Ferrari's Felipe Massa put the disappointment of Malaysia firmly behind him at the Bahrain Grand Prix and kept his cool from pole to flag to win at Sakhir. Early pressure from McLaren's Lewis Hamilton made for a riveting first stint but McLaren lost out in the middle part of the race. Still, with second place Hamilton made history as the first driver to be on the podium in each of his first three races.
Kimi Raikkonen bought his Ferrari home third; he spent the first stint on the rear wing of Fernando Alonso's McLaren after the Spaniard got ahead of him on the first lap. However, Raikkonen gained the upper hand in the first pit stops and later on Alonso fell to the charge of BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld. The German pulled off a brilliant move to pass the world champion and come home fourth, leaving Alonso fifth.
It was quite windy on race day but the weather was fine and dry. It was a clean start with pole man Massa leading Hamilton into the first corner and Alonso and Raikkonen tussled briefly, Alonso gaining third. Just a couple of corners later there was an incident involving Honda's Jenson Button, Toro Rosso's Scott Speed and the Spyker of Adrian Sutil that bought out the safety car.
It wasn't quite clear what happened but it seemed that Button went sideways after contact with Red Bull's David Coulthard then Sutil hit Speed while trying to avoid Button. "I got a good start and made up some places," said Button. "Then Taku (Takuma Sato) moved across and I got pushed onto the dust, then DC (Coulthard) was fighting with someone and I had nowhere to go. We touched and I spun round then stalled."
Button and Speed were out, while Sutil headed into the pits for a front wing change. The safety car was out for a few laps then at the restart Massa, Hamilton and Alonso shot away. Raikkonen must have been distracted because he got left behind a little but quickly started regaining ground on Alonso. He closed up on the McLaren but then went a little wide and had to do it all over again.
Heidfeld was doing a good job of hanging onto the back of Raikkonen's Ferrari, although BMW teammate Robert Kubica in sixth had fallen back slightly. Further down the field Renault's Heikki Kovalainen was up to ninth and behind him the Williams pair of Alex Wurz and Nico Rosberg were scrapping with Toyota's Jarno Trulli.
Toro Rosso's Tonio Liuzzi, who was possibly the only driver who had started on the hard tyre, had nipped into the pits while the safety car was out for a change but after the restart got a drive through penalty for overtaking under the safety car. Rosberg ran wide off track which left Wurz under attack from Coulthard, who was rapidly climbing the field from his back row start.
Super Aguri's Takuma Sato got past the Toyota of Ralf Schumacher for 15th and back at the front Massa and Hamilton were pulling away, six seconds ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen. There was little between the two at the front, trading fastest laps but holding station. Hamilton was often the faster but wasn't quite close enough to Massa to have a go.
Raikkonen had a look up the inside of Alonso's McLaren at turn one but was equally not close enough, but Trulli chanced his luck with Kovalainen and scythed past the Renault for ninth. Somewhere unseen Coulthard had got past Wurz and outside the points the order was Trulli ninth, Kovalainen 10th, then Coulthard, Wurz, Rosberg, Super Aguri's Anthony Davidson, Sato, Schumacher, Honda's Rubens Barrichello, Spyker's Christijan Albers, Liuzzi and Sutil brining up the rear.
Coulthard, Wurz and Schumacher kicked off the first round of pit stops and Hamilton was the first of the front runners to go in, around lap 18 or so. Rosberg and Kovalainen were side by side in the battle for ninth and there was some contact but nothing drastic. They both went off track briefly and Rosberg gained the advantage when they scrambled back on.
Massa pitted a couple of laps after Hamilton and likewise stayed on the softer tyre, rejoining in front of the McLaren again. Alonso also stayed on the softer tyre when he took his stop and, with hindsight, McLaren is probably wondering why they didn't swap both drivers to the hard compound. Liuzzi wheeled into his pit garage with a hydraulic issue and although he later went out again he eventually retired.
"We had all sorts of problems today," he said. "It was a hydraulics problem that put me out, but before that we had a radio problem, so when I overtook Ralf I was unaware it was a Safety Car period as I had no communication with the team. That meant I got a drive-through penalty. A shame, as I started out on hard tyres for a very short stint, gambling on the Safety Car coming out."
Raikkonen and Heidfeld pitted and the Finn rejoined the track in front of Alonso. After that, as far as the middle stint went, things went a bit pear-shaped for McLaren. Hamilton and Alonso fell off the pace of Massa and Raikkonen quite quickly, while Davidson was up to sixth but had yet to make his first stop. Both Red Bulls had worked their way into the top 10, Webber ninth and Coulthard 10th, but there was trouble looming.
Webber's fuel flap was stuck open and he sensibly let Coulthard past as the Scot was obviously in better shape. Davidson finally made his first stop and at the front Massa had opened a more comfortable gap of eight seconds to Hamilton. Alonso was lapping some half a second off Raikkonen's pace but it did look like McLaren had fuelled longer for the middle stint so were running a little heavy.
Coulthard was on a real charge and was all over Fisichella's Renault, finally dispatching the Italian at turn one to claim seventh. Likewise, Heidfeld had closed right up on Alonso and was attacking: Alonso held him off for a few corners but Heidfeld was not to be denied and whipped round the outside of the McLaren through turn four. Great stuff from both Heidfeld and Coulthard.
Sato retired when the Honda engine in his Super Aguri blew in an enormous cloud of smoke along the pit straight, leaving him stranded at the pit exit. Massa was 10 seconds ahead of Hamilton and the McLaren rookie was starting to come under a little pressure from Raikkonen in third. Heidfeld and Alonso remained fourth and fifth.
A few laps later and it was disaster for Coulthard -- the Red Bull was trailing smoke at the rear and he managed to nurse it back to the pits but it was race over. "We lost the right rear driveshaft, that was what the fire was when I came in," the Scot explained of his slightly heated trip down the pit lane. A real shame for Coutlhard as he'd done a great job to get up to seventh from the back.
Elsewhere, Schumacher and Barrichello were arguing over 14th and the Honda eventually got past for the position. Massa was first in for his second stop and went out on the hard tyre, as he had to after being on the softer compound for the first two stints. Raikkonen and Heidfeld followed suit shortly afterwards, leaving Hamilton up front.
Red Bull's misery was compounded when Webber also retired not long after, compromised by the open fuel flap and apparently other issues. "The cap flap was open, the same thing that we had in Australia," said the rather disgruntled sounding Aussie. "It's bloody frustrating to say the least."
The pit stops continued to spool through and Hamilton regained second after his visit for a tyre change. On the harder compound the McLarens started getting back on Ferrari's pace; Hamilton was flying, closing Massa down for lap after lap and Alonso was also gaining ground on Heidfeld but it was too late to make a difference.
It was a rough day for Super Aguri as Davidson suffered a similar engine blow to Sato with only a handful laps to go. It gave Hamilton a bit of a pause as there was oil on track but really it didn't matter; Massa was still three or four seconds ahead and, as the saying goes, it was one thing catching him but it was another to pass him. There wasn't enough time to even try.
So, Massa redeemed himself after his mistake in Malaysia with a calm and collected drive to victory and boosted himself up the standings to be just five points shy of the three ahead. Hamilton has joined Alonso and Raikkonen on 22 points, and deservedly so, but although Hamilton still attracts all the attention Massa was not to be outdone today.
"I just had some oversteer at the beginning of the stint," Massa said. "Then I just managed to change the front wing a little bit and the car became very good. The second stint was crucial, so it was just very very good, pushing every single lap to open up the gap and then with the gap at ten seconds, it was easier to keep a slower pace on harder tyres and to save the car a little bit for the next race."
"The results in the first two races were not like I expected. I think something was missing, especially in the first race when we had a problem and then what happened in the second race, with mistakes and also something missing. This time we put everything together and I'm really pleased for the whole team. The job they made here, the strategy, the set-up, everything, I'm really pleased. But now we need to push even harder because McLaren is quite close."
Hamilton's achievements in just three races are quite outstanding -- you wouldn't think he was an F1 rookie, fighting at the front and outdoing the world champion, and the Finn who many believe will take Alonso's crown this year. But let's not forget, Hamilton was GP2 champ last year. He's hardly a racing novice and has joined McLaren just when the team has produced a competitive car. He's making the most of it in fine style.
"It's fantastic, obviously, to be equal on points with Fernando and Kimi," Hamilton commented. "I think the team's done a fantastic job. I think we had a very good pace this weekend, possibly the pace to be on pole but I think Felipe did a fantastic job in qualifying and in the race. Usually the Ferraris start to pull away during the stint but we generally had similar pace, if not quicker in both first and last stints, so I think we've made a fantastic step forward and I'm really happy for the team."
Raikkonen was held up somewhat by Alonso in the first stint and never really recovered. He drove a good, solid race but seemed resigned to third place by about half way through. He did make inroads into Hamilton for a while but once the McLaren was on the harder tyres there was little he could do. However, it might not have been the ideal afternoon for Raikkonen but he's still level on points with Alonso and Hamilton.
Getting stuck behind Alonso was a problem. "After that it was too difficult to come back and challenge at the front," the Finn said. "I got past him but we needed to go a little bit shorter in the middle stint to make sure we got in front of him but then it was too short to challenge Lewis. I came very close at the second stop but it wasn't enough. I think there was also a bit of a mistake by me also on the start button but we got third place and we know where we are losing time, so hopefully in the next test we can find something which is a bit better for me."
Heidfeld drove a strong race for fourth, crossing the line half a minute ahead of teammate Kubica in sixth. BMW is consolidating its position as the third best team overall but isn't quite up to Ferrari and McLaren. On saying that, Heidfeld beat Alonso fair and square on track -- whatever issues McLaren encountered in that middle stint the Spaniard seemingly didn't counter them as well as Hamilton did.
Trulli had a few scraps and picked up another couple of points with seventh, while Fisichella managed the final point in eighth. Teammate Heikki Kovalainen was one behind in ninth -- Renault is almost unrecognisable as the team that won back-to-back constructors' championships the last two years. Rosberg rounded off the top 10 and Wurz followed him home in 11th.
Schumacher has struggled with his car all weekend and could only trail home 12th and Barrichello had an equally difficult time for 13th. Both Spykers reached the chequered flag, Albers 14th and Sutil 15th, and Davidson, despite his premature end, was classified the final finisher in 16th.
McLaren still holds the top of the constructors' standings, now with 44 points, but Ferrari has closed in to just five points behind. It's great to see three drivers sharing the top of the standings but it's a long four week wait until Spain to find out what happens next. Final top eight classification: Massa, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Heidfeld, Alonso, Kubica, Trulli, Fisichella.