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Déjà vu in the desert

ROUND 4 – Bahrain, 21 April 2013, Sakhir

1st: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault), 1hr 36m 00.498 (av. race speed 192.632 km/h)
2nd: Kimi Raïkkönen (Lotus Renault), gap: 9.111s
3rd: Romain Grosjean (Lotus Renault), gap: 19.507s

Fastest Lap: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault), 1:36.961 = 200.938 km/h on lap 55

Pole Position: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), 1:32.330 = 211.017 km/h

Déjà vu in the desert

For the second year in a row the top three finishers in the Bahrain Grand Prix were Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raïkkönen and Romain Grosjean as Red Bull and Lotus made it an all-Renault-powered podium. It was the first time since this race last season that one engine maker had achieved a clean sweep, with Vettel streaking away to his 28th Grand Prix victory, a result that carried him past the watching Sir Jackie Stewart into sixth place in the all-time Formula 1 winners’ list.

While Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes started from pole position – only the second of the 27-year-old German’s F1 career – Vettel elbowed his way past him and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to take control of the race by the third of its 57 laps. “It was good fun at the beginning with some very tight wheel to wheel racing,” said Vettel, who leads the Drivers’ Championship with 77 points to Alonso’s 67. “At the start you don’t know if you will be quick or not, as everyone is a bit all over the place, including yourself! I love to be in clean air, so I was pushing hard to get into the lead and, with the speed we had mid-race, it was quite comfortable today.” Vettel confirmed that pace with the fastest race lap, his 17th in F1. While Vettel romped to his second victory of 2013, for teammate Mark Webber it was another weekend when celebrations went awry. Starting his 200th Grand Prix, Webber was behind the game from Saturday when he qualified fifth and was demoted to eighth because of his penalty from China. That became seventh when Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes was demoted five places, but despite a promising opening to the race Webber could only finish in the same position.

“We went aggressive on the first few out laps, which meant we jumped people, but the tyres didn't like it,” said Webber. “That meant the second stint was a disaster really in terms of pace at the end and that loaded the other two stints up. In the middle of the race I thought I could get on the podium, but then it was about pace management and it’s a fine line between racing and saving tyres.” A 100th points-scoring result was small consolation for Webber, who is fifth in the Championship but already 45 points behind Vettel. In a strong weekend for Force India Mercedes, Paul di Resta again just missed out on his first F1 podium, coming home fourth after a stirring late-race duel with Grosjean. Di Resta, who turned 27 last week, called it his strongest F1 race to date. He and teammate Adrian Sutil had monopolised the third row of the grid but the German came off second-best in a first-lap tangle with Felipe Massa’s Ferrari and eventually came home 13th. “I had a good start to the race, a strong opening stint and we showed our true speed today,” said Di Resta, “but ultimately fourth place was the maximum that was possible. We will get on the podium one day, hopefully soon, but for now we can be very happy with the points we’ve scored today.”

As Webber’s pace fell away in the final laps the Australian was passed by Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and the man who replaced Hamilton at McLaren, Sergio Pérez, who finished fifth and sixth respectively. “I had so much fun fighting with Mark at the end,” said Hamilton, whose race only began when the temperature dropped and the McLaren found some grip. “We really needed that point and I was so determined to get by. It was good, clean wheel-to-wheel racing. I’m very proud of what we have achieved over the first four races and to be third in the Drivers’ Championship is beyond any of our expectations. But we’ve got to keep pushing and find more performance.” Teammate Rosberg switched to a four-stop strategy but slipped back to ninth as his race pace again failed to match his qualifying edge.

Pérez, responding to a pep talk from McLaren team leader Martin Whitmarsh, produced a gutsier performance than seen in his three previous races with the team. He fought hard with Jenson Button’s sister car, provoking complaints from the Englishman on team radio, but refused to back off and produced another sterling pass on Alonso in the final laps to claim his best result for McLaren. “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 explained. Button was the last of the points-scorers in 10th place. Shanghai winner Alonso suffered another setback when the DRS flap on his Ferrari stuck open in the early stages of the race, forcing the Spaniard into two extra pit stops for repairs and leaving him hamstrung for the rest of the race. In the circumstances eighth was a fine piece of damage limitation, leaving Alonso fourth overall, three points behind Hamilton but now 30 shy of Vettel. Teammate Felipe Massa could do no better than 15th, the Brazilian’s Ferrari also hobbled by the early tap with Sutil that left the red car’s front wing in less than pristine condition.

A brief look at the rest of the field:

The only non-finisher in the 22-car field was Jean-Eric Vergne, whose Toro Rosso Ferrari came together with Giedo van der Garde’s Caterham Renault at the start and came off decidedly worse. “I was pushed by Bottas as I passed him on the outside of Turn 4, giving him plenty of room and he clipped my car,” the French driver said. “Unfortunately for Van der Garde, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it was a big impact, which caused a lot of damage to the car, including a puncture and left it with a big piece of the floor missing.” Dan Ricciardo, meanwhile, could never rediscover his Shanghai pace and came home 16th in the sister Toro Rosso.

It sounds like a broken record, but yet again Williams were almost anonymous. Pastor Maldonado was 11th, beating teammate Valtteri Bottas this week as the Finn came home 14th. “We must stay together and positive. It’s a difficult time, but we still have many races to go,” insisted Maldonado; Williams, like McLaren, are pinning their hopes of resurrecting their season on upgrades due at the next event in Barcelona.

Caterham won their mini-battle with fellow tail-enders Marussia this time, Charles Pic finishing 17th, one place ahead of Sauber’s struggling rookie Esteban Gutiérrez. “I expected a difficult race and this is what I got,” admitted the young Mexican, whose German teammate Nico Hülkenberg was 12th.

Next race: round 5, Spain, May 12

The European season kicks off and the title fight will intensify in Catalunya: watch for a full Barcelona preview right here…

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