fresh Pirellis, the German sweeping back to the front a lap later, but Raikkonen was able to stretch his second set in similar fashion – even berating his team for bringing him in 'early' for his final stop on lap 35 – and reclaimed the role of chief pursuer from di Resta on lap 40. He was unable to run Vettel down, however, eventually crossing the line 9.1secs behind the Red Bull to take his 21st successive points finish, three shy of Michael Schumacher's all-time record.
di Resta's dreams of the podium – Force India's second after Giancarlo Fisichella's runner-up spot at Spa in 2009 – lasted until five laps from home, when Grosjean, having fitted a set of medium compound Pirellis afforded by his missing the cut in Q2, swept through into turn one. The Frenchman then opened out a two-second cushion before completing an exact replica of the 2012 podium alongside his team-mate and Vettel.
di Resta accepted fourth with a mix of grace and resignation, having come home comfortably ahead of fellow Briton Lewis Hamilton in the works Mercedes. The 2008 world champion had struggled early on, but gradually made his way up the order, getting the unfavoured medium compound out of the way at his first stop and thereafter found the handling of his car changed for the good to be in the battle for fifth ahead of his third and final stop on lap 39.
Although that dropped Hamilton back to tenth, he was quickly on the move again, picking off Jenson Button and Mark Webber in the closing stages to reclaim fifth. The Mercedes wasn't kind on its tyres, however, and Hamilton had a resurgent Sergio Perez right on his tail at the line, the Mexican capping his strongest showing as Hamilton's replacement at McLaren with sixth place.
Perez had been at the heart of the race's biggest battle, dicing with team-mate Button as well as Hamilton, Rosberg and Alonso at various points. The battle with Button was physical to say the least, as McLaren allowed its two drivers to go at it. The Button repeatedly claimed that the Mexican was being too aggressive – and some of the moves threatened to put both cars out of contention – but Perez had his backers on site, and was clearly reacting to both that and team boss Martin Whitmarsh's call for him to 'get his elbows out'.
Charging right to the end, and with his tyres in better shape than Button's, Perez – who had made contact with Raikkonen for the second race in a row on lap three - was able to get ahead of the Briton on lap 46, before picking off Alonso and Webber in the last few tours to finish sixth overall.
Webber had appeared on course for a top five result, having briefly run second to Vettel as the different strategies worked themselves out. The Australian, however, appeared to lack the straight-line speed to fend off his pursuers, and eventually crossed the line just over a second behind the McLaren.
Behind him, Alonso somehow claimed points after making the extra unplanned stop to close the defective DRS element a second time, and thereafter running without being able to use the overtaking aid. Undaunted, the Spaniard continued to pick off slower runners, turning the resulting 17th place into eighth at the flag, preventing Ferrari from going scoreless for the first time in 52 races, dating back to Silverstone 2010.
Pre-race, Rosberg had claimed that he had started and finished every Bahrain Grand Prix in the same position, but that record ended when he plummeted to ninth over the course of 57 laps. The German was unable to make his tyres last as well as those around him, eventually making four stops to the majority's three. Alonso and Button also made the same number of pit calls – albeit not only for tyres in the Spaniard's case – and sandwiched the Mercedes in the final scoring spots.
Behind Button, Pastor Maldonado was a long way from ending Williams' points drought in eleventh, but brought the FW35 home ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, the recovering Sutil and team-mate Valtteri Bottas. Massa, who suffered – but managed - a damaged front wing in his clash with Sutil, then saw his afternoon go further downhill with two tyre failures, eventually coming home 15th, the last unlapped runner.
Daniel Ricciardo was next up after a quiet afternoon, with Caterham's Charles Pic just under ten seconds behind the Toro Rosso. Esteban Gutierrez was just half a second behind Pic after also having to pit early for repairs, while the Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton got the better of Giedo van der Garde as the Dutchman suffered a difficult afternoon after hitting the stranded STR entry of Jean-Eric Vergne on lap one and putting his countryman out of the race.
Vettel's victory opens a ten-point gap over Raikkonen after four races, with Hamilton moving into third overall, a further 17 points adrift. Alonso, despite his handful of points, is fully 30 behind his nemesis as the F1 circus prepares to head back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix.