While previous seasons have seen one or two teams start off as the favorite, this year's saw the emergence of several at the front of the grid. In one corner sat Ferrari, the winningest team in all of motorsport, eager to recuperate from a dismal last season and regain its winning form, with two top drivers – a recovered Felipe Massa and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso – taking the wheel. In another corner sat arch-rival McLaren, which fought a valiant campaign last season and which arrived on the grid this season with a dream team of the two reigning world champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. Meanwhile the Brawn GP team that eclipsed all others with both titles last season was acquired by Mercedes-Benz, erstwhile and longtime partner of McLaren, bringing Michael Schumacher – the most successful driver in the sport's history – back out of retirement to partner with the rising young talent of Nico Rosberg in an effort to defend its titles. Those are some formidable adversaries, but even amidst such stiff competition, Red Bull – which has progressed steadily since its formation in 2005 and which posed the only serious threat to the Brawn/Mercedes domination last season – was identified for this season as a force to be reckoned with as young gun Sebastian Vettel and veteran Mark Webber taking the reins.
Against the backdrop of such promise of heavy competition, the circus rolled in to the Gulf emirate of Bahrain this weekend for the first round of the season. And sure enough, by the end of Saturday's hotly contested qualifying session, it was these four teams that took the top slots on the starting grid. But perhaps most surprisingly of all, it wasn't any of the four returning world champions driving for world champion teams that took pole position: it was Vettel.
And so the young German proceeded to upset the competition – including his mentor Schumacher with whom Vettel has won the Nations Cup at the Race of Champions the past three years running – for much of the race distance. In fact, while the champions and would-be champions fought tooth and nail jockeying for position over the opening laps, Vettel's lead continued to grow, setting fast lap after fastest lap, as he looked destined to upset his elders and claim the checkered flag.
Behind Vettel's Renault-powered Red Bull RB6 on the grid lined up a procession of some of the most talented and successful drivers of the sport's modern history: the Ferrari duo of Massa and Alonso took second and third positions, McLaren's Hamilton in fourth, Mercedes GP's Rosberg in a surprising fifth, Vettel's wingman Webber in sixth, and Michael Schumacher – in an incidental mirror of his very first grand prix – qualified seventh, while defending champion Button placed eighth on the grid.
The rest of the field followed rather predictably, with the established midfield teams – Renault, Force India, Williams, Sauber and Toro Rosso – filling the positions ahead of the Cosworth-powered newcomers Virgin, Lotus and HRT (Hispania Racing Team, formerly known as Campos Meta).
Into the first corner, Vettel held on to his lead, Alonso edged past Massa and the rest of the order followed in course. Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen (axed from McLaren to make room for Button) impressively jumped from 21st on the grid to 16th, while Robert Kubica – fresh in his seat at Renault – fell from 9th to 21st.
And so the opening laps of the race unfolded, with the leading teams running on the softest tires and most of the rest of the field on the longer-lasting hard compounds, until the leaders began to pit on laps 15 through 18. This season saw the elimination of mid-race refueling, so the pit stops were incredibly short: in, up, tires, down and back out on the track. While his rivals headed into pit lane for fresh rubber, Vettel stayed out to reel off some fast laps. By the time the race leaders had swapped for the harder tires that would have to last them the rest of the race, Vettel retained his lead. Alonso remained ahead of Massa. Hamilton passed Rosberg for fourth position, and both Schumacher and Button had squeezed by Webber to round out the top eight.
Over the course of the race distance, an astonishing eight drivers failed to finish. HRT's Karun Chandhok retired on his very first grand prix lap, with Virgin's rookie Lucas di Grassi – a top finisher in the lower formulae – joining him on pit wall one lap later. Kamui Kobayashi – who impressed on his debut for Toyota last year – succumbed to failed hydraulics in his Sauber by lap 11, followed by Renault rookie Vitaly Petrov (L13), Virgin's Timo Glock (L16), HRT's prodigal Bruno Senna (L17), and the veteran McLaren tester now driving for Sauber, Pedro de la Rosa, on lap 28. Jarno Trulli, a podium finisher and front-runner last season with Toyota, ran at the back of the field in his Lotus T127, only to peter out just before the finish line.
While the back of the field retired to the pit wall, the front of the field continued to open up its lead ahead of the rest. Specifically the top three – Vettel, Alonso and Massa – stayed well clear of the competition, with Hamilton lingering behind but well ahead of Rosberg and Schumacher who ran close together ahead of a feuding Button and Webber.
That seasoned Australian looked to be in serious trouble at the start of the race, when after the first corner a large cloud of smoke emerged from the back of his car. Were it not for the regulations limiting the number of engines used over the course of the season, Webber would have surely been called in to the pits for an engine swap, but instead was strategically forced to stay out, and managed to hold on to eighth place after having qualified sixth. Not a bad show after what looked to be the end of his race, and while he may have remained trouble free for the remainder, the mechanical problems would catch up to his front-running team-mate before the day was through.
In the closing laps, Vettel's seemingly unassailable lead began to wane, and soon it became apparent that Sebastian's exhaust system was failing. And like a pack of predators hunting their prey, the pair of Ferraris began closing in until Alonso crept past the limping Red Bull on lap 34 (out of 49 total), with Massa following into second only seconds later past the start/finish line on the 35th lap. With Vettel "exhausted", Hamilton closed in and past his rival three laps later, but the young German managed to hold on to the finish ahead of his countrymen Rosberg and Schumacher.
Having run the whole distance close behind, the returning champion never did manage to get past his young wingman, even in the final ten laps as Rosberg, Schumacher, Button and Webber ran within precious few seconds of each other.
Crossing the finish line, Fernando Alonso claimed the checkered flag in his very first race for the Scuderia, repeating the same feat which Kimi Raikkonen accomplished upon his scarlet debut en route to the championship in 2007. And for his efforts was awarded 25 points in the championship standings under the new system.
Felipe Massa finished close behind in second, never having managed to regain the position he lost to Alonso in the first corner of the opening lap. That got him 18 points in the standings, and completed a Ferrari 1-2 while demonstrating once again that a driver's number one rival is his team-mate.
Hamilton completed the podium with a solid third place finish, good for 15 points. The remaining score went to an assuredly disappointed Vettel (4th place, 12 points), Rosberg (5th/10 pts), Schumacher (6th/8), Button (7th/6), Webber (8th/4), an impressive performance by Force India's Tonio Liuzzi (9th/2) and last year's runner-up Rubens Barrichello, now at Williams (10th/1).
In the constructors' standings, Ferrari leaves Bahrain with a solid 43 points, ahead of McLaren's 21, Mercedes GP's 18, Red Bull's 16, Force India's 2 and Williams' 1.
There's still a massive eighteen rounds to go in this year's championship, so extrapolating how the rest will unfold is entirely premature. But if we get to see this kind of racing through the end of the season – back in the emirates for the closing Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – in November, you can bet this is going to be a season to remember.