MANAMA (Reuters) - World champion Sebastian Vettel celebrated Red Bull’s first victory of the season and went back to the top of the standings on Sunday after a Bahrain Grand Prix that put Formula One in the eye of a desert storm.
The German’s sigh of relief on the podium was echoed by teams and bosses after the race, scheduled against a backdrop of anti-government protests and nightly clashes between police firing teargas at petrol-bomb throwing youths, went ahead without incident and despite worldwide condemnation.
The 24-year-old Vettel’s 22nd career triumph, and his first in the troubled Gulf kingdom, made him the fourth different winner in four races - the first time that has happened since 2003.
“I think it was an incredible race. Extremely tough,” he told reporters.
Vettel now has 53 points, ousting McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton from the top. The Briton, who finished eighth after two nightmare pitstops, has 49.
Champions Red Bull also overtook McLaren in the constructors’ battle.
The German was pushed hard in the closing laps by Finland’s 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen, who had started 11th and finished second ahead of Lotus team mate Romain Grosjean in the Frenchman’s first appearance on the F1 podium.
Raikkonen had the benefit of several sets of fresh tyres for the race, having missed the final phase of qualifying on Saturday, and he made them count on a circuit that delivered an enthralling race.
Last year’s Bahrain race was cancelled due to a bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising and the 2010 event is remembered mostly for a complete lack of overtaking or excitement.
In that respect Sunday was also not normal. Raikkonen was challenging Vettel from the halfway point, with a first victory since his last year with Ferrari in 2009 looking a real possibility.
“Given the fact that Kimi found a dealership somewhere where he got some new tyres from, which allowed him to start every new stint on new tyres, it was extremely tough to keep them behind us,” smiled Vettel.
“Once he was very close and I thought he would get more than just one shot but it turned out to be enough and in the end I was even pulling away a little bit.”
Australian Mark Webber was fourth in the other Red Bull for the fourth successive race with the top four cars all powered by Renault engines.
“It was a difficult race, extremely tough,” said Vettel, who closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he stood on the podium before taking a gulp of the winner’s non-alcoholic fizz.
The main grandstand looked half empty, and there were few spectators to be seen elsewhere at a circuit with a maximum capacity of 45,000, but organisers put the Sunday attendance at 28,000 with a three-day crowd of 70,000.
Vettel, who had started from pole position for the first time this season after a record 15 starts from the top slot last year, made his trademark single-finger salute for the first time since last year after taking the chequered flag.
With fuel running low, he was then told to pull over and stop immediately at the pit exit - which meant he had to run down the pit lane to embrace his mechanics although the celebrations were kept comparatively low-key.
“We were probably surprised by the pace we went in the race. Obviously these guys were pushing us so we couldn’t afford to lift but it was enough,” said Vettel.
Germany’s Nico Rosberg, winner of the previous race in China in the first victory by a Mercedes works team since 1955, finished fifth.
Stewards decided to take no further action over incidents involving Hamilton and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, who was incensed at being forced off track and raised a fist in anger.
“I can only say that if, instead of such a wide run-off area there had been a wall, I‘m not sure I’d be here now to talk about it,” said the Spaniard.
Britain’s Paul Di Resta was sixth for Force India with Alonso seventh and Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa finally in the points in ninth.
Germany’s seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, who started 22nd after a grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change, was 10th for Mercedes.
McLaren’s Jenson Button retired on the penultimate lap after struggling with a split exhaust and a puncture after having fifth place in his sights.
Editing by Ed Osmond