Fernando Alonso won the first Grand Prix of the 2010 season in Bahrain yesterday but Sebastian Vettel believed that he was the moral victor.
The German dominated qualifying to take pole position for Red Bull, and stormed away at the start at a pace that Alonso admitted he was not able to match while they were running, as demanded by the regulations, on the soft compound Bridgestone tyres on which they had qualified.
Vettel was as much as three seconds in front at one stage, and moved even further ahead after the mandatory switch to the harder tyre compound after 17 laps. The gap fluctuated in the ebb and flow of racing, but then Alonso began to make serious inroads into his lead by lap 30, when the gap shrank to a second.
Vettel clung on, but the change in his Renault engine's exhaust note told the clear tale that it was a mechanical problem rather than the driver over-stressing his rubber in track temperatures above 40 degrees C that was responsible for his reduced speed. By the 33rd lap Alonso was ready to move in for the kill, and on the 34th he swept ahead as they headed for the penultimate corner and left the Red Bull in his dust.
“This is a special day for me,” Alonso said. “Coming back to the top of the podium is always special but it's even more special when you are driving a Ferrari because of all the history behind the team and the expectations a driver has of driving for them. There could not be a better way to start my relationship with the best team in world.
“I had some pace in the pocket, and was just content to be concentrating on managing the tyres, waiting for the time to attack over maybe the last 12 laps. Then suddenly he had a car problem and the chance to pass him came earlier than I expected.”
Massa, in his first race since the accident in Hungary last July which initially seemed life threatening, did his overtaking on Vettel in the same corner at the start of the 35th lap, to make it a Ferrari 1-2, but the temperature of his engine had been rising steadily for some time and his pit crew advised him that he needed to back off to conserve fuel.
He was fortunate that Vettel was in no position to retaliate, and that Lewis Hamilton had been trapped behind Nico Rosberg's slower Mercedes until his tyre switch on the 15th lap.
Vettel fell prey to Hamilton on the 38th lap, making the race a much more satisfying event for the 2008 champion than qualifying had been.
In the closing stages Vettel was caught by Rosberg's Mercedes as the latter cut back a 14s deficit, but hung on for fourth just ahead of the Silver Arrow. Just as he had throughout practice and qualifying, Rosberg held a four to five-tenths of a second advantage over his much-vaunted team-mate Michael Schumacher, whose first grand prix appearance since the Brazilian race in 2006 yielded a hard-fought sixth place. The senior German was pushed all the way by 2009 champ Jenson Button, having his first race for McLaren, and Vettel's partner Mark Webber.