The political tumult of Bahrain aside, competition got back to ‘normal’ this week with a front-three on the grid of Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), season points-leader Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), and Mark Webber (Red Bull). Look just a tiny bit further beneath the surface, however, and some of the variety that has made 2012 such an exciting season is easy to see, with both Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) and Sergio Perez (Sauber) within striking distance of the top spot and Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) qualifying P6.
Amid great talk of tire degradation, Kamui Kobayashi (P12) was the only driver to start the race on the harder compound. Sebastian Vettel held a 2.2 sec lead over Lewis Hamilton at the end of the first lap, with Webber holding down third. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) got third from Webber during Lap 4 and had closed in on Hamilton by Lap 5. In the meantime, Vettel pushed his lead to more than 4.5 sec.
Grosjean took P2 from Hamilton on Lap 8. And when Lewis went in to change tires two laps later, the pit crew let him down with a glacial tire change which saw him plummet down the standings. Kimi Raikkonen moved into P3 having passed Webber on Lap 13 and advanced further during pit cycles. Raikkonen passed teammate Grosjean for P2 on Lap 26.
Lap 30 saw Vettel’s lead over Raikkonen cut to 1.7 sec and gradually lower until the pits on Lap 42, which saw the lead blow back out to 3.2 sec. All three of the top runners reentered the fray on the harder medium compound tires. Raikkonnen cut 0.6 sec the next lap, told by team that Vettel’s tires were degrading more rapidly.
McLaren’s misfortunes continued, Jenson Button suffering a puncture on Lap 54 while chasing Di Resta in P6 to fall down the standings to P13. Button retired during Lap 56 with engine problems.
Vettel held on to a +3 sec lead across the finish line, becoming the fourth winner from the fourth constructor to win a race this year. He also became the fourth championship points leader of the season. Raikkonen and Grosjean came in P2 and P3, becoming the seventh and eighth drivers on the podium this year as compared to 7 for all of 2011 and the first time two Lotus appeared on the podium since the 1979 Spanish Grand Prix (Mario Andretti and Carlos Reutemann). It was Grosjean’s first career podium.
Nico Rosberg’s driving was under review post-race for allegedly pushing both Hamilton and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) off track. To this writer’s mind, however, he maintained a pre-existing line through the corners and the people trying to pass him on the inside simply ran out of race track. He started P5 and held that post at the end as well, with Webber coming in fourth.
Kimi surged from P11 on the grid to take the second step on the podium, but Michael Schumacher – who qualified P17 but dropped back to P22 for a transmission change – charged even further, grabbing the last point of the race at P10.
Qualifying be damned, the season of change remains intact!
Driver standings - Top 10
53 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
49 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
48 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
43 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
43 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
35 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) - Mercedes
34 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
23 – Romain Grosjean (France) – Lotus-Renault
22 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
15 – Paul di Resta (Scotland) – Force India-Mercedes
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
101 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
92 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
57 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Grosjean
45 - Ferrari - Alonso, Felipe Massa
47 - Mercedes - Rosberg, Michael Schumacher
31 - Sauber-Ferrari – Kamui Kobayashi, Perez
18 - Williams-Renault – Bruno Senna, Pastor Maldonado
17 – Force India-Mercedes – di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
6 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
Next event: GRAN PREMIO DE ESPAÑA SANTANDER – Barcelona – May 11-13, 2012