Sakhir, Bahrain (AP) — Sebastian Vettel is back on top of the Formula One standings and his Ferrari team is bursting with ambition again.
A couple of hours after Vettel had held off his Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton to win an exciting Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday — the German driver’s second victory in three races — Ferrari’s chairman spoke with new-found confidence.
“It is, of course, hugely satisfying to be back on the top step of the podium,” Sergio Marchionne said. “More importantly, however, we are now completely confident that our victory in Melbourne wasn’t just a one-off and that we will be at the forefront of this world championship until the last (race).”
Fighting talk from Ferrari, at long last.
Vettel is chasing his fifth world title and is seven points ahead of three-time champion Hamilton in the drivers’ standings, while Ferrari is three points in front of Mercedes in the constructors’ race.
The renewed optimism is in contrast to last year, when Ferrari did not even win a race and where Vettel drew more attention for his frustrated outbursts during actual races rather than his driving.
Ferrari won the last of its 15 drivers’ titles through Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, and the last of its 16 constructors’ titles a year later. A demoralizing drought for such a fiercely proud team, certainly, but this year promises to be different.
“We finally have a competitive car to count on and it is important to recognize the speed with which we implemented the developments,” Marchionne said. “My compliments not just to Seb for his achievements in Bahrain, but also to the whole team.”
It is the first time Ferrari has won two of the first three races of the season since Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa in 2008, while the last time a single Ferrari driver won two of the opening three races was Michael Schumacher in 2004.
Vettel’s 44th career win puts him in command, heading into the Russian GP in Sochi in two weeks’ time.
“We just have to make sure we keep it going,” Vettel said. “But for now the team has done a really, really great job.”
As Sunday’s race was drawing to a close under floodlights, Hamilton was catching fast but ran out of time and finished almost seven seconds behind.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas finished third after starting from pole position for the first time. It was his 11th podium.
“I didn’t have enough pace today and we have to find the reasons why,” the Finnish driver said.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.
Bottas made a clean start but Hamilton was beaten for pace by Vettel, who overtook him heading into the first corner.
“Sebastian was in my blind spot so I didn’t know where he was,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s hopes were also hit when the British driver was given a five-second time penalty early into the race for driving too slowly in the pit lane and holding up Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who finished fifth.
“The pit lane was really my fault so apologies to my team,” Hamilton said. “Losing points for the team is definitely painful.”
Vettel completed the 57 laps of the 5.4-kilometer (3.4-mile) track in 1 hour, 33 minutes, 53 seconds, for his third win in Bahrain after success with Red Bull in 2012 and 2013.
Vettel came in for new tires on lap 11, prompting Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to pit on the next lap.
But moments later, the Dutchman’s brakes failed and he drifted across the track and into the wall, his race over. The 19-year-old Verstappen climbed out and kicked the barriers in frustration. The incidents were coming fast, with 18-year-old Lance Stroll hit from the side on lap 13 by Carlos Sainz Jr. — forcing the safety car to come out.
Both Mercedes drivers used the safety car incident to pit for new tires, but Hamilton held up Ricciardo.
When the race began in earnest again on lap 17, Vettel brilliantly defended the corner twice to fend off Bottas.
By the halfway point, Vettel’s lead was six seconds over Hamilton, who had just passed Bottas.
With Hamilton gaining fast, Vettel came in for his second tire change on lap 34 and came out fourth behind Raikkonen.
Hamilton was now the new race leader, but with more than 20 laps to go, a time penalty still to take, and with Vettel on new tires, it was a precarious lead.
Hamilton came in for a tire change soon after and took his time penalty. This put Bottas in second place, but he then backed off to let the quicker Hamilton through to chase Vettel down.
“Thanks to Valtteri for being a gentleman,” said Hamilton, who endured a much more difficult relationship with Nico Rosberg, his former Mercedes teammate.
Meanwhile, there was more misery for McLaren. Fernando Alonso retired one lap from the end, while his teammate Stoffel Vandoorne did not even start because of engine failure.
McLaren was once a proud team like Ferrari is now, but with no points from three races it is a long way off from turning the corner.