Fernando Alonso may have won the first race of the 2010 grand prix season here in Bahrain yesterday, but Sebastian Vettel remained convinced that he was the moral victor.
The German dominated qualifying to take pole position for Red Bull, and stormed away at the start at a pace that Alonso admitted he was not able to match while they were running, as demanded by the regulations, on the soft-compound Bridgestone tyres on which they had qualified.
Vettel was as much as three seconds in front at one stage, and moved even further ahead after the mandatory switch to the harder tyre compound after 17 laps. The gap fluctuated in the ebb and flow of racing, but then Alonso began to make serious inroads into his lead by lap 30, when the gap shrank to a second. Vettel clung on, but the change in his Renault engine's exhaust note told the clear tale that it was a mechanical problem rather than the driver overstressing his rubber in track temperatures above 40C that was responsible for his reduced speed. By the 33rd lap Alonso was ready to move in for the kill, and on the 34th he swept ahead as they headed for the penultimate corner and left the Red Bull in his dust.
"This is a special day for me," he said. "Coming back to the top of the podium is always special but it's even more special when you are driving a Ferrari because of all the history behind the team. There could not be a better way to start my relationship with the best team in world.
"I'm not sure whether we had the same pace as Vettel to begin with," Alonso admitted. "He was very quick on the soft tyres and I could not follow him, but on the harder tyres we had something more. I had some pace in the pocket, and was just content to be concentrating on managing the tyres, waiting for the time to attack over maybe the last 12 laps. Then suddenly he had a car problem and the chance to pass him came earlier than I expected."
Things got worse for Vettel immediately, for Felipe Massa was also moving in. The Brazilian started second in the line-up but had been outfoxed by Alonso, who slipped round the outside of him in the first corner after the start. It was a move that had a crucial bearing on the outcome.
Massa, in his first race since the accident in Hungary last July which initially seemed life-threatening, did his overtaking on Vettel on the same corner at the start of the 35th lap, to make it a Ferrari one-two, but the temperature of his engine had been rising steadily for some time and his pit crew advised him that he needed to back off to conserve fuel. He was fortunate that Vettel was in no position to retaliate, and that Lewis Hamilton had been trapped behind Nico Rosberg's slower Mercedes until his tyre switch on the 15th lap.
Excellent pitwork by the McLaren team got Hamilton ahead of Rosberg, just as it would promote his new colleague Jenson Button ahead of Mark Webber's Red Bull a lap later.
Vettel fell prey to Hamilton on the 38th lap, making the race a much more satisfying event for the 2008 champion than qualifying had been. In retrospect McLaren engineers suspected that they had not got the perfect set-up for the tricky second sector of the 3.9-mile track, the bumpy new "Mickey Mouse" section that the drivers universally detested.
In the closing stages Vettel was challenged by Rosberg's Mercedes as the latter cut back a 14sec deficit, but hung on for fourth just ahead of the Silver Arrow. Just as he had throughout practice and qualifying, Rosberg held a 0.4-0.5sec advantage over his much-vaunted team-mate Michael Schumacher, whose first grand prix since Brazil in 2006 yielded a hard-fought sixth place. The senior German was pushed all the way by the 2009 champion Button and Vettel's partner Webber. For the last 30 laps they were rarely more than metres apart.
The race also marked the debuts of three teams. Those of the airline magnates Richard Branson and Tony Fernandes – Virgin and Lotus – had a spirited duel for a while as Timo Glock and Heikki Kovalainen battled, but Glock's Virgin retired with gear problems soon after overtaking the Finn, leaving the famed Lotus marque the only newcomer to finish on its comeback.
Bahrain: Race details
FIA Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir
1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1hr 39min 20.396sec,
2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:39:36.495,
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:39:43.578,
4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:39:59.195,
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:40:00.609,
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:40:04.559,
7 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:40:05.676,
8 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:40:06.756,
9 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 1:40:13.404,
10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:40:22.885,
11 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:40:29.489, 12 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:40:43.354, 13 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:40:53.052, 14 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams at 1 Lap, 15 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 2 laps, 16 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 3 laps, 17 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 3 laps. Not classified: 18 P de la Rosa (Sp) BMW Sauber 28 laps completed, 19 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 17 laps completed, 20 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 16 laps completed, 21 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 13 laps completed, 22 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 11 laps completed, 23 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing 2 laps completed, 24 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 1 lap completed.
World championship standings after Bahrain Grand Prix:
Drivers: 1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 25pts, 2 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 18, 3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 15, 4 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 12, 5 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 10, 6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 8, 7 J Button (GB) McLaren 6, 8 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 4, 9 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 2, 10 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1.
Constructors: 1 Ferrari 43pts, 2 McLaren 21, 3 Mercedes GP 18, 4 Red Bull 16, 5 Force India 2, 6 Williams 1, 7 Renault 0, 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso 0, 9 Lotus F1 0, 10 BMW Sauber 0, 11 HRT-F1 0, 12 Virgin Racing 0.Reuse content