SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) — Sebastian Vettel has come up with a way to put to rest the controversy over his decision to ignore team orders in Malaysia: keep winning races.
He did just that on Sunday, winning the Bahrain Grand Prix in a dominant display to finish ahead of Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean on the podium. He also won in Bahrain last year.
The post-race reaction couldn't have been more different than it was in Malaysia, where the 25-year-old German driver ignored team orders and passed teammate Mark Webber to win the race. He was forced to apologize but the tension within the team was obvious.
At the Bahrain International Circuit, Vettel and the crew were all smiles.
"Sebastian fully deserved this victory today and it's a fantastic team result," Team Principal Christian Horner said. "To win any Grand Prix is truly an enormous challenge. To have won for the second year in succession here, to have won two out of the first four races and to be heading back to Europe leading both the drivers' and constructors world championship has been a very positive start to the campaign for us."
With his 28th career victory and second of the year, Vettel significantly boosted his chances of defending his drivers' title. Having already joined greats Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher by winning three consecutive F1 titles and becoming the youngest triple champion in the sport's history, Vettel can match Fangio and Schumacher's feat of four straight crowns.
Red Bull — which has won the last three constructors' titles — heads to Europe leading Lotus by 16 points.
Vettel started from second and grabbed the lead on the 17th lap, eventually beating Raikkonen by nine seconds. Grosjean was nearly 20 seconds back in third. The Frenchman managed to pass Force India's Paul di Resta for third with five laps to go for his best finish this season. The fourth-place finish for Di Resta matches his best-ever finish last year in Singapore.
"Fantastic race, it was seamless from start to finish," Vettel said. "The pace was phenomenal. The car was very quick and it just started to get better and better toward the end. Really, a beautiful race where you could push every single lap."
After the race, Vettel said it was time put the Malaysia controversy to rest.
"I think we've moved on and I think that in terms of crossing the line first there's no difference," he said.
The Lotus team was impressive on Sunday, particularly considering Raikkonen started the race ninth and Grosjean 11th.
"The first three races have been consistent but not where we wanted," Grosjean said. "We worked hard, the whole team. It wasn't easy to find out what was missing to get the feeling back into the car."
Di Resta called this his "strongest" Grand Prix — and comes a week after he ended up after colliding with his team Adrian Sutil.
Vettel extended his lead in the championship standings to 10 points ahead of Raikkonen after four of 19 races, while Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton moved up to third after placing fifth in Bahrain.
It was a day to forget for Ferrari, with both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa encountering problems early on that dropped them out of contention. Alonso had to pit twice in the first few laps when his DRS system malfunctioned while Massa damaged a front wing in a collision with Sutil. Alonso finished eighth while Massa was 15th.
"This is not the outcome we expected after showing all weekend long that we were capable of fighting for the top places," Ferrari Team Principal Stefano Domenicali said. "Today's result needs to be put behind us in a hurry."
While the lead rarely changed, the race featured some of the best racing of the season down the grid. Teammates Jenson Button and Sergio Perez touched wheels at one point as the Mexican tried to pass him for fifth — prompting Button to demand the team calm his teammate down. Webber was in the thick of much of the action in what was his 200th Grand Prix, colliding with Rosberg at one point and going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton on the last lap.
"It was nice to have a clean battle like that. I can't remember fighting with someone so well for a long time," Hamilton said. "It felt similar to the old days in karting where you wait to the last lap. ... I had to kind of call his bluff. He was always defending into turn one and the one lap I made think I was going to the left and went to right. Caught him napping."
Webber was reprimanded afterward for his collision with the German driver, with race stewards saying he should have done more to avoid it.
Tires seemed to be less of an issue this race, with most teams on three pit stops and strategy playing less of a role after Pirelli dropped the softest compounds for this race. Teams have complained this year that tires are degrading too quickly, leading to more strategic races with a focus on preserving the rubber.
The Bahrain GP has been the target of rights groups which contend it glosses over the country's political problems and protesters intensified their demonstrations against the government. While the race went off without incident, there were sporadic clashes in other parts of the Gulf country. Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades and rights groups said authorities launched raids on houses of several protesters.
Race organizers said they were thrilled to have an incident-free race, with security tight around the perimeter of the track to keep away protesters. The crowd was disappointing, however, with only about 28,000 spectators at the 45,000-seat circuit for the race.
"We were always confident we could hold this race," said Sheik Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit. "I think it's very important that racing stays above everything else that was talked about this week."