Two-time world champion Sebastian Vettel held off Kimi Raikkonen on Sunday to win the Bahrain Grand Prix, held without any disruption by anti-government protests that turned violent in the days before the event.
On a day when Formula One could again focus more on racing than politics, Vettel protected his pole position and led from start for his first victory of the season. Raikkonen worked his way up from 11th on the grid to finish 3.3 seconds behind for his first podium finish since returning to the sport this season.
Raikkonen’s Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean was third, followed by Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.
The race, which was canceled last year because of the unrest in the divided Gulf nation, had been overshadowed most of the week by clashes between riot police and anti-government demonstrators. Protesters claim at least one person was killed by riot police this week.
The race itself, however, was held without a hitch. With security checkpoints boosted before the race, there were no signs of protests near the circuit Sunday though smoke from burning tires several kilometers away drifted over the track at one point.
But due to the fears of trouble, the grandstands were almost half empty.
Last year’s F1 race — the nation’s premier international event — was canceled because of the uprising by the kingdom’s Shiite majority, which is seeking to break the ruling Sunni dynasty’s hold on power. Opposition groups have sharply criticized the return of the race to the strategic island nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
At least 50 people have been killed since unrest erupted in Bahrain in February 2011 in the longest-running street battles of the Arab Spring.
On the track, Vettel’s ride to his 22nd career victory was fairly incident-free as well.
The German had a good start to comfortably hold off Lewis Hamilton, and then saw the McLaren driver struggle with his tires and pit stop to quickly fall out of contention.
That left the Lotus cars as the main threat, but Vettel managed to fend off Raikkonen’s challenge to take over the lead in the drivers championship from Hamilton.
"It was an incredible race," said Vettel, who pumped his first as he crossed the finish line.
"We had a very good start which was crucial," he said. "I was able to pull away from the pack which turned out to be a big advantage."
It was a historic day for Lotus, as Raikkonen showed he can still compete for victories despite taking a two-year hiatus from F1 to compete in rally driving. It was first podium of Grosjean’s career.
Still, Raikkonen was left to rue several missed opportunities that could have given him the lead. He dropped a spot after a poor start and then struggled to get past Grosjean for second. Once he was into second, the Finn managed to close the gap on Vettel to less than a second after 34 laps. But he only made one serious attempt to pass the German after that and it failed.
"We gave ourselves a chance," said Raikkonen, the 2007 champion. "It’s a bit disappointing that we didn’t manage to do it. We couldn’t win the race but at least we got the podium with both cars. The team deserves what we achieved."
A smiling Grosjean said he couldn’t be happier with his finish. He started sixth but moved up to third after the start and held off Webber.
"For sure, it’s great," he said. "I think I will be delighted tonight. I’m very happy for the team. We knew we had a good car but we were surprised how quick we were."
It was race to forget for McLaren and Ferrari.
Hamilton, who qualified in second, suffered through two bad pit stops and finished eighth. Button, who was running in seventh at one point, pulled out on the 56th lap and settled for 18th.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso finished seventh and his teammate Felipe Massa ninth on a day when both cars struggled with pace — a problem that has plagued the team all season.