Vettel heads Bahrain battlefest

21/04/2013
NEWS STORY

Thankfully, today's race isn't likely to be as strategic as last week's event in China, but strategy is sure to play a major part.

Unlike Shanghai, all but one driver, Jenson Button, posted a time in Q3 yesterday, leaving the McLaren driver with the luxury of being able to make his tyre choice before the start of today's race.

It is likely the Englishman will follow the example of Felipe Massa, who, contrary to all those around him, including his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso, opted to post his Q3 time on the prime rubber.

The Brazilian has admitted that it's a gamble, however, looking back on last week, particularly in Sebastian Vettel's case, it may well be a gamble worth taking. On the other hand, it begs the question; if, in the final stages, Massa is on a stormer and comes up behind his (slower) teammate, what will happen?

Although he is starting from pole, it is highly unlikely that Nico Rosberg will be able to convert this to a win, though the German is likely to give it his best shot.

Instead one has to say that Vettel heads into the races as favourite, with Alonso his main threat.

As a result of penalties the grid has been slightly re-jigged, though on the whole the two main recipients of those penalties, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton, haven't come out of it too badly, the Australian losing two places. Hamilton and his team are very unhappy about the five-place penalty meted out for his gearbox change but this rule applies to everyone.

The big mystery, coming out of qualifying, is what happened to Kimi Raikkonen's pace. All weekend the Finn had looked super-fast, a couple of minor mistakes preventing him from dominating every session. But come qualifying it all appeared to fall apart, a mystery that even has his team flummoxed. Some say it is temperature, others balance, while some say the Finn will dig deep and pull something out of the hat this afternoon.

With the Sepang Saga having died down the media has been desperately searching for other stories in recent days. One has Hamilton being asked to leave the McLaren garage by Sam Michael when visiting his old team, while the other involves a 'feud' between the two force India drivers.

While we treat both 'stories' with the contempt they deserve, it is fair to say that Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil will be under close scrutiny at the start of today's race. There could be a generous number of points up for grabs today, therefore it is up to both drivers to be sensible and work for the benefit of their employers.

Whatever happens today, a number of teams will be glad to get away from Bahrain and head back to their HQs as preparations for the start of the European season get underway. Leading the way is McLaren, while Williams and Sauber also have a lot of work to do.

A number of drivers also need to raise their games, most notable the Mexican duo, Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez. With question marks over a couple of other drivers, is it really surprising that the 'silly season' - traditionally linked with Monza - is already underway.

With three different winners - drivers and teams - from the first three races, some think we could be heading for a repeat of 2012 when we saw seven different drivers with the first seven races. This doesn't look likely, indeed, we fully expect today's winner to be one of those who has already stood atop the podium this season, though the idea of Massa messing things up is intriguing. Then again, following the nightmare of Shanghai, not to mention Sepang, what better way for Mark Webber to celebrate his 200th Grand Prix.

With the telemetry problem still not resolved we are likely to see more drivers under investigation later today, particularly for DRS misdemeanours, thereby leaving a cloud of uncertainty over the official result. Let's hope that this is resolved before the season resumes in three weeks - after all, it has been going on since pre-season testing.

As the field prepares to head off on the warm-up lap the air temperature is 29 degrees C, while the track temperature is 42 degrees. It's warmer than at any other point this weekend, while there is also a very strong wind.

All are on medium (option) other than for Massa, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Bottas, Vergne and Gutierrez. Button deciding on the prime. Though, unlike those ahead of him, they are brand new.

Rosberg heads the field back to the grid, after what seems like ages backmarkers Chilton and Gutierrez fall into place.

They're away, and as Rosberg aggressively cuts across to head off Vettel this allows Alonso through to take second. In T6 Massa and Sutil appear to touch while Vettel passes Alonso to re-take the second spot.

At the end of lap 1, it's Rosberg, Vettel, Alonso, di Resta, Massa, Webber, Raikkonen, Button, Perez and Hamilton. As Gutierrez pits, Vettel makes a move on Rosberg at T1 but the German rebuffs him. A couple of corners later the Red Bull driver tried again, again he is shut out.

As Sutil pits following his clash with Massa, Vergne is told that he has a puncture.

As Button goes quickest (42.854), Vettel finally passes Rosberg to take the lead, the world champion clearly on a mission. Van der Garde pits.

A nightmare for Raikkonen as he is passed by both McLarens, the Finn looking all at sea. Teammate Grosjean running just behind in tenth.

Using KERS, Alonso passes Rosberg on the main straight but the German out-brakes him into T1. The leading 6 covered by just 2.8s.

Next time around Alonso nails Rosberg again but this time holds off Rosberg's attempt to re-take the position. Di Resta does well to hold off Massa who is under pressure from Webber.

Out front, after 5 laps, Vettel leads by 2.8s, the German posting a new fastest lap (41.417), as di Resta passes the struggling Rosberg. A bold move by the Scot.

On-board camera reveals damage to Massa's left-front wing following that clash with Sutil. The Brazilian is all over the back of Rosberg. Behind Massa there is a train of cars lead by Webber and Button.

On lap 6, Alonso is told to "box", his DRS flap is clearly wide open. He pits, tyres are changed and the rear wing flap is closed manually. He rejoins in sixteenth.

As Button challenges Webber, Perez attacks his McLaren teammate. Has the Mexican finally got his elbows out?

As Webber and Grosjean pit, at the end of lap 8, Alonso's DRS problem continues. Elsewhere, Massa finally passes Rosberg to take third. Alonso pits and once again the DRS flapped is manually closed again, the Spaniard will not be able to use it again.

At the end of lap 9, Rosberg, Button, Ricciardo and Bianchi pit. Vettel leads di Resta, Massa and Perez.

Replay shows Gutierrez clouting Van der Garde at the start and losing his front wing and Vergne also hitting the hapless Dutch driver.

Vettel pits at the end of lap 10, as do Massa, Perez, Hamilton, Maldonado and Chilton. Surprisingly early stop for Massa.

Consequently, di Resta leads Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Vettel, the leading four having yet to stop. Behind Vettel it's Webber, Rosberg, Button, Massa and Grosjean.

Button passes Rosberg on the main straight, forcing the Mercedes driver on to the dirty part of the track. As in China, DRS is making overtaking significantly easier, no disrespect to Button.

As Hulkenberg pits at the end of lap 12, Vettel posts a new fastest lap (39.849). Button, who is passed by a very aggressive Rosberg, makes a bold move on Massa as Grosjean and Perez battle right behind.

Bottas pits at the end of lap 13, as the Perez/Grosjean battle rages. Alonso has dropped to fourteenth following his two stops and that DRS problem.

Di Resta pits at the end of lap 14 and for a brief moment Raikkonen leads, that is until Vettel sweeps by heading into T1. Di Resta rejoins in ninth ahead of Hamilton. Raikkonen is the only driver yet to stop.

"Your pace is good, as usual," Vettel is told, "but you'll have to maintain target." The German currently leads Raikkonen by 2.2s with Webber a further 5s behind. AS big lock-up for Perez as be continues to hound Grosjean.

Raikkonen pits at the end of lap 16, the Finn rejoining in eleventh, ahead of Maldonado and Alonso but behind Hulkenberg. In his eagerness to leave his slot, the Lotus driver almost runs over his front jack.

Grosjean and Perez both pass Massa who appears to have a problem with his right-rear. The Brazilian subsequently pits.

As Vergne is pushed into his garage, his race clearly over, the Ferraris are running twelfth (Alonso) and fifteenth (Massa).

Other than Vettel, two of the fastest men are the Lotus duo, Raikkonen closing the gap to eighth placed Hamilton. Elsewhere, Sutil makes his second stop of the afternoon.

Button passes Rosberg with seeming ease, Grosjean following through moments later, the German unable to do anything about it.

At the end of lap 20, Rosberg pits, as does Perez, as di Resta closes on fourth-placed Grosjean. Next time around Button pits as does Webber. They rejoin in ninth (Webber) and twelfth (Button), right behind the Rosberg/Perez scrap.

As Perez goes quickest in S1, the Mexican looking a lot stronger today, Massa battles with Bottas for thirteenth.

Having complained about balance, Hamilton pits at the end of lap 22, rejoining behind Ricciardo in fifteenth. Bianchi also pits. Caterham's Charles Pic currently running in sixteenth.

As Webber passes Alonso with ease, Button and Perez battle as they both pass Rosberg. The Englishman tries a move on his McLaren teammate but the Mexican is having none of it. Elsewhere, Maldonado, Pic and Chilton pit.

Alonso pits from ninth on lap 25, the Spaniard rejoining in fifteenth. With Massa currently tenth it's a miserable day for the Maranello squad.

Vettel makes his second stop at the end of lap 25, switching to the prime tyre he rejoins still in the lead. Seemingly, game over. Ricciardo and Van der Garde also pit.

Making good use of his DRS, di Resta passes Grosjean on the pit straight to take second. Moments later Button finally gets past Perez. Hulkenberg pits from tenth.

As Vettel posts a new fastest lap (38.649), Grosjean pits from third, the Lotus driver rejoining in ninth behind Massa. Elsewhere, Hamilton passes Bottas for tenth.

As Massa pits, at the end of lap 28, second-placed di Resta trails Vettel by 9.1s. Raikkonen is third, 3.5s down on the Scot, but 5.6s ahead of Webber who leads Button, Perez, Rosberg, Grosjean, Massa and Hamilton.

Well, Martin Whitmarsh called on Perez to be more aggressive and he's got his wish. Sadly, it is teammate Button who is on the receiving end. The pair battle and as the Mexican makes a move he damages his (left) front wing on the Englishman's rear-right. On the pit-wall it's hard to say whether Whitmarsh is grinning or grimacing. Button urges his team to "calm" is teammate down.

Elsewhere, Raikkonen is now 1.8s down on di Resta and closing. Vettel leads by 14.4s.

The ferocious battle between the McLarens allows Rosberg and Grosjean to close in. As the Mexican runs wide, Button is clearly unhappy. "He's moving across on me," shouts the Englishman.

Grosjean makes a move on Perez and the two touch, albeit lightly. A few corners later the Lotus driver makes another move, this time he makes it stick. Brilliant stuff.

And there's brilliant stuff further up the road as Raikkonen closes in on di Resta. Moving off the racing line and on to the marbles, the Finn uses DRS to pass the Scot. Meanwhile, teammate Grosjean passes Button to take fifth.

Running in the high-39s, and with a 19.7s lead, Vettel is told to ease off.

At the end of lap 34, Raikkonen and Button both pit, the Englishman rejoining behind the Maldonado/Massa/Rosberg battle.

Hamilton passes Perez despite a very aggressive chop from the McLaren driver. Button continues to hound Rosberg who is pursuing Massa.

Di Resta pits at the end of lap 36, as does Massa, as Raikkonen goes quickest (38.591). The Brazilian appears to have another puncture, his second of the race, and the right-rear corner of the car.

Webber pits at the end of lap 37, as Raikkonen nails Perez to take fifth. Replay shows the Australian emerging in the midst of the Rosberg/Button battle indeed, clouting the Mercedes as he fights for position.

Hamilton pits at the end of lap 39 as Alonso is also told to stop next time around. The Spaniard obliges, as do Perez and Maldonado.

The Stewards are investigating the Webber/Rosberg incident.

So, after 40 laps, it's: Vettel, Grosjean, Raikkonen, di Resta, Webber, Button, Rosberg, Hamilton, Perez and Alonso. Van der Garde makes his fourth stop of the afternoon.

On fresh rubber, Alonso posts a new fastest lap (37.204), the Spaniard currently tenth, just 1.1s behind Perez.

Vettel pits at the end of lap 42, the German rejoining still leading as Grosjean makes his final stop also. The Frenchman rejoins in sixth but passes Button almost immediately.

Button is struggling as is his teammate. Passed by Rosberg, Button is under pressure from former teammate Hamilton, while Alonso is all over Perez.

Rosberg pits at the end of lap 44, as Hamilton passes Button for sixth. Rosberg rejoins in tenth. Elsewhere, Sutil, in fifteenth, posts a new fastest lap (37.070).

As Alonso closes in, the McLaren in-team battle resumes. Alonso makes a bold move under braking at T8 which sees him leapfrog the Mexican and almost clip Button. The Englishman subsequently pits.

Alonso and Perez enjoy a titanic struggle as di Resta complains about the lack of blue flags - the in car warnings not working. As he weaves through the backmarkers, the Scot is under growing pressure from Grosjean who is just 3.5s behind.

Bottas and Chilton both pit at the end of lap 47.

After 48 laps Vettel leads Raikkonen by 9.8s, di Resta is a further 8.6s, Grosjean (3.1s), Webber (6.6s), and Hamilton (0.7s). Behind Hamilton, Alonso and Perez continue their scrap.

As Grosjean closes on di Resta, Hamilton is all over Webber, the Mercedes driver finally passing the Red Bull driver with mysterious ease. Could the Australian have a problem.

At the start of lap 52, using his DRS to full effect, Grosjean nails di Resta into T1. With just 6 laps to go it looks as if we will have two Lotus on the podium.

Van der Garde, running last and having made five pit stops, is under investigation for an "unsafe release".

A mistake in T14 sees Hamilton lose fifth back to Webber, as Alonso and Perez close in.

Perez passes Alonso into T2, however, the Spaniard comes bask at him and for a short while they are side by side, the Ferrari running off track. The Mexican holds his nerve and devoid of DRS Alonso is unable to do much about it.

As if this isn't enough, Webber and Hamilton are battling like crazy for fifth, neither giving an inch. Great stuff.

Clearly bored up front, Vettel bangs in a 36.961 as he maintains an 11.3s gap to Raikkonen.

Having left Alonso for dust, Perez closes on the Webber/Hamilton battle.

"Stay under control," Vettel is told as he begins his final lap. "Understood, Rocky," is the response.

Hamilton finally nails Webber, the Australian having given all he could.

Vettel takes the flag, having led since the second lap, a real tour-de-force from the world champion.

Raikkonen takes second ahead of his Lotus teammate, while, behind Hamilton, Perez has also passed Webber who loses two positions on the final lap.

Alonso finishes eighth, ahead of Rosberg, Button, Maldonado, Hulkenberg, Sutil, Bottas, Massa, Ricciardo, Pic, Gutierrez, Bianchi, Chilton and Van der Garde.

Whatever one's thought on the politics behind this race and whether it should have gone ahead, the fact is that it produced a real thriller with battles throughout the field from light to flag.

Somehow, although strategy remained a major factor, it seemed so much more satisfying than last week's race in China.

If the powers that be can sort out the tyres, if the FIA can sort out the telemetry, if the media can stop s**t-stirring, and if McLaren can get its act together, we could be in for a great season.

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Published: 21/04/2013
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