(Photo credit: Derek Morrison)
Wind the clock back 15 years to 2003 and you won’t see Bahrain on the F1 calendar. The desert track may now be considered a mainstay on the schedule, but there’s little history to look back on. Therefore, it's no surprise it hasn’t held too many ‘great’ races (2014 notwithstanding). As a result, we had to be creative for this classic flashback, picking the 2010 season opener, where the bricks were being laid for a classic season, if not a classic race.
After Jenson Button’s 2009 triumph, the Brit moved teams to race alongside 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull kept their strong line-up of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, both of whom had recently claimed maiden wins for the team. Ferrari signed double world champion Fernando Alonso, partnering him with Felipe Massa (who was kept despite injuries sustained at the 2009 Hungarian GP). But it was Mercedes who took the most exciting driver pairing award. The German manufacturer had bought a 75.1% stake in the championship-winning Brawn GP team and opted to sign Nico Rosberg from Williams, while also luring a certain Michael Schumacher out of retirement. The Red Baron was racing once again, this time for the Silver Arrows.
In qualifying, it was Sebastian Vettel who took pole ahead of the two Ferraris (Felipe Massa out-pacing Fernando Alonso). Hamilton lined up fourth, Rosberg fifth, Webber sixth, Schumacher seventh and Button eighth.
At the back of the grid, three new teams were eager to break into F1. Originally announced as Campos, Manor and USF1 in 2009, by the time they lined up in Bahrain, two of the teams had been renamed as Hispania (formerly Campos) and Virgin (formerly Manor), while the USF1 team never made it to the grid and were replaced by a Malaysian group, who licenced the famous Lotus name.
To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Formula One, many former world champions had returned to the paddock, including Alain Prost as the first ‘driver steward’ to help decide penalties for on-track incidents. The organisers also used the longer version of the Bahrain track, with more corners and a much slower second sector. This pushed lap times past the two-minute mark but also reduced the number of laps for the diamond anniversary race from 57 to 49.
At 3:00pm local time, the cars lined up on the grid for the start of the race. Fernando Alonso placed his car cleverly to grab second place from his teammate as the cars went through Turns Two and Three. Mark Webber had a dramatic start, with plumes of smoke escaping from the back of his Red Bull and making it difficult for cars behind to see. The smoke appeared to be from an overfill of oil. Meanwhile, teammate Vettel was clearing off, creating a two-second gap on Lap One that would later seem typical in his championship years.
The first retirement came from Hispania's Karun Chandhok, who was missing a front wing, not the best start to the Indian driver’s career. On Lap Three, Williams’ rookie Nico Hulkenberg spun on one corner in the new ‘endurance’ Sector Two. Cameras then showed Lucas Di Grassi coming to a halt in a run-off area.
At the front, Vettel continued to push, with the gap reaching five seconds by Lap 15, as cars pitted. Bridgestone tyres were much more durable than Pirelli’s in later years, which allowed drivers to push much harder. But this meant teams were locked into a one-stop strategy for many races in 2010, with stops now taking around three-four seconds thanks to the refuelling ban. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was the first of the top drivers to pit. Alonso pitted on Lap 16, recording a stop time of 4.30 seconds and coming out in third behind his teammate. Vettel and Massa pitted on the following lap, with the Red Bull changing tyres in four seconds flat, the top three resuming in the same positions they held in the opening stint.
Hispania’s Bruno Senna retired with engine failure at the start of Lap 18, his car coasting at Turn One. This ended Hispania’s first race weekend, but the team were grateful to have made it to the grid at all after several doubts. They could now pack up early and head to Australia for the next race. They were joined on Lap 28 by BMW Sauber, who lost both their drivers through mechanical issues.
Alonso, making his debut for Ferrari, was on a charge. By Lap 30, the gap to leader Vettel was under 1.5 seconds, with Massa close behind. The Ferrari was making good progress, staying out of the dirty air from the Newey-designed Red Bull along the straights, and consistently lapping quicker. However, on Lap 34 everything changed. The Renault engine in Vettel's Red Bull sounded rough and the two Ferraris pounced. Alonso took the lead before the start of the next lap, whilst Massa had demoted Vettel to third by the end of the pit straight. After missing out on pole, Ferrari now looked set at a one-two finish!
Vettel dropped down the order (his problem later identified as a spark plug issue) and was pushed out of a podium place by Lewis Hamilton as the two cars crossed the line to start Lap 38. He lost multiple seconds per lap and now faced a battle to hang on to fourth place in the closing stages.
At the front, Fernando Alonso held his teammate behind to take his first win since 2008. Massa celebrated his return to F1 with second place, and Hamilton beat his world champion teammate to complete the podium. Vettel salvaged fourth place ahead of fellow Germans Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher while Button finished seventh ahead of a disappointed Webber in eighth. Force India and Williams took the last two points-scoring positions with Vitantonio Liuzzi and Rubens Barrichello in ninth and tenth, respectively. Meanwhile, Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus was the only new car to finish, coming home in 15th position, two laps behind the leader.