Nobody does Bahrain better in 2012 than Davide Valsecchi and the DAMS squad, and while the scrappy Friday morning practice and qualifying sessions had managed to finish without the Italian heading the timings it was soon clear that today's feature race itself wasn't going to prove much of a problem for driver or team.
Under unusually gloomy skies in Sakhir it was polesitter Giedo van der Garde who got the best start off the grid, leaving Valsecchi settling for second spot by holding off Fabio Leimer. The front two had chosen atypically to start on soft option tyres and gamble at pulling away from the rest of the field over the opening laps: van der Garde executed precisely that strategy while Valsecchi settled for merely staying in front of Leimer.
The reason for that became apparent by lap 8. Having pulled out nearly two seconds over Valsecchi, van der Garde's soft tyres abruptly called it a day and within a lap the more circumspect Valsecchi was right on the back of the Caterham, and then straight past. Leimer had to work a bit harder at it, but next lap round he too got past van der Garde, who now saw the writing on the wall and opted to pit at the end of the lap in order to limit the damage.
Despite also running the option tyres, Valsecchi once again demonstrated just how kind this year's DAMS is being on its rubber by managing to stay out another lap without issues before pitting at the same time as Leimer: both cars changed all four tyres and came out comfortably ahead of van der Garde, and then just had to wait until the cycle of pit stops returned them to the front. Leimer closed up on the back of Valsecchi while they were going through traffic, but the leader had things well in hand and as the race wore on he gradually pulled out a clear lead over the Swiss racer who was in turn well ahead of van der Garde in third, so the battle for the podium was now all but decided.
Further behind, however, things were anything but settled. Instead, we were seeing the nearest thing to a street knife fight that it's possible to get on a smooth modern F1 circuit, as battles raged up and down the running order. Once again, the difference in how successful the various teams had been at managing tyre degradation proved to be decisive, with many drivers suffering an almost total lack of grip by the end as their tyres were left virtually bald after countless slides and lock-ups during the remainder of the race.
At the green lights, iSport's Marcus Ericsson had got the perfect start of the day by leaping up from ninth place on the grid to claim fourth going into the first corner - only narrowly failing to go round Leimer on the outside line for third. By contrast, Carlin's Max Chilton got a very sluggish start from fourth on the grid and got swamped on the run down to turn 1 to lose five positions.
Chilton's team mate Rio Haryanto initially maintained his own position but then found himself overrun by multiple cars, as a close scrap for the lower points positions sucked in not only both Carlins but also Arden's Luiz Razia, Caterham's Rodolfo Gonzalez, DAMS' Felipe Nasr, Lazarus' Fabrizio Crestani, Rapax's Tom Dillmann and Addax's Dani Clos into close quarters battle.
Razia quickly showed his form to pop up to fifth place while Chilton was quickly able to get back up to sixth place behind the Arden. After initially losing out, Haryanto stabilised his position in ninth and then started working his way back past some of the cars that had got past him in the meantime like Gonzalez, who had now gone into reverse gear having overcooking his soft options. The Caterham soon got overtaken by Nasr, Dillmann, Berthon and Clos in quick succession on its way out of the top ten, although Clos then retired to the side of the track in turn 13 on lap 9 with an apparent technical failure before he could really get into the swing of things.
It continued to be a disappointing day for Lotus GP, which had finished last weekend's activities with both of their drivers on the podium following the sprint race. By contrast, James Calado stalled before the formation grip meaning he had to start from pit lane - although admittedly that wasn't much of a demotion from his poor 22nd place after qualifying - and later required an extra pit stop for new tyres that meant he finished in a disappointing 17th place.
Calado's more experienced team mate Esteban Gutiérrez didn't have a great time of it either. Starting from 13th place, he was soon suffering from excessive understeer that put increasing strain on his rear tyres that made any forward movement through the pack a tough ask. He ended up losing position to the likes of Racing Engineering's Nathanael Berthon on lap 15, although the enthusiastic Berthon then ended up coming a cropper trying exactly the same move next time round on Fabrizio Crestani, which spun the Frenchman out and cost him seven positions that he mostly clawed back over the second half of the race.
After the mandatory pit stops, Gutiérrez then took up the battle for tenth place with Crestani and finally managed to take the position on lap 19 - only to have his moment of triumph soured by Felipa Nasr managing to flash past both of them in a single action as the cars ahead tussled, in what was the move of the day for the DAMS rookie. Crestani himself would subsequently hit problems and ended up retiring in pit lane after haemorrhaging positions, and as a result Gutiérrez ended up one spot out of the points in 11th by the finish.
Ricardo Teixeira suffered front wing damage on lap 4 with an ill-considered lunge down the inside of Ocean Racing's Brendon Hartley and was duly served a drive-thru penalty for causing the collision on the first place. Jolyon Palmer is also likely to be talking with the stewards for an unnecessarily hard last-lap defence against Gonzalez, despite the fact that Palmer had himself already been lapped by that stage of the proceedings after having been dismally off the pace all afternoon. Stefano Coletti also had a tough day of it, spinning out of turn 1 at the start and labouring long and hard before coming into the pits before taking the chequered flag.
For the rest of the field it was a case of nursing home the cars and rubber without doing anything silly. Most of them just about made it, but the most high-profile struggle to do so belonged to iSport's Marcus Ericsson, who after that fabulous start to claim fourth place was now finding his tyres absolutely wasted and refusing to do even normal things required of it - like steering into even medium-speed corners without sliding off.
Razia, Chilton, Haryanto and a now-flying Nasr all got past while Ericsson's car seemed to be obsessively seeking a place to have a race-ending accident, but Ericsson just about managed to keep it on the island long enough to crawl home in eighth place, which would give him pole position of the sprint race under the reversed grid system alongside Nasr on Saturday. Dillmann was also suffering and losing positions by this point, but Johnny Cecotto Jr. ran out of time to pounce on either of them before the end and had to settle instead for the final points position of the day. Gutiérrez' 11th place saw him finish just ahead of the recovering Berthon.
However, post-race penalties shook that up when Nasr, Gonzalez and Crestani were all penalised for ignoring yellow flags early in the race. The simulated drive-thru penalties the trio incurred (adding 20s to their final times) meant that Nasr dropped to 11th and Gonzalez to 18th, while Crestani - having retired from the race - was handed a five-place grid place penalty for the sprint race that will see him start from the back. After all that, Ericsson loses pole but stays on the front row for Saturday alongside new pole man Tom Dillmann.
While the podium trio had never really been in doubt, it had been a thoroughly entertaining race. It's just a shame that it appeared no one had told prospective spectators, because the start/finish grandstand was conspicuously empty and there was a deathly silence up and down pit road as soon as the engines were switched off, the anthems had been played and the faux-champagne had fizzled.
Full race results, times and positions