Alonso marks Ferrari debut with Bahrain GP win to lead team to 1-2 start finish

By Paul Logothetis, AP
Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alonso marks Ferrari debut with Bahrain victory

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Ferrari’s decision to give up on last season and begin looking ahead paid off when Fernando Alonso led the Italian team to a 1-2 finish at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.

The two-time world champion from Spain passed teammate Felipe Massa at the second corner after the start and then overtook pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel on the 34th lap for a lead he would never relinquish.

After two frustrating years at Renault, Alonso pounded his chest after jumping on top of his car as Ferrari got off to its best start since 2004 — when Michael Schumacher led a 1-2 start. Alonso was signed in the offseason to replace Kimi Raikkonen, who also won on his Ferrari debut three years ago.

“A very special day for me, coming back to the top of the podium is always special, but also more special with Ferrari and the history of the team and the expectations,” Alonso said. “There is no better way to start the relationship.”

Affected by an engine problem, Vettel was soon after passed by Massa, who claimed second on his return to racing after a life-threatening crash last July in Hungary.

“We were lucky with the problems of Sebastian Vettel to pass,” Massa said. “I’m very happy. It’s also the best start of my season. I rode through the race normal, with very good pace. Thanks to God, I’m fine.”

Ferrari gave up on last season — its worst run of results since 1993 — early to focus on 2010.

“After the very difficult decision we had to take last year — this shows the decision was right,” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said. “The only way to react is to come back with results.”

Lewis Hamilton overtook Vettel at the same spot and the McLaren driver finished third ahead of his Red Bull opponent.

“We had control of the race today and things we were on top of the strategy — everything was running smoothly,” Vettel said. “We should have won today. It cost us a lot.”

Reliability cost Red Bull again — as it did last season — something team principal Christian Horner called “very annoying. We really had the race under control.”

Nico Rosberg was more than 40 seconds behind Alonso in fifth place. Schumacher, his Mercedes teammate and a seven-time champion, placed sixth in his first race in three years after starting seventh in his first race.

“All in all, I have a very positive feeling after my first race,” Schumacher said through a translator. “We came in roughly where we expected to come in.”

Alonso and Ferrari confirmed the preseason predictions that had them as title favorites with the two-time champion’s 22nd career victory. It was Alonso’s third win at the Middle East track but first since 2006 — when he won his last title.

“There is always pressure with every race, every test you go into,” Alonso said after earning the season’s first 25 points. “You live with stress on your shoulders.”

Alonso worked his way up behind Vettel, who had won four of his six previous races from the pole, to set up his pass at the final corner before the finish line straight.

“I was waiting for the time to attack Vettel — maybe the last 10 laps — but suddenly he had a car problem and we had a chance to overtake him earlier than we expected,” Alonso said after his first victory since the 2008 Japanese GP. “(It’s) a fantastic sensation.”

Massa pulled up to Vettel on the same stretch before going around last year’s championship runner-up at the first corner, where Hamilton passed the German driver four laps later.

Massa drove conservatively over the last 30 laps to save fuel and his tires, and Hamilton said he just ran out of laps to catch the Brazilian.

“We had a good day. Our race pace was a lot stronger (than expected),” said Hamilton, who says Ferrari is the team to beat. “If I wasn’t behind Nico for the first half of the race, I could have been closer to the front.”

Schumacher’s new team, Mercedes, showed it still has some work to do to provide him with a car worthy of an eighth title. Schumacher finished 3.9 seconds behind Rosberg.

Defending champion Jenson Button finished seventh for McLaren, while Mark Webber of Red Bull was eighth.

Tonio Liuzzi of Force India and Rubens Barrichello of Williams rounded out the top 10 to finish in the points following a change in the scoring system.

Ferrari changed both of its engines without penalty before the start as a precaution, but there was little caution from Alonso as the Spaniard held the inside position to pass Massa into second after a relatively clean start from the 22 cars on the grid.

Rosberg jumped in front of Hamilton with Schumacher behind him after getting ahead of Webber, whose engine spewed smoke to blind Renault’s Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil of Force India. Those two spun out in the confusion to drop out of the top 10.

The leading drivers didn’t begin to pit until lap 16, while Vettel was the last to change to hard tires — after 17 laps — in the hot desert heat for a 3.5-second gap over Alonso. But the Ferrari improved on the hard tires to gain before jumping on the Red Bull engine problem.

“We’ve done nothing so far, we’ve just won the first race,” Alonso said.

Lotus was the only new team to finish as Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli filled the last two places after both Virgin Racing and Hispania Racing failed to classify.

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