Felipe Massa has finally opened his 2008 account by repeating his 2007 Bahrain Grand Prix victory in Sakhir – but the big news of the weekend is how BMW have replaced McLaren-Mercedes as the Scuderia's
closest challengers for glory this year, and how Lewis Hamilton's championship bid is threatening to come off the rails only three races into the campaign.
The first time in 21 outings that neither a Ferrari nor McLaren-Mercedes had graced pole position – and on a day with a particularly strong headwind – the 2008 Bahrain Grand Prix promised to be a tough one to call, with arguably any of the first four drivers on the grid in with a shout of winning.
There was drama even before the race got underway, indeed, with front row sitter Massa very late to arrive on the grid after encountering a radio problem on his warm-up lap and Nelsinho Piquet complaining of second gear stubbornly refusing to engage in his Renault on the parade tour. And then when the lights went out, there was further drama still.
Robert Kubica failed to get away well from pole position – allowing Massa to breeze past on the run down to turn one – but that was nothing compared to the woes suffered by Hamilton, who bogged down off the line and slipped back a full seven places to the outer edges of the top ten as the field swept past. There were better fortunes for team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, who not only did well to avoid running into the back of the sister MP4-23, but then went on to run right the way around the outside of countryman Kimi Raikkonen in the first corner.
The Ferrari would get back ahead of the McLaren again before the opening lap was out, with their squabbling allowing the front two to make good their escape. Further back, though, there was more action, as Sebastian Vettel made light contact with Giancarlo Fisichella before being pushed off into the turn four gravel trap by a mystery assailant and out of the race.
Nick Heidfeld re-passed the fast-starting Jarno Trulli to reclaim fifth place, whilst a little further back Hamilton found himself up behind former team-mate – and avowed nemesis – Fernando Alonso. Suddenly the McLaren shot up in the air, as it rear-ended the Renault exiting one of the circuit's slow corners, its front wing flying off in the process.
That left Hamilton to tour back around to the pit-lane with a badly-understeering and skewed-handling Silver Arrow – shooting straight across the gravel trap at one point in evidence of his plight – and he was joined in the 'repair room' by Honda ace Jenson Button with a puncture and Red Bull Racing's David Coulthard, the Scot suffering a shredded right rear tyre in the opening lap fracas.
Those shenanigans also saw Piquet spinning through the gravel before rejoining the fray, whilst Heidfeld's march continued as the German swept past Kovalainen, and up at the front Raikkonen went bravely around the outside of Kubica into second place at the start of lap three. Just over five minutes into the race, and we already had a Ferrari one-two.
As Massa set a new fastest lap – a full 0.8 seconds quicker than his defending world champion team-mate – a great battle was brewing for sixth place between Trulli, Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber. The Toyota and Williams ran side-by-side as they fought out their entertaining, tooth-and-nail scrap, while behind them Alonso – now missing a chunk from his rear wing following the Hamilton contact and reporting vibrations from his R28 – was being hounded by the second Toyota of Timo Glock, with Fisichella an impressive eleventh in the Force India not far in arrears and holding off the challenge of Honda's Rubens Barrichello, who he had also beaten in Malaysia a fortnight ago.
Down at the back of the field, meanwhile, there was the unusual sight of the four-strong Brit-pack of Anthony Davidson, Hamilton, Coulthard and Button running 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th, with the latter somewhat incongruously setting the race's fastest lap, until Massa blew that effort out of the water shortly afterwards to further extend his 4.5-second advantage over Raikkonen.
Hamilton, indeed, was already over a minute adrift of the two scarlet machines, and lapping some 2.5 seconds off the pace as the legacy of his earlier contact took a heavy toll. Whilst he may have fought back to second place from way down the pack following a spin in GP2 a couple of years ago in Turkey, a repeat performance in Sakhir looked like being an impossible task.
As Trulli began to edge clear of Rosberg, a new fastest lap from Raikkonen showed the Finn was finally starting to peg back his team-mate's pace. Right down at the rear, however, Coulthard and Button's duel for 19th place ended in the inevitable tears when the Honda star got it all sideways and clattered into the side of the Red Bull Racing machine, whose driver had seemed to open the door only to subsequently close it again.
Though both got going again after spinning in opposite directions, Button was missing his front wing and the consequent damage left him with little option but to retire, while Coulthard needed a second replacement nose in less than 20 laps.
Kubica unsurprisingly became the first man to blink on lap 18 – running very wide on his out-lap afterwards – whilst Rosberg's similarly early first pit visit was rather more unexpected given the young German's comparatively lowly qualifying position the previous day. The Williams would slip behind Webber following the first round of stops, with Heidfeld closing the gap on team-mate Kubica and Raikkonen really getting the hammer down as he pitted one lap earlier than Massa on lap 20.
As the Finn continued to pile the pressure on the race leader – getting the gap down to less than four seconds – Kubica and Heidfeld held third and fourth, ahead of Kovalainen, Trulli, Webber and Rosberg. Hamilton, meanwhile, finally found a way past Fisichella after several laps trying, and when he rejoined from his own pit-stop – McLaren having switched the 23-year-old over to a one-stopper – he did so to be immediately lapped by Massa, the man against whom, only twelve months ago, he had raced for victory in the desert kingdom.
McLaren's nightmare continued as, with 25 of the 57 laps remaining, Trulli began to take significant chunks out of Kovalainen for fifth place in a near-repeat of Toyota's Malaysian performance two weeks earlier, while several places further back Alonso and Glock's tussle was rejoined, only now with the Toyota holding the high ground.
Piquet pulled off as the gearbox in his R28 finally gave up the ghost shortly before the second round of pit-stops got underway, with Raikkonen in first this time – just as his team-mate set a new fastest lap. Massa was in next time around for a set of hard rubber, rejoining comfortably still ahead, but in the process promoting Kubica to the head of the field for the first time in a race he had hoped to lead from the start.
It was an academic situation for the Pole, however, as his own stop just a handful of laps later left team-mate Heidfeld in front, and the German's subsequent second pit visit – albeit one that came at the end of a succession of very
quick laps – re-established the red sea at the top of the timing screens.
Kovalainen, however, still had yet to pit for a second time with twelve laps to go – allowing him to closely shadow Raikkonen's second place ahead of the two BMWs – but when the Finn finally came in on lap 47 it re-established the erstwhile status quo
, whilst at the same time preserving Kovalainen's fifth place ahead of Trulli.
The principal action in the closing laps came courtesy of Barrichello's efforts to find a way past Alonso for the final position in the top ten – the pair sadly, as Martin Brundle put it, “driving their hearts out for nothing really, in many respects” – whilst the two BMWs' late charge saw Kubica close to within four seconds of Raikkonen, lapping as much as a second quicker than the Ferrari as the two scarlet machines suddenly started to come under pressure for the first time in the grand prix.
A new fastest lap for Heidfeld was almost immediately usurped by a stunning effort from Kovalainen, almost four tenths of a second quicker than anyone
else as the hard tyres on his McLaren came right on-song in the race's dying laps. Massa, at least, seemed safe from the BMW threat some 7.4 seconds up the road from the sister F2008, but Raikkonen's runner-up spot – with just six laps remaining – was rather less assured.
The Finn, though, was able to up his pace once more, staving off Kubica's unwanted attentions to re-establish his second place, but a little way further up the track Massa cruised on untroubled, and would take the chequered flag – waved by old 'Slowhand' himself, Eric Clapton – some 3.3 seconds to the good to complete a back-to-back Sakhir success story, open his world championship account with a vengeance and establish himself as the
form driver in Bahrain.
Behind second-placed Raikkonen, Kubica and Heidfeld crossed the line separated by just 3.4 seconds and both within a scant ten seconds of the race winner, in so doing not only confirming BMW's arrival as a genuine world championship contender in 2008, but also propelling the Munich and Hinwil-based outfit to the top of the constructors' standings for the first time.
McLaren's sole points-scorer on a dark day for the Woking-based squad, Kovalainen, finished a lonely and distant fifth – albeit with the race's fastest lap to his name – ahead of the consistently impressive Trulli, Webber notching up a couple more points for RBR and a disappointed Rosberg taking the final marker in eighth.
Glock finally got a Formula 1 finish under his belt in ninth, ahead of Alonso – who successfully held Barrichello off to the close – Fisichella in the ever-improving Force India and Hamilton ultimately trailing home an unlucky 13th, summing up a weekend that has not only seen him forced to surrender the drivers' world championship lead to Raikkonen and second place to Heidfeld, but indeed fail to score for only the third time in his grand prix career. If he is to achieve his objective of lifting the laurels this year, he will be hoping it is also the last.
To see the race result in full, click here