2009 Bahrain Grand Prix - Click above for a high-res image gallery
If you hadn't watched a single grand prix yet this season, hadn't read any F1-related news or even glanced at a headline, and hadn't spoken to a single racing fan for the past couple of months, you'd likely be shocked to find out how this season has unfolded so far, with the back-markers going from checkered pasts to checkered flags over the course of the winter break. But even at the break-neck speeds which modern F1 cars travel, you wouldn't need an elaborate explanation to catch up with the parade. All you'd need would be to look at the expression on the face of this weekend's race winner and you'd be there. Follow the jump to catch a glimpse.
Since Bahrain joined the Formula One calendar in 2004, spectators have been treated to two types of spectacles. In one column are the practice sessions, qualifying, support races and the grand prix itself. But after all that's been said and done, the race winners climb up on the podium and spray a bottled concoction of fruit juice and rose water – alcohol, along with the usual scantily-clad grid girls, are banned in the Muslim emirate. And so the second spectacle, for returning viewers, is to watch the expression on the faces of the triumphant drivers as they taste the Sharia-friendly beverage. Most ignore the disparity and celebrate their hard-earned victory just the same as they would at any other track. On the other hand, Kimi Raikkonen, who finished third there three years in a row, notably made a sour face and smirked while whispering to the driver next to him what we could only surmise was something to the effect of "What the hell is this crap, I want my Moet".
Jenson Button, however, triumphantly marched up to the podium today, stood on the top step, hoisted his trophy, and took a sip of the sub-par bubbly with a facial expression that said something more along the lines of "not bad, but I've had better". Not because he's been on that podium so many times before – this was only his second time there after his third-place finish in 2004 – but because after winning three out of the four grands prix so far this season, he's come to savor victory on its own merits...the rest, for this most unlikely of champions-in-the-making, is just window dressing.
Not that he didn't have to fight for this one. In contrast to the season opener in Australia, Button and his Brawn GP team-mate Rubens Barrichello didn't dominate the race weekend from start to finish. In fact, going into race Sunday, it looked like it was Toyota's turn to shine. The sole remaining Japanese team (based, though they are, in Germany) took third and fourth behind the upstart Brawn squad in the first two races in Australia and Malaysia. But after finishing a disappointing seventh and unclassified in China, Toyota snapped back with a commanding lead in yesterday's qualifying session to set up camp on the first row for the start of today's race.
And so the race began, with Timo Glock passing his pole-sitting team-mate Jarno Trulli in the very first corner. But the strategy which Toyota favored to gain pole position – a light fuel load and the softest, stickiest tire compound – made itself immediately evident: Trulli set the enduring fastest time on Lap 10, but shortly after that both drivers had to pit early. Trulli regained the edge over his wingman, but Button and Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, fresh from his victory in rain-drenched Shanghai, managed to slip by, holding on to their positions until the end. As Button's lead increased over the course of the race, Vettel would prove unable to catch up, but held back Trulli's challenge to the checkered flag.
The rest of the field trailing behind was full of wheel-to-wheel action in the opening laps, cars heading into corners four abreast at some points, each vying to advance up the order with the same ferocity as the baking Middle Eastern sun that poured down on the track in place of the rain they suffered in Malaysia and Shanghai. The intense action sent Ferrari's Felipe Massa, Williams' Kazuki Nakajima and both BMW Sauber drivers (Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld) into the pits early to swap out their broken front wings, while McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen dove into the pits to replace a flat-spotted tire. Massa would never properly recover, finishing outside the points; Nakajima would be the only driver to retire early despite the sweltering heat; and the day would prove an utter disaster for BMW, whose pair finished dead last.
The rest of the erstwhile front-runners were a mixed bag. With BMW languishing and one each of the Ferraris and McLarens struggling to do much better, former champions Raikkonen and Hamilton put up a good fight, dicing it with the cars they'd considered back-markers in previous seasons to mount a respectable challenge. With Button, Vettel and Trulli taking the podium at race's end, Hamilton took a relatively respectable fourth place. A dutiful Rubens Barrichello, who at this point in his long career is well accustomed to trailing his title-leading team-mate after years driving in Michael Schumacher's long shadow at Ferrari, came in fourth. Raikkonen, for his part, put Ferrari in the points for the first time this season with a sixth-place finish after a respectable showing that even had him leading the race during a pit-stop reshuffle.
Timo Glock, who seemed poised for his first race win after the opening laps left him in the lead, in the end settled for seventh place, while Fernando Alonso brought his Renault across the line for eighth and the final championship point this weekend. Behind him Nico Rosberg (Williams), Nelsinho Piquet (Renault), Mark Webber (Red Bull), Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren) and Sebastien Bourdais (Toro Rosso) managed to finish on the same lap as the leader. Massa, Force India's Fisichella and Sutil, STR's rookie Sebastian Buemi and BMW's Kubica and Heidfeld all finished one lap down.
The results give Button and Brawn GP an even bigger edge in the standings, with 31 and 50 points respectively. Barrichello trails with 19, upon which Vettel is rapidly encroaching with 18, his Red Bull team second in the constructors' championship with 27.5 points ahead of Toyota's 26.5, divided in the drivers' standings between Trulli (14.5) and Glock (12). The championship resumes in two weeks as the circus heads to Spain for the first of the European summer races, so stay tuned.