MANAMA, Bahrain, April 22 – Defending double world champion Sebastian Vettel claimed his first win of the year on Sunday to take over as leader of the Formula One title race when he triumphed in the controversial Bahrain Grand Prix.
Without any threatened interference from demonstrators at the heavily-guarded Sakhir circuit the 24-year-old German regained the form of last year and controlled the race from start to finish.
He jumped to the top of the drivers’ standings after registering his 22nd career victory with a near-flawless drive from pole position to the chequered flag.
Vettel came home ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion, and the Finn’s Lotus team-mate Romain Grosjean.
“That was an incredible race, very tough,” said Vettel.
“I was lucky to have a good start, and that was crucial, as it let me pull away and open up a gap at the front. But Kimi (Raikkonen) challenged me – I think he must have found a dealer who had all those new tyres.”
Raikkonen said: “I had one chance to pass him, but I couldn’t quite do it and that was it. But it was a good race for us.”
It was Grosjean’s first podium finish in Formula One and the 25-year-old Frenchman said: “For me, I am very happy to have my first podium and to go like this, one step at a time.
“I said at first I wanted to finish in the points and then in the top five, and now on the podium. Let’s take a break before I say I want to win!”
Australian Mark Webber finished fourth in the second Red Bull, confirming their return to form after a lacklustre start to the year.
Vettel was the fourth different winner in four races so far in the 2012 season and he now leads the overall standings with 53 points ahead of Lewis Hamilton 49 and Webber on 48.
German Nico Rosberg, who claimed his maiden victory for the Mercedes team at last weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, finished fifth ahead of Briton Paul Di Resta of Force India and Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.
Hamilton came home eighth after a troubled race for McLaren, ahead of Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari and, amazingly, seven-times champion Michael Schumacher in the second Mercedes.
Schumacher had started from 22nd on the grid.
Hamilton’s McLaren team-mate Jenson Button retired on the final lap after a late puncture, but had been unable to mount a serious challenge in a race of rapidly-changing positions.
The top four finishers were all powered by Renault engines, the automotive company that owned the Lotus team until last year.
It was the first time since 1979 that Lotus, in name, had carried two drivers to podium finishes at a Grand Prix.
Vettel made a fast and smooth getaway from the grid, pulling clear of Hamilton who held second ahead of a fierce scrap for positions behind them.
The Lotus team provided the major surprise with their pace, notably from Raikkonen whose return to F1 after two years in rallying has seen him deliver his familiar pace and mature judgement as he went from 11th on the grid to finish second.
Most of the teams operated on three-stop strategies to make the most of their tyres in the demanding conditions, but Di Resta chose a two-stop strategy that left him fighting to hang on in the closing stages when, as Vettel resisted a charge from Raikkonen, the Scot held off Alonso’s Ferrari.
While Red Bull celebrated a comeback, thanks to cute aerodynamic changes and good tyre management, and Lotus enjoyed their surge to the front, it was a tough day for McLaren.
Button was unable to find a good set-up fore his puncture and Hamilton, fast enough to challenge on speed, was undone by two slow pit-stops when the left rear wheel appeared to cause problems.
Hamilton was also caught up in one of two incidents in which Rosberg appeared to force rival drivers off the circuit – the second case involved a furious Alonso – and was required to help with a stewards investigation after the race.