Protests in Bahrain as McLaren's Sergio Perez lights the fuse

 

The sense of deja vu was inescapable at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday. The same drivers filled the podium in the same positions as they had last year and, just as in 2012, the race took place against the backdrop of arguments about whether Formula 1 should be in the troubled Gulf kingdom at all.

It was not a complete carbon-copy weekend one year on, however.

In the last two races Perez has angered Raikkonen, Hamilton, Alonso and Button. He only has Vettel to go and he will have a full contingent of F1's active world champions on his case

Worryingly for the rest, Sebastian Vettel's victory over Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean was considerably more dominant than it was in 2012. And, for those in F1, the situation in Bahrain was less tense than on their previous visit.

There were no mechanics caught in tussles between rioters and the police and having a petrol bomb bounce off the roof of their car. There were no journalists who ran from restaurants when they heard an explosion.

Instead, there were just the nagging questions about whether the race should be happening at all.

The Bahrain Grand Prix effectively exists because a country with a heavily criticised human rights record and where civil unrest has continued for two years is using it to present an acceptable face to the outside world.

The familiar arguments about politics and sport, about it not being F1's place to get involved in how a country is governed, were re-run.

Those issues will not go away. But for now F1 seems resigned to being locked into what looks likely to be a repeating cycle.

Until the Bahraini royal family decide they no longer want a grand prix, the race will be a magnet for protest and controversy every year. The sport will go through the same discomfort in the lead-up, feel the same bubbling anxiety while personnel are in the Gulf kingdom and continue to hope nothing goes wrong.

The race feels like it is held under lockdown. Security is tight on the way to the track, and around the capital Manama itself, and a close watch is kept on the media involved.

But the Sakhir track - with its attractive paddock, dotted with palm trees wrapped in fairy lights - seems almost designed to take the focus away from the troubles outside.

Once notorious for holding a succession of tedious races, Sakhir has now hosted two in a row containing ferocious action and serving up some tasty controversy.

Vettel romped to an untroubled victory and Raikkonen consolidated his second place in the championship with a remarkably consistent drive on a two-stop strategy to finish second after starting eighth.

But behind them the racing was fast and furious - with furious being an especially apt word to describe Jenson Button's mood after his tussles with McLaren team-mate Sergio Perez.

Sergio Perez and Jenson Button

Bahrain GP: McLaren's Jenson Button and Sergio Perez battle on-track

Perez headed into Bahrain as a man under pressure, told by team principal Martin Whitmarsh after a lacklustre performance in China the week before to up his game and "get his elbows out" on the track. He did the former but took the latter rather too seriously.

Perez's was a strong drive to sixth place in a McLaren that is still some way off the pace, and he impressively beat Button on the way.

For the most part, it was good, hard racing - there was, for example, nothing wrong with Perez running Button and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso out of road when they were trying to sit it out around the outside of him through one corner. He was just taking the racing line, as he is entitled to do.

But some of Perez's tactics while racing his team-mate were questionable at best. Weaving at someone on the straight and banging wheels is not really on - and running into the back of Button at the hairpin could, as Whitmarsh pointed out, have ended Perez's own race and Button's as well.

"If he'd have come back to the garage then, he'd have been for it, and he knows that," said Whitmarsh.

Despite having an awkward driver row to soothe, Whitmarsh was encouraged by Perez's improved performance in Bahrain.

After all, it was Whitmarsh who stuck his neck on the line and signed Perez without going through McLaren's usual rigorous analysis of drivers. And until Bahrain the Mexican had looked a particularly insipid replacement for Lewis Hamilton.

Perez will be having what will inevitably be difficult conversations with both Button and Whitmarsh in the forthcoming days, and it is fair to say he is developing a bit of a reputation for himself with his peers.

His racing tactics in China were a topic for conversation in the drivers' briefing on Friday in Bahrain, and one suspects his name will come up again when the sport reconvenes in Barcelona in three weeks' time.

In the last two races Perez has angered Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Alonso and Button. He only has Vettel to go and he will have a full contingent of F1's active world champions on his case.

For now, such concerns are far from Vettel's mind. Two wins, a third and a fourth in four races have put him into a comfortable championship lead.

Vettel, as team boss Christian Horner correctly put it, was "untouchable" in Bahrain and a 10-point lead over Raikkonen, and 30 over Alonso, is a confidence-inspiring position in which to head into the three-week break before the Spanish Grand Prix.

Drivers' championship leaders

1 Vettel (Red Bull) 77pts

2 Raikkonen (Lotus) 67

3 Hamilton (Mercedes) 50

4 Alonso (Ferrari) 47

Alonso, meanwhile, will have his own concerns. Unlike at this stage last year, he clearly has a car with which to compete at the front. But, also unlike this stage last year, Ferrari are making mistakes.

In Malaysia a month ago, they did not order Alonso to pit at the end of the first lap to replace the front wing he had damaged against the back of Vettel on the opening lap. The result was it broke and sent him crashing out of the race at the start of lap two.

In Bahrain, after he pitted to have the team fix a faulty DRS overtaking aid, they failed to tell him not to use it again after he rejoined, wrongly believing the problem would not recur. It did, and he had to stop again on the next lap to have it forced down again.

Without the DRS to help him overtake, or defend himself in the pack fight with Hamilton's Mercedes, Red Bull's Mark Webber and Perez in the closing laps, Alonso fought back impressively from 19th place to finish eighth.

But that eighth could have been third, even with the failed DRS, had he not had to make that second stop. And in Malaysia, even with a stop to change the wing, at least a fifth place was on offer. That's 21 possible points Ferrari have thrown away.

Team boss Stefano Domenicali insisted that Ferrari would "stay focused - the championship is long; there is no point in crying too much".

But clawing those points back against a rival as strong as Vettel, even with Alonso in a competitive car, has made that elusive Ferrari-Alonso championship that bit harder to win.