Sebastian Vettel took his first win of the 2012 season at the Bahrain Grand Prix, holding off an occasionally charging Kimi Raikkonen. Romain Grosjean made it a double Lotus podium after a lightning start while Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg completed the top five. Lewis Hamilton dropped well down the order to finish eighth through two extraordinary long pit stops from McLaren while teammate Jenson Button was forced to retire with an engine or exhaust issue just two laps from the end. Rosberg’s Mercedes was also sickly, with the team telling him of his own exhaust issue. He is under investigation after the race from the stewards for incidents involving both Hamilton and seventh-place finishing Fernando Alonso. Both Germans in the top five pulled immediately off at the pit lane exit after crossing the line to finish the race. Paul Di Resta managed a career best sixth place finish. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher managed to scrap a single point despite starting twenty-second.
Vettel (1:32.422) won pole in a thrilling post-session duel between himself, second place starter Hamilton, and third place starter Webber during Saturday’s qualifying. Button would have been the last man to cross the line, but scrapped his lap after a locking moment cost him a faster lap time. He qualified fourth. Rosberg, the weekend’s golden boy after Shanghai, managed only fifth fastest but was considerably better off than teammate Schumacher who got knocked out in Q1 by Heikki Kovalainen. Schumacher subsequently changed his gearbox and dropped back another five starting places. In other champions’ news, Raikkonen dropped out in Q2, qualifying only eleventh, and Alonso just squeaked through to qualify ninth.
However, Rosberg led two of the three practice sessions (both Friday afternoon [1:32.816] and Saturday morning [1:33.254]). Though Hamilton (1:33.572) led Friday morning’s session, the real consistency came from the Red Bull teammates. Vettel was amongst the top five in all three sessions and Webber in two of them. Despite dusty conditions and plenty of complaining about a lack of rear grip, there were no damaging incidents in any of the practice sessions or qualifying. Most teams seemed quite happy to throw the softer tyre on early in qualifying, both looking for pace as the track evolved and seemingly not concerned with using the compound more than absolutely necessary during the race.
Force India did sit out the second practice after an incident involving team personnel and protestors occurred on Thursday. Instead, the team used that time to switch over their cars to Saturday set up and left the circuit before darkness fell. Di Resta qualified tenth and Hulkenberg thirteenth, though there were no shots of the cars seen on the world feed during qualifying. Fifteen minutes before the race began, rain was actually spotting down onto the grid, though it stopped well before the lights went out. Interestingly, it was also rather cool with a breeze blowing and the track temperature well warmer than China, but not the typical Bahraini heat.
Vettel got a clean start as the field shuffled along the straight. Hamilton maintained second as Webber attempted to pass him. Immediately, Grosjean began hounding Webber as he had an amazing start around Rosberg and Button, with Alonso slotting behind. At the end of the first lap, Vettel, Hamilton, Webber, Grosjean, and Alonso completed the top five with Button, Raikkonen, Massa, Rosberg, and Perez rounding out the top ten. Vettel already had a 2.2s lead at the end of that lap. All drivers seemed to be pushing very hard for a track that seemed also to be eating tyres. Kovalainen had to pit with a punctured tyre as the entire field seemed to be dodging and dicing over position.
As L4 began, Grosjean took a serious look and dive into Turn 1 on Webber, but the Australian held his position. It would not last as Grosjean slide around Webber and set off to begin poking at Hamilton. Meanwhile, teammate Raikkonen moved up to seventh around Massa at Turns 5 and 6. Between the two battles, Button was behind Alonso by just over a second, and the two were setting nearly identical lap times. But for Vettel’s commanding four plus second lead and Grosjean right behind Hamilton, most of the top ten was spread out enough to make the DRS zone nonexistent. Grosjean made use of the DRS along the front straight, despite Hamilton’s drift toward (but not near) the pit lane wall, taking second from the Briton.
Ricciardo pitted on L8 for a new nose, having dropped to nineteenth before his stop after starting sixth. Button on the radio complained of issues at both the front and rear while ahead of him, Alonso and Raikkonen were fighting over fifth. On the front straight, Raikkonen slid right around Alonso through the DRS zone.
Pit Stops Begin (L9):
Button, Massa, and Rosberg all pitted for the harder tyre on L9, showing just how quickly the tyres dropped off. Hamilton, Webber, Alonso, Perez, Senna, Schumacher, Hulkenberg, and de la Rosa all pitted on L10. The biggest change came through a long stop from McLaren and Hamilton, as Ferrari managed a very quick stop. Mclaren again had an issue with the left rear. Hamilton then went well wide back on the track through the dust while scrapping with Rosberg, with it appearing that Rosberg forced Hamilton to the edge of the track and Hamilton simply pushed forward and around. The stewards announced that the incident had come under investigation while Rosberg complained on the radio that Hamilton passed him off the track. Vettel, Raikkonen, and Maldonado all pitted on L12, leaving Di Resta and Kobayashi leading the race.
It would not last long, as Vettel passed the Scot into Turn 1 to regain the lead. As L13 ended, Vettel led over a top ten of Di Resta, Grosjean, Kobayashi, Raikkonen, Webber, Button, Alonso, Hamilton, and Rosebrg. Di Resta and Kobayashi still had not stopped, though they ought soon as Vettel quickly had a three second gap over Di Resta. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Alonso continued to scrap over eighth. Di Resta and Kobayashi pitted on L15, just after Grosjean passed Di Resta. Hamilton finally passed Alonso and Raikkonen made his way around Webber, putting Lotus in second and third.
Vettel had more than five secods over Grosjean, with Raikkonen, Webber, Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg, Massa, Perez, Maldonado, DI Resta, Schumacher, Hulkenberg, Senna, Kobayashi, Vergne, Ricciardo, Petrov, Pic, Glock, de la Rosa, Kovalainen, and Karthikeyan the order of the entire field with everyone having changed tyres. Only Raikkonen and Rosberg had the softer compound put onto their cars. Grosjean managed a couple of laps quicker than Vettel, but the German responded to maintain the gap. Raikkonen, however, remained faster than both his teammate and Vettel in his first stint on the softer tyre, the Finn having started on the harder compound.
Hulkenberg pitted for his second stop on L15 as most of the field seemed to have settled in for the middle sector of the race. At about that time, the stewards announced that they would investigate the Hamilton/Rosberg dust-up after the race. Perez pitted next in the midst of a scrap over tenth with Maldonado and Di Resta. Maldonado pushed forward on Perez, leaving room for Di Resta to pass both.
Second Pit Stops Begin (L23):
Button, Rosberg, and Massa all pitted on L23. The former two went with the harder tyre while Massa did so on the soft. Webber, Hamilton, Alonso, Maldonado, and Schumacher made their second stops on L24. Hamilton had yet another terrible stop, spending twelve seconds in the stall as the left rear wheel nuts proved again recalcitrant. Meanwhile, Raikkonen moved around teammate Grosjean for second, having been lapping quicker. Raikkonen stopped as the lap ended, though.
Well down the order, Rosberg and Alonso were having their own battle, twice at the same place where the German had his scuffle with Hamilton. Again, Rosberg pushed Alonso well to the side of the track, putting his own right side tyres over the white line as well. Meanwhile, Maldonado spun as they pushed through the dirt at the side of the track ahead of him. Alonso was not giving up, though, continuing to hound last week’s race winner. The stewards announced that they would also investigate that incident after the race. Vettel and Grosjean pitted themselves on L26, leaving Vettel safely in the lead. Pic became the first driver out, as he pulled to the side of the circuit. Maldonado also retired in the Williams garage.
Halfway (End L29):
At halfway, Raikkonen had really begun closing in on the leading Vettel, and was less than two seconds behind him. Grosjean, Di Resta, Webber, Button, Kobayashi, Rosberg, Alonso, Massa, and Hamilton completed the top eleven. Hamilton on the radio expected Massa to be ready to stop at any moment, but McLaren had to inform him that he was actually racing Massa for position: the Ferrari was on the same strategy. However, Massa had the soft tyre and Hamilton the harder compound. Rosberg continued his hard driving, taking seventh from Kobayashi out of the DRS zone. The Japanese driver pitted the next time around, with Alonso looking to join him but diving back across the line to continue to hold off Massa and Hamilton.
At the front, Raikkonen continued to chip away at Vettel’s lead, dropping it from two to 1.7 to 1.6 to 0.9s in just a few laps. Raikkonen was directly behind Vettel into Turn 1 as L34 began, but held off on the pass. Di Resta made his second stop from sixth on L34 after Button had passed him. Raikkonen had another look out of the DRS zone the next time ‘round, but again could not pass. Raikkonen looked to make a proper go of it into Turn 1, but Vettel blocked, leaving Raikkonen to take a look on the outside, only to have to go back behind and stay second. This fight had move than seven secounds cushion on Grosjean in third.
Third Pit Stops Begin (L37):
Rosberg, Hamilton, and Hulkenberg all pitted for the third times on L37. Hamilton’s stop was better than before, but still not as fast as the average from most of the teams. Button pitted on the next lap, as did Alonso, Perez, and Schumacher. All stayed on the harder tyre. Perez and Schumacher had a very close moment while exiting the pit stalls, racing down the pit lane, with Schumacher winning through sheer fortitude. Grosjean, meanwhile, was slowly eating into the gap to his teammate ahead. Massa and Senna made their third stops on L39 as Raikkonen seemed to hold station just behind Vettel. They both pitted quickly, but maintained the order behind Kovalainen who pitted behind them. Webber pitted as well. Meanwhile, Alonso and Ferrari had come under investigation for an unsafe release.
Grosjean pitted on L41, returning the lead to Vettel. Hamilton soon managed to get well into the points, taking ninth from Kobayashi. Massa soon followed it up, taking tenth from the Japanese driver. With fifteen laps remaining, Vettel had 3.2s over Raikkonen, then Grosjean sat another seven seconds behind his teammate. Webber, Di Resta (who had stopped only twice), Rosberg, Button, Alnoso, Hamilton, and Massa completed the top ten. Schumacher lay in twelfth behind Kobayashi. Over the next couple of laps, Raikkonen lost a bit of time to Vettel while Grosjean gained a bit more of it. Schuamcher made his way neatly around Kobayashi on L46, with the Japanese driver losing position to teammate Perez a few turns later.
10 Laps Remaining:
As the final ten laps approached, Raikkonen began closing again on Vettel after lotus told him that Vettel’s tyre degradation was worse than his. The gap between them was just two and a half seconds with ten laps to go. It moved back up a bit over the next lap or two while Di Resta and Rosberg were fighting it out over fifth. They were the closest drivers on the track in the final laps as Vettel seemed likely to hold on to his gap and win. Rosbeg managed to make the pass through the DRS zone with a big lockup into Turn 1, with Di Resta fighting back but unable to keep his position.
Vettel had just over three and a half seconds on Raikkonen with five to go, but the German lost a bit the next time around. Further back, Button had gained on Di Resta, coming within DRS availability. Button, however, pitted on L55 with a puncture on his left rear. That dropped him down to thirteenth. At the front, Raikkonen had gained a bit more time, but it would likely not be enough to both catch and pass Vettel. However, Alonso was right behind Di Resta, worrying the Scot on very worn tyres.
Senna was the next to pit, but he retired, leaving no cars on track for Williams. Meanwhile, Rosberg was informed that “you’re probably aware: you have a broken exhaust.” On the radio, Button had asked McLaren if he had some issue as things didn’t sound right. His car soon sounded terribly sickly, leaving the Briton to drive into the pits and retire as well with just over one lap remaining. On the final lap, Vettel maintained his gap and took his first victory of 2012, with a double Lotus podium behind. Red Bull again told him to stop the car immediately, telling Vettel to stop at pit exit. Rosberg did the same, finishing in fifth where he started, well behind Webber.
Final Positions, 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix:
Driver Team Gap Stops 1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 3 2. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 3.3 3 3. Romain Grosjean Lotus 10.1 3 4. Mark Webber Red Bull 38.7 3 5. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 55.4 3 6. Paul Di Resta Force India 57.5 2 7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 57.8 3 8. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 58.8 3 9. Felipe Massa Ferrari 58.9 3 10. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 64.9 3 11. Sergio Perez Sauber 71.4 3 12. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 72.7 3 13. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 76.5 3 14. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 90.3 3 15. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 93.7 3 16. Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1 Lap 3 17. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1 Lap 4 18. Jenson Button (ret) McLaren 2 Laps 5 19. Timo Glock Marussia 2 Laps 3 20. Pedro de la Rosa HRT 2 Laps 3 21. Narian Karthikeyan HRT 2 Laps 4 22. Bruno Senna (ret) Williams 3 Laps 4 Pastor Maldonado Williams 32 Laps 3 Charles Pic Marussia 33 Laps 1