A delighted Sebastian Vettel moved clear at the top of this year’s drivers’ world championship on Sunday when he claimed a well-judged victory for Ferrari in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The 29-year-old four-time champion came home seven seconds ahead of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, who made a late charge for victory after collecting a five-seconds penalty for a pit-lane misdemeanour.
Hamilton’s new Mercedes team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas finished third, after starting from his maiden pole position, ahead of compatriot Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and fifth-placed Australian Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull.
It was German Vettel’s third win in Bahrain and the 44th of his career, a landmark that left him satisfied with his and the team’s work, which proved that Ferrari, who employed an aggressive strategy, are back as serious championship contenders following their season-opening win at Albert Park .
“It’s been a really great day for me and I don’t know what to say,” said Vettel. “The last half of my in-lap, with all the fireworks here, you know… it was just… I love what I do!”
He added: “The car was really amazing to drive and I could control the race in the end. Lewis was a threat towards the end and, with the traffic, you never know… But, finally, it was a controlled race.”
Hamilton, who was penalised for a pit-lane incident when he slowed before stopping, congratulated Vettel and thanked Bottas, who had moved over to let the Briton through in the closing laps.
“It was definitely costly – the pit lane incident,” said Hamilton. “It was my fault. I apologise to the team for losing that time there…”
Bottas was downcast. “It was a very tricky race for me, struggling for pace throughout, I had tyre pressure problems and then I was rear-limited… It was just over-steering everywhere.”
Ricciardo’s Red Bull team-mate 19-year-old Dutchman Max Verstappen crashed out of the action after a brakes’ failure.
Brazilian Felipe Massa finished sixth for Williams, a well-received Easter Sunday birthday gift for team boss Sir Frank Williams who is 75, with Mexican Sergio Perez taking seventh for Force India.
Frenchman Romain Grosjean battled through to take eighth for Haas ahead of German Nico Hulkenberg of Renault and Frenchman Esteban Ocon in the second Force India.
Vettel now leads the title race with 68 points ahead of Hamilton on 61.
On a significantly cooler day, with a strong wind, the temperatures fell to 25 for the air and 30 degrees Celsius shortly before the race when Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne withdrew from the contest after yet another engine failure with his McLaren Honda, his third of the weekend and the team’s fourth.
As the lights went out, Bottas made a clean departure to lead from his maiden pole position while Hamilton, slow to find any pace, was passed by Vettel on the run through the first corner.
The German showed the speed of his Ferrari with an immediate rush to pressure Bottas at the front while Hamilton laboured to make much impression on the action, struggling to hold a rampant Verstappen behind him.
By lap eight, the leading trio were separated by only three seconds and Bottas was having problems with his rear tyres as he fended off Vettel.
Frustrated by the situation, Ferrari made an early decision to pit Vettel for an ‘under-cut’ that saw him return in 12th position.
Verstappen followed suit and was in for more super-soft tyres before he crashed out of the race on lap 12, running off at Turn Four. “Brakes failed,” said the Dutchman before climbing from his car.
As Vettel charged through the field, Mercedes were thrown a potential lifeline when Toro Rosso’s Spaniard Carlos Sainz and Canadian rookie Lance Stroll of Williams collided at Turn One.
This triggered the use of a Safety Car and both Bottas and Hamilton headed into the pits, the Finn going first and Hamilton, delayed by the queue, beaten out by Ricciardo, who he had ‘backed up’ on the way in.
The stewards confirmed that Hamilton was under investigation for slowing unduly ahead of Ricciardo. The Briton was handed a five seconds penalty for the misdemeanour.
All this resulted in revised strategies as Bottas continued on super-soft tyres while Hamilton ran on softs, the two Mercedes men hoping to catch Vettel, on super-softs, who took the lead following the stops.
It looked likely that Vettel, leading the race, and Bottas, behind him, would have to pit again and might give Hamilton a chance to go through, if he could complete the race without a further stop.
Hamilton moved to within six-tenths of Bottas and then passed him into Turn One on lap 25 before starting his bid to cut Vettel’s 6.3 seconds lead.
He trimmed it swiftly, but Vettel pitted again on lap 34, Hamilton taking the lead, but in the knowledge that he had to serve a five seconds penalty.Vettel rejoined third behind Raikkonen.
Knowing his tyres were fading, Hamilton made a second stop on lap 41, serving his five seconds penalty and rejoining third. He immediately began his charge after Bottas, who had also taken a second stop, and Vettel.
He soon closed the 10-seconds gap and passed Bottas at the end of lap 47, knowing the Ferrari ahead was catching a group of back-markers.
With six laps remaining, on lap 51, Hamilton was 8.9 seconds behind Vettel who appeared to be conserving tyres and energy to resist the final attacks.
Two laps later, it was 6.7 seconds as Vettel struggled to find his way through and was held up, briefly, by Alonso. And then it was 5.5, but Vettel held on.