BAHRAIN. Two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull won yesterday’s Bahrain Grand Prix to move atop the Formula One drivers’ standings, after a race overshadowed by protests calling for it to be canceled.
Vettel’s winning margin following 57 laps of the Bahrain International Circuit was 3.33 seconds after he started in pole position. Lotus duo Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean were second and third.
It was Vettel’s first win this season and the 22nd of the 24-year-old German’s career. Four different drivers and teams have taken this season’s races, after wins for Jenson Button (McLaren), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Nico Rosberg (Mercedes).
“It was an incredible race, extremely tough. We had a very good start, which was crucial,” Vettel said at the post-race news conference. “I was able to pull away immediately and pull away from the pack, which turned out to be a big advantage.”
In recent weeks there had been doubts over whether the race would go ahead because of clashes between police and anti- government protesters in the Gulf state. Tension had increased in the run-up to the Grand Prix, the biggest international event in the island kingdom. Last year’s race in Bahrain was canceled due to clashes.
Vettel’s teammate Mark Webber was fourth yesterday, followed by Rosberg, Paul di Resta (Force India), Alonso and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa picked up his first points of the season in ninth, and 10th-place Michael Schumacher was in the last scoring position.
Vettel leads the standings on 53, with Hamilton on 49, Webber 48 and Button and Alonso on 43. Red Bull leads the constructors’ event on 101, with McLaren on 92 and Lotus 57.
Vettel took command from the start, taking a 2.2-second lead over Hamilton after the first lap, with Webber third.
Hamilton, starting second on the grid, was then hit by two slow pit stops and dropped to 11th.
Vettel maintained the lead from Grosjean after going into the pits, only to then come under pressure from Raikkonen. He just managed to hold off an overtaking maneuver from the Finn on the 36th lap.
A third pit stop by Vettel and Raikkonen left Grosjean in the lead briefly before he also pitted to leave the German and the Finn renewing their duel.
Vettel stepped up the pace to take a 3.4-second advantage over 2007 world champion Raikkonen. The Lotus driver, returning to Formula One this season after a two-year absence, narrowed the gap to 2.4 seconds but was unable to overhaul his rival.
“A tremendous thank you to the boys who have done a great job to get the car to my liking,” Vettel said of his team. “It all came together for the first time this weekend. All in all I’m extremely happy.”
Raikkonen paid tribute to his own team performance.
“We’ve both gained podiums and the team deserve what we achieved,” he said. “It’s a positive result for the team and an important step.”
Button retired a lap from the end to complete a disappointing day for McLaren. Hamilton, the 2008 series champion, said the team must improve its pit stops.
“We need to look into this very seriously,” he said. “There has to be an investigation because we gave away a lot of points again today. That’s how championships are lost.”
Bahrain’s political opposition had burned tires in Shiite villages yesterday, hours ahead of the Grand Prix. A government helicopter circled the capital Manama and several villages in the early morning. The mostly Shiite opposition had stepped up its anti-regime protests, calling for the race to be canceled until reforms are introduced. Formula One chiefs resisted the calls.
The next race, the fifth in the 20-event season, is the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on May 13.