It was an eventful start to the Sakhir sprint race, a rather nondescript middle, but then an on-your-feet grandstand finish as the battle for victory in Bahrain was decided by a mere eight hundredths of a second at the line between Russian Time's Sam Bird and Carlin's Felipe Nasr.
It had been a nicely set-up sprint race grid for the race, which saw three British drivers in the top four and a juicy championship confrontation between tied leaders Fabio Leimer (Racing Engineering) and Stefano Coletti (Rapax) on row four. But it was Russian Time's Tom Dillmann who expected much as he led the 26-car grid round to lights to get the race underway underneath the cloudless blue skies gracing the 3.363-mile, 15-turn Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday morning.
A beautifully smooth start off the grid for Dillmann allowed him to cover off Adrian Quaife-Hobbs on the inside line. The MP Motorsport's driver tried to switch to the outside line but ended up running wide, contributing to a jumble among the pursuing pack that saw several bumps and scraps including Saturday feature race star Alexander Rossi losing the front wing of his Caterham in a collision with Leimer. Rio Haryanto (Barwa Addax) and the perennially luckless Marcus Ericsson (DAMS) also sustained damage that had them needing to take to pit lane before resuming.
Dillmann might have held onto the initial lead but now the chief threat to him was his own team mate Sam Bird, who having started from third on the grid had been able to make the most of the first corner mêlée and slipped into a pacey second place that allowed him to make his play for the lead out of the final corner of lap 1 and duly lead across the line. Dillmann quickly lost second place to Coletti and then surrendered the final podium place to Felipe Nasr on the next lap as well.
The top three quickly pulled out a three second margin over Dillmann and the rest of the field, with Quaife-Hobbs having settled into fifth place ahead of Leimer, Carlin's Jolyon Palmer and the two ARTs of James Calado Daniel Abt with Johnny Cecotto Jr. (Arden) completing the top ten. Bird had a scare on lap 6 when he came across a large chunk of debris on the run into turn 1 and had to lock to to try and avoiding running right over it, but he appeared to get away with it and the debris itself was subsequently removed by a fearless marshall sprinting out on track to retrieve it.
With tyres yet to degrade, the race settled into a holding pattern with few drivers managing to make up much ground in the middle stint, almost the sole exception being Trident's Nathanaël Berthon losing two places in quick succession to Arden's Mitch Evans and Racing Engineering's Juliàn Leal. Meanwhile Ericsson soon became the first and only retirement after his first lap damage became too problematic to allow him to continue; Rene Binder was obliged to make two visits to his Venezuela GP Lazarus pit crew in the first half of the race, but was able to head back out again albeit a lap off the leaders.
As the race passed halfway tyres started to show signs of wear and tear, allowing the action to start to heat up: Kevin Ceccon (Trident) found his way past Jake Rosenzweig (Barwa Addax) for 11th place allowing him to eye up Cecotto up the road in tenth, while Sergio Canamsas (Caterham) scrapped with Simon Trummer (Rapax) over who would be next to pass the ailing Frenchman. Berthon soon decided he was going no where fast and dived into pit lane for a rejuvenating set of fresh tyres.
Hilmer Motorsport's Robin Frijns was another car that looked to be faltering, the series newcomer not able to manage his tyres for the full race distance like his more experienced rivals. On lap 16 he lost three places in one lap alone, surrendering 16th place to DAMS' Stéphane Richelmi, Arden's Mitch Evans and Racing Engineering's Juliàn Leal in rapid succession.
Nor were the leaders immune from increasing tyre wear issues: Quaife-Hobbs was another rookie who hadn't yet quite got the hang of tyre management in the feeder series, backing him right up into the clutches of Leimer. Ironically, though, it was the more experienced title contender who actually lost out: held up by the car in front and with his front left looking in very poor shape, Leimer became easy prey first to Jolyon Palmer and then to James Calado on lap 19. That pushed him down to eighth place, and with his championship rival Coletti up in second and now closing fast on waning race leader Bird it was a major setback in the Swiss driver's 2013 championship campaign.