Sunday’s race in the Arabian Gulf state of Bahrain was won by the defending F1 World Champion, Sebastian Vettel, just as it was last year. He became the first double winner of the season, extending his lead in the championship to 10 points over Kimi Räikkönen, who was again second, with the other Lotus of Romain Grosjean third. Vettel’s lead was as great as 30 seconds in places, and he managed to set a good pace throughout the race. For good measure, he posted the fastest lap of the race with three laps remaining,
But Vettel’s sauntering victory, by almost 10 seconds, was not what caught the imagination of racing folk. The real action came in a series of compelling duels that took place in Vettel’s rear-view mirror. There was a wonderful battle between Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber, another between Sergio Pérez and Alonso, and then the clash of McLaren teammates Pérez and Jenson Button.
It required a refined level of tunnel vision to watch the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, to separate the actual event from the absurd circus that surrounded it, of politicians, PR people, royals, police, security staff and activists, all anxious to bring their own fervent spin to the proceedings.
This, after all, is the most politicised of the Gulf nations. Some miles from the circuit, according to agency reports, some terrible things were going on, as police clashed with Shia demonstrators.
The race was won by the world champion, Sebastian Vettel, just as it was last year. He became the first double winner of the season, extending his lead in the championship to 10 points over Kimi Raikkonen, who was again second.
If Vettel is to win a fourth successive title, and thwart Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso once again, this may be viewed as one of the turning points. But Vettel’s sauntering victory, by almost 10 seconds, was not what caught the imagination of racing folk.
The real action came in a series of compelling duels that took place in Vettel’s rear-view mirror. There was a wonderful battle between Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber, and another between Sergio Pérez and Alonso.
The best of all, though, was that between Jenson Button and Pérez, the Mexican whose form in the first three races had been a little underwhelming. The McLaren principal, Martin Whitmarsh, has always made it clear that his drivers are free to race but this was taking their freedom a little too far.
On the 30th lap Pérez, his tyres in better shape than Button’s, got too close and hit his team-mate from behind. “He just hit me! Calm him down,” Button told the McLaren pitwall.
Then, halfway through the race, they clashed again, this time wheel to wheel, and Button – angry or rattled or perhaps both – edged him off the track.
This is the stuff of a team’s nightmares. Most people like to see racers race but avoiding clattering into your own partner is one of the most golden of rules.
The folks at Red Bull, who got themselves into a tangle in Malaysia by instructing their drivers to hold position, and then see them race anyway, must have been having a little smirk to themselves.
It could have ended badly for McLaren, who surprised even themselves with their raised competitiveness; ultimately Pérez finished a feisty sixth and Button 10th, though that was not enough to prevent Force India pushing the Woking team back to sixth in the constructors’ championship following Paul di Resta’s fine fourth.
Button said: “It was great racing out there today. The only person who wasn’t was Sergio. You don’t expect your teammate to come along and start banging wheels with you.
“Today wasn’t brilliant for me. OK, the race was a lot of fun, but I didn’t get the result I wanted because I used up my tyres fending off Checo [Pérez]. I was so angry. Being in Formula One for so long, you learn how to control your anger but you still get close to your limit and today was one of those days.”
Pérez, who went on to pass Alonso and Webber in his best race for McLaren, said: “I guess I was a little aggressive on track today; banging wheels with Jenson was perhaps a little too risky, a little too hard, but the team never came on the radio to tell us to stop racing. There were no team orders.”
The Mexican had been told to lift his game after scoring just two points in the previous three races. This was a muscular response that pleased Whitmarsh.
Whitmarsh said: “There was a lot of noise in my ear telling me to calm them down. But I did not issue a team order to them. That is not the way we go racing. I was happy with the way Checo raced – it was competitive, and that is healthy for the team. The one thing I did not approve of was hitting your team-mate. He overstepped the mark. I gave my view on that afterwards.
“He is young and still learning. But I would prefer to have to pull a racer back rather than have to push them forward. Jenson is upset but he’s a grown-up. If he’d been beaten by his team-mate and been happy I would have been concerned.” Whitmarsh added: “During that racing phase they both got hurt. They were in deadly combat. It was a challenge for both of them.
“It could have been worse. As I pointed out to Checo, he could have punctured his team-mates’ tyre and he could have taken his own front wing off. So it’s not the smartest thing to do in a race.”
Hamilton, who qualified for fourth on the grid and was then pushed back to ninth because of a gearbox change, was the beneficiary of some late race pace following a pit-stop, and finished fifth, four places ahead of his team-mate and pole-sitter Nico Rosberg.
Vettel’s victory, his 28th, puts him 30 points ahead of Alonso, who is likely to be his greatest rival in the months ahead, and the Spaniard will be anxious to see that the gap does not get any wider than that.
“I surely did not expect that. The car was very quick. I think it was pretty dominant today, which was certainly not the expectation,” said Vettel afterwards.
It was a bleak afternoon for Ferrari. Alonso came eighth after a DRS flap failure and Felipe Massa finished back in 15th after rear right-wheel problems.
But there were other, more serious losers on Sunday. Early in the morning masked youths set alight tyres in the villages. Overnight, police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators who chanted against the “race of blood,” according to witnesses. Birdshot was also used while protesters threw petrol bombs.
The Bahrain International Circuit can claim a victory, of sorts. There were no breaches of security at the track. More than that, the teams said they actually felt safe. The paddock was calm.
That was not the case here a year ago. The teams were probably safe then too – but they didn’t feel it. They were nervous. They felt they didn’t know what was about to happen. But the drive to the circuit involved going past roadblocks and flashing blue lights, police cars, armoured vehicles and security points. Is that a price sport should pay?
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