Nico Rosberg swept to his fifth successive victory though it proved to be a relatively serene stroll for the Mercedes driver as his primary rivals were all compromised within the first few minutes of proceedings beneath the bright lights at Sakhir.
Rosberg had been on form throughout the weekend in Bahrain but a stupendous lap from Lewis Hamilton denied the German pole position. It was the fastest ever lap of the circuit and while such a statistic was aided by Super Soft tyres and cooler temperatures, it was nonetheless encouraging, and a testament to the development of Formula 1 teams, that the current cars can go quicker than the monstrous V10s.
Hamilton thus held the upper hand but it was Rosberg who would ultimately emerge on top, with his path to victory set within a handful of corners.
Rosberg was dealt a strong hand even before the start when Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari developed an engine problem on the formation lap.
Vettel informed his team of an issue before plumes of smoke poured from the rear of the SF16-H in the final sector, leaving him with no option but to park by the side of the circuit and watch proceedings as an interested spectator.
One down, two to go.
Hamilton bogged down off the line for the second successive race and provided Rosberg with a clear path into the lead, though the Briton dutifully slotted behind.
However, the prospect of an intra-team battle at Mercedes, a la 2014, was dashed when the fast-starting Valtteri Bottas clattered into Hamilton at the apex of Turn 1. It tipped Hamilton sideways, left the Mercedes W07 Hybrid with front wing and floor damage, and meant he completed the first lap a lowly seventh, thus changing his ambition from victory to recovery.
While this was going on, Kimi Räikkönen, now tasked with saving Ferrari’s day, had a similarly difficult getaway and emerged from the melee in fifth position. By the time he cleared slower cars Rosberg was a whole straight ahead and romping away to victory.
The pressure was off and Rosberg was allowed to treat the remaining 50 laps or so as a Sunday evening drive, as Mercedes naturally adopted a cautious three-stop strategy and took extra time while servicing Rosberg in the pits.
Rosberg claimed afterwards that Ferrari hasn’t yet displayed its true pace but the same, if not more, could be said for Mercedes…
Räikkönen consequently had a lonely run to second place and was left to rue a tardy getaway, while Hamilton’s recovery drive took him to third, though that was the maximum in the circumstances.
"I managed to climb back up there and at least get some points, so again it was good damage limitation," he said. "I could easily have not finished the race, so I'm glad it wasn't more points dropped in the end. I had so much damage on the car that I couldn't keep up with Kimi. I was fighting hard and did what I could with it - but it wasn't quite enough to catch him, so in the end I had to just save the tyres in case of a Safety Car."
It leaves Rosberg with a 17 point lead in the standings after only two races, compared to the 10 point deficit he faced at the same stage a year ago.
“I’m just taking it race by race and it’s great to win here, great to win two on the trot and that’s it,” he said.
“Next race – where are we going, China? It is a good moment because we have a good car and I just want to make the most of it.”
Daniel Ricciardo was clipped at the first corner but managed to escape with only minor damage; the Red Bull couldn’t keep pace with the Ferrari but was comfortably clear of the chasing pack, enabling Ricciardo to finish fourth once more, marking a positive start to the season for the Australian.
If Haas impressed on its debut in Australia, it took it to another level in Bahrain as Romain Grosjean collected a stunning fifth place, courtesy of some rapid pace and an aggressive strategy. Grosjean’s ninth place in qualifying left him with several new sets of tyres and he ran three stints on Super Softs, executing overtaking moves as and when they were required.
"This is the American dream," he beamed. "It is unbelievable. I said we had to manage our expectations after we finished sixth in Australia, but here we finished fifth. Everything is working well. I don’t think I’ve ever been as high as fifth in the driver standings. This is the first time in my career, I can’t believe it."
Max Verstappen was a feisty sixth, while Daniil Kvyat salvaged seventh place from another qualifying ‘disaster’, though lost out to the main in contention for a 2017 Red Bull seat in a battle at Turn 4.
Williams’ position during the early stages was encouraging, aided by its rocket-like start, but Felipe Massa and Bottas regressed throughout the course of the race. Massa, running the new front wing, was eighth, while Bottas was handed a drive through penalty for the first corner collision and recovered to ninth, afterwards admitting Williams has slipped back on its 2014/15 form.
Rounding out the top 10 on his debut was McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne; team-mate Jenson Button had dropped out from a promising position early on but Vandoorne got involved in the midfield battles and looked completely at home as he scored McLaren’s first 2016 point. The progress is being made, albeit slowly, and in Vandoorne McLaren has a future star.
"This weekend was a big opportunity for me: I made the most of it, I showed what I’m capable of, and now I just need to wait and see what happens next," said Vandoorne, who will compete in the Japan-based Super Formula category this year.
While one McLaren star scored a point, its former protégé only just missed out on the top 10. Kevin Magnussen was forced to start from the pit lane after a misunderstanding at the end of the second practice session.
Magnussen believed that it was only Daniil Kvyat being called to the weighbridge, rather than both, and he failed to stop, leaving stewards with little option but to issue a sanction.
Magnussen charged forwards but couldn’t get any higher than 11th on a mixed day for Renault; Jolyon Palmer failed to even start due to a hydraulics problem.
Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr became embroiled in a frantic scrap across the first few laps and it was the Swede who pulled ahead, continuing his recent superiority over his team-mate.
Ericsson clung to 12th during the closing stages as he faced pressure from the spirited Pascal Wehrlein, who enjoyed Manor’s best showing in its Formula 1 history. Wehrlein was a midfield battler throughout the race and ran as high as seventh during the pit stop phase, before tyre degradation left him slightly on the back foot. Nasr was a low-key 14th after starting at the very back, following a lock up on his Q1 lap, as Sauber’s troublesome period continues.
Force India had a miserable day as Nico Hülkenberg squandered his grid spot with contact on the first lap, forcing him to pit for a new front wing. That compromised his strategy and left him playing catch-up, while a similar fate befell Sergio Pérez, after he hit Carlos Sainz Jr. on the second lap. The contact also accounted for Sainz Jr. Rio Haryanto was the last classified finisher in 17th place; Haas’ Esteban Gutiérrez ran strongly early on but failed to finish once more, this time due to brake problems.
There were no such worries up front for Rosberg as he swept to a fifth successive Formula 1 victory. Next up is China - where Rosberg claimed his maiden triumph in the sport back in 2012...