Felipe Massa leads a Ferrari 1-2

Lewis Hamilton of McLaren gets out of his damaged car after crashing in the second free practice during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend.-AP

The Brazilian driver reversed the disappointing form he had displayed in Australia and Malaysia, winning with consummate ease in Manama. Alan Henry reports.

Lewis Hamilton’s world championship ambitions were dealt a major blow when he trailed home 13th in the Bahrain Grand Prix after two major mistakes in the early stages of a race which was dominated by Ferrari. The Briton described the day as a “disaster”.

Starting from third on the grid, Hamilton made the catastrophic error of failing properly to programme his McLaren’s launch-control system. So, when the race began, the car went into anti-stall mode. Before he could correct the mistake he was passed on both sides as he struggled to engage a gear and eventually staggered away to come round in 10th place at the end of the opening lap.

“It was a disaster. The anti-stall kicked in,” he explained. “I hadn’t flicked the switch early enough and the launch map wasn’t primed, so it went straight into anti-stall. Everyone else was in launch mode and I wasn’t. It was a very poor performance. I sort of let the team down today.”

Trying desperately to make up lost time, he touched the back of his former team-mate Fernando Alonso’s Renault and came straight into the pits to replace his missing nose wing. By the time he got back on to the circuit, he was running a distant 18th with all hopes of adding to his championship points tally gone.

It subsequently emerged that the aerodynamic “bridge” connecting the two sides of the front wing across the nose of the McLaren had failed a couple of seconds before he plunged into the back of the Spaniard. That gave Hamilton a fleeting rush of acceleration which carried him into his collision.

“As a professional you need to pick up the pieces if your weekend gets off to a bad start and at least score some points, but I didn’t do any of that,” he said. “I had the collision with Fernando, which cost us any chance of getting something from the race. I’m always the first to blame myself if I do something wrong — I think that’s the way to be.”

Alonso suggested he was perhaps trying too hard to regain the ground he lost off the grid. “In the first couple of laps when you are running eighth or ninth, you try to recover places too quickly,” explained the Spaniard. “On lap one he touched me at turn four, hitting the rear diffuser, and then on lap two he jumped into my rear wing. I don’t know why. I was flat out and the McLaren is quite quick in the straights. I guess we were running too close and maybe he didn’t realise how close we were.”

Renault’s head of engineering, Pat Symonds, produced data to disprove the theory Alonso had deliberately lifted off the throttle. “Fernando came out of the turn and accelerated down the straight into fifth gear, hitting 227kmph, full throttle, no touching of the brakes or anything like that,” said Symonds. “You can see on the accelerometer the impact, that he got hit from behind. So all I can say from our side is there’s no blame attributable to Fernando, which is what some of the speculation might be.”

This was a disastrous weekend for Hamilton, who crashed at almost 130mph during second free-practice session, wrecking his car. He emerged unhurt but the team’s mechanics were faced with working until 4 a.m. on April 5 to rebuild the McLaren. He qualified well in third place behind Robert Kubica’s pole-winning BMW Sauber and the Ferrari of Felipe Massa, but Massa dominated the 57-lap race from the start, winning by 3.3sec from his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and Kubica.

After three of the season’s 18 races Raikkonen, the defending champion, now leads the title contest with 19 points ahead of Nick Heidfeld, who came in fourth. Hamilton is level on 14 points with his team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, who finished fifth, and Kubica.

BMW Sauber took the lead in the constructors’ championship.

“It’s not a huge concern, to be honest,” Hamilton said of McLaren’s apparent lack of form. “We’ve got the pace — and I know I’ve got the pace — and I know we’ll be quite a bit quicker at the next race than we were at this. I’ve had such a good run early in my Formula One career that it was inevitable this would happen eventually. It’s all part of it. There’s still a long way to go, so don’t count me out of it.”

McLaren’s chairman, Ron Dennis, explained that the team had switched Hamilton to a one-stop refuelling strategy in the hope of letting him make up as much ground as possible. “After Lewis’s bad start and the incident with Fernando, which extensively damaged his car, we took the early decision to save the engine for the next race in Barcelona.”

Massa was delighted to have reversed the disappointing form he had displayed in Australia and Malaysia, beating both Raikkonen and Kubica in convincing fashion. “I feel sensational,” said the Brazilian. “Finally after starting the championship under a dark cloud I can see the sunshine again. We kept our concentration all weekend long and this is the result.” It was the 100th Formula One win for Ferrari under the stewardship of the team’s charismatic president, Luca di Montezemolo.

Hamilton’s dismay was compounded by Ferrari’s one-two, which suggested that the Briton will face a huge task if he is to compete for the title — and cannot afford the type of mistakes he made here. “The car was pretty perfect all weekend,” Raikkonen said ominously.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008