If there is one thing the Bahrain International Circuit doesn’t lack it is run off space. So much so that it encourages not only some wild overtaking, but also sometimes even wilder defending.
In 2012, Mercedes Nico Rosberg arrived fresh off his first ever Grand Prix win at the 111th attempt in the previous round in China, and seemed determined to drive with his elbows out to show that as F1s latest winner he was now one of the ‘big boys’ who could not be messed with on track.
2012 was also the year of the great Pirelli tyre lottery, with the quickly degrading Pirellis mandated for the season causing teams all sorts of trouble to get on top of their cars setups, and providing the fans with at least an interesting championship battle, with 3 different teams and drivers taking the opening 3 Grand Prix. None of those was won by Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull, who had blitzed the field in 2011 with 11 victories.
In qualifying it was Red Bull and McLaren leading the way, with Vettel taking pole for the Bulls, with Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren alongside on the front row. Mark Webber had the second Red Bull in third place, followed by the winner of the season opening Australian Grand Prix, McLaren’s Jenson Button, with China’s winner Rosberg in fifth. The winner of Malaysia, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso lined up in 9th place. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, back in F1 with Lotus after a two year absence, was a disappointed 11th place, with his young team-mate Romain Grosjean getting the better of him in Q2 and preventing Kimi making it to the top 10 shootout.
As the lights went out Vettel made a comfortable getaway, leading Hamilton through the first corner from Webber, a fast starting Grosjean, Alonso, Button, Rosberg and Raikkonen. Lotus looked up for a fight, with Grosjean immediately hustling Webber and Raikkonen eventually shading Rosberg on the opening lap, pulling past him on the inside into Turn 4 only for Rosberg to try regain the position around the outside of Turn 8 after Raikkonen was baulked by Button, with Rosberg being forced wide over the kerbs and losing a further spot to the Ferrari of Felipe Massa.
As they crossed the line to complete the first lap Vettel was already streaking clear, memories of his 2011 dominance to the fore. Raikkonen lost out to Massa at the start of lap 3, Massa sending the dust flying as he dived down the inside into turn 1, and although Raikkonen stayed with him around the outside he was forced to concede that two into one just don’t go at Turn 2 and the seventh position was now Massa’s. Further up the field the Lotus of Romain Grosjean was flying, and he dispatched Mark Webber with the help of DRS into Turn 1 at the start of lap 4 to move up to third. Anything Romain could do Kimi could do better, and on lap 5 he got his revenge on Massa’s Ferrari, looking first down the outside into Turn 4 and forcing Massa to defend deep, while Raikkonen cut back and snapped past Massa on the run through Turns 5 and 6. Over to you Romain, and on lap 7 Grosjean again took advantage of DRS down the start/finish straight to grab second place from Lewis Hamilton, while Kimi soon followed with a move around the outside of Jenson Button into Turn 4 to climb to sixth place, as the McLaren began to struggle with tyre wear. Raikkonen was quickly up to Alonso, and breezed past him with DRS into Turn 1 at the start of lap 9.
Behind Raikkonen, the first pit stops were being made, with Button, Massa and Rosberg all coming in, with Rosberg getting ahead of Massa. Next time around Hamilton, Webber and Alonso came in leaving Lotus running in second and third behind Vettel. Webber made it out without problem, while Alonso just about managed to retain his lead over Button, coming out with his nose in front into Turn 1. Hamilton was the big loser, suffering a bad stop after trouble with his left rear, and although he emerged alongside Rosberg into Turn 1 he lost the position as Rosberg took advantage of his warmed tyres to burst around him into Turn 2. Hamilton clearly had the quicker car and was determined not to lose ground stuck behind the Mercedes, and as they exited Turn 3 he immediately looked to pull out from behind Rosberg and move to the inside line on the run down to Turn 4. Rosberg, full of confidence after his Chinese win, was having none of it, and he drove across the track to deny Hamilton space, dust flying as he forced Hamilton completely off the track, with Rosbergs right wheels going over the line as he left Lewis with nowhere to go – or so he thought! Lewis is not one for blinking, and he kept his foot down, and powered straight past Rosberg before muscling his way back onto track and claiming the inside line into Turn 4.
After all the front runners had made their stops the virtual order (ignoring Force India’s Paul di Resta, who briefly led, and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi, who were running out of sync) now was Vettel, some 5 seconds ahead of Grosjean, with Webber in third followed by Raikkonen, Button (who had dispatched Alonso with a lovely move through Turns 5 and 6), Alonso , Hamilton, Rosberg and Massa. Not for long, as Raikkonen sliced past Webber on lap 13, getting good traction out of Turn 10 and pulling alongside Webber on the straight and claiming the inside line into Turn 11, while Alonso soon fell back behind Hamilton’s McLaren.
Lotus seemed to have the pace, and at this stage of the race it was Kimi finding the rhythm, now running the soft tyre on the second stint while Grosjean was on the medium. Kimi began to draw close to team-mate Grosjean, and by the start of lap 21 he was right behind him. Despite his faster pace, Kimi wasn’t able to get by until the start of lap 24 when he took advantage of DRS to take second place into Turn 1, but the time spent stuck behind the sister Lotus would prove costly for the team.
The leaders were all pitting again at this stage, and while Lewis Hamilton suffered yet another bad stop, Rosberg in the Mercedes was able to leap frog Fernando Alonso by virtue of having stopped earlier, the two side by side into Turn 1 as Alonso emerged from the pits, but Rosberg prevailed. Alonso immediately looked to have a go on the run down to Turn 4, but Rosberg was quickly across to cover off the inside line, with Alonso hanging on to try for the outside but conceding at the corner. The next lap around Alonso looked to dive up the inside exiting Turn 3, with Rosberg again pushing across to defend the line. This time Alonso stuck to the inside, but Rosberg was firm, running Alonso out of track, this time the Mercedes holding the white line at the edge of the circuit to prevent Alonso ‘doing a Hamilton’ and passing him off the track!! Alonso was furious – and he let the world know about it on the team radio
“He pushed me off the track. I think you have to leave a space! All the time you have to leave a space!” (cue hilarious Alonso impression by Vettel in the drivers press conference at the next round in Spain!).
Up front, the race for the victory was now a battle between Vettel and Raikkonen, with the Lotus looking to have the pace advantage. Raikkonen slowly clawed away at the deficit to Vettel, getting right up behind Vettel as they started lap 34. On lap 35 Kimi pulled out from behind Vettel to let him know he was there on the approach to Turn 1, but was too far back to make a move. On lap 36 Kimi lined up another go, pulling out from behind Vettel on the main straight and looking to the inside, only to check and move to the outside as Vettel moved to cover him, Vettel holding station on the inside and holding on comfortably through turn 2. Kimi’s tyres were beginning to suffer from following Vettel, and next time around he wasn’t close enough to make a move into Turn 1, and it looked like the danger had passed for Vettel. Indeed Kimi would not get close enough to challenge again, and after both had made their stops on lap 40, it was a straight run to the finish.
Vettel pulled out a gap, and would eventually cross the line 3 seconds clear of Raikkonen to take the victory, both his and Red Bulls first of this topsy turvy tyre season. It wasn’t all as easy as it looked however, with Vettel pulling off the track immediately as the car was light on fuel. Lotus must have been wondering what could have been had Raikkonen not lost time behind Grosjean and been able to apply more pressure on Vettel, but they would have to be content with a 2-3 finish, with Grosjean coming home in third place. Mark Webber placed fourth, with Rosebrg coming home in fifth (and avoiding any action for his elbows out driving style), with Jenson Button forced to retire and Lewis Hamilton’s hopes hit by those two bad pit stops. One time leader Paul Di Resta managed to make his two stop strategy work to come home in sixth position ahead of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.