On a day when F1 could again focus more on racing than politics, the Bahrain Grand Prix was held without a hitch as Vettel completed a wire-to-wire victory in a race that was unaffected by the ongoing anti-government protests that escalated this week.
Vettel, the two-time defending champion who had struggled with the pace of his Red Bull car at the start of the season, held off a charging Kimi Raikkonen to secure his first victory of the year in an event that was relatively free of on-track incidents as well.
"It was an incredible race," said Vettel, who pumped his first as he crossed the finish line. "We had a very good start which was crucial. I was able to pull away from the pack which turned out to be a big advantage."
But the bigger victory may have been for organizers, who were able to put on a globally televised sporting event without disruptions.
With layers of security checkpoints around the Bahrain International Circuit, there was no sign of protesters anywhere near the track during the 95-minute race, though smoke from burning tires several kilometers away drifted over the circuit at one point.
"The excitement and quality of the racing is a fitting conclusion to another enthralling weekend of racing," BIC Chairman Zayed Al Zayani said. "There are very few countries that can claim that almost 10 percent of its population attends its Grand Prix. Given these facts, and the incredible atmosphere at the track today, there can be no doubt in my mind of what Bahrain thinks about F1."
Last year's F1 race — the nation's premier international event — was canceled because of the uprising by the kingdom's Shiite majority, which is seeking to break the ruling Sunni dynasty's hold on power. F1 had faced severe criticism from several human rights groups over its decision to return this year, and the race had been overshadowed most of the week by clashes between riot police and anti-government demonstrators. Protesters claim at least one person was killed by riot police this week.
Demonstrators, whose anger grew as the race drew closer, had threatened to march on the circuit. But in the end, their threats were trumped by the heavy security as protesters were kept as far as 20 kilometers (12.43 miles) away.
At least 50 people have been killed since unrest erupted in Bahrain in February 2011 in the longest-running street battles of the Arab Spring.
Fears of violence left parts of the grand stands empty, though members of the ruling Sunni family were among the 28,000 fans who watched the race.
On the track, Raikkonen worked his way up from 11th on the grid to finish 3.3 seconds behind for his first podium finish since returning to the sport this season. Raikkonen's Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean was third, followed by Vettel's Red Bull teammate Mark Webber.
Vettel's victory moves him atop the drivers championship standing with 53 points, four ahead of McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who finished eighth on Sunday after starting from second.
It was a great day for Lotus, as Raikkonen showed he can still compete for victories despite taking a two-year hiatus from F1 to compete in rally driving. It was the first podium of Grosjean's career.
Still, Raikkonen was left to rue several missed opportunities that could have given him the lead. He dropped a spot after a poor start and then struggled to get past Grosjean for second. Once he was into second, the Finn managed to close the gap on Vettel to less than a second after 34 laps. But he only made one serious attempt to pass the German after that and it failed.
"We gave ourselves a chance," said Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion. "It's a bit disappointing that we didn't manage to it. We couldn't win the race but at least we got the podium with both cars. The team deserves what we achieved."
However, it was race to forget for McLaren and Ferrari.
Hamilton suffered through two bad pit stops and teammate Jenson Button, who was running in seventh at one point, retired on the 56th lap and settled for 18th.
"There are good times and bad times in motor racing. I guess this was just one of those days," Hamilton said. "By rights, we should have been fighting to finish in the top four today, but it didn't work out like that in the end."
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso finished seventh and his teammate Felipe Massa was ninth on a day when both cars struggled with pace — a problem that has plagued the team all season.
For Vettel, the victory should put to rest any doubts that he and Red Bull had lost their edge.
"We had to work extremely hard in the first couple of races. We were not where we wanted to be so therefore I'm extremely happy that we had a much better weekend here," Vettel said.
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