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Formula One still has a license to thrill

By Alan Baldwin

LONDON (Reuters) - Those who feared the wheels were about to fall off Formula One had better think again.

The sport has come in for a fuel tank full of criticism lately, much of it self-inflicted, but Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix broke the negative spiral with a race that lit up the track in more ways than one.

The cars were too quiet and not quick enough, likened ludicrously to golf buggies with cautious 'taxi drivers' more preoccupied with saving fuel and sparing the tires than overtaking.

Listening to some people, racing had become boring and the glamour sport had lost its mojo. Or maybe not.

"Unless I am very much mistaken," as retired British television commentator Murray 'pants on fire' Walker would no doubt have opined had he been at the microphone on Sunday night at the floodlit Sakhir circuit:

"And I AM very much mistaken..."

After a dull race in Malaysia the previous weekend, Sunday was suddenly showtime again. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg seized the sport by the scruff of the neck and, in a superbly illuminated night race, gave it full throttle. And some.

They, and other team mates dueling down the field, demonstrated that the sport is still in full possession of its license to thrill and eager to use it.

Hamilton's win, after being chased by his team mate all evening in a wheel-to-wheel battle that left them separated by barely a second at the finish, provided the perfect riposte to the critics.

"That made me happier than anything really," commented Mercedes technical head Paddy Lowe as he celebrated his team's third win in three races this season and second successive one-two finish.

"It's a great result for Mercedes and the team, but more than that it's a great result for Formula One because there has been so much negative stuff going on around, generated perhaps by some of our competitors putting in doubt the nature of this new formula."

HOLDING COURT

Only hours before the race, Ferrari president Luca Di Montezemolo - whose cars have plenty of catching up to do and slunk home ninth and 10th - had sauntered into the Sakhir circuit to hold forth in front of the television cameras.

He referred again to the famous 'taxi drivers' and spoke firmly of the need to bring back the lost 'music' of the engines and allow flat-out racing from lights to chequered flag.

International Automobile Federation (FIA) president Jean Todt, attending his first race of the season, met the major players while commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone told reporters the public wanted change and it had to happen.

The sound will be altered, with a general agreement to come up with a way of raising the decibels after the first European race in Spain next month, but Sunday evening gave Formula One something else to shout about.

For that, Mercedes must take much of the credit by allowing their drivers to race each other all the way rather than forcing them to back off with the sort of dreaded 'team orders' that kill the contest.

Lowe said there had never been a moment's thought about it.

"Mercedes-Benz has a very long history in motorsport and I think this is just part of the philosophy that we want to follow," he said.

"I think it's the spirit of Formula One and motor racing generally. Team orders, putting in artificial constraints, is just such a terrible thing for the entertainment, the spectacle.

"So we believe that we should let the guys race, particularly in a situation where we have a pretty dominant car - it's become clear of that now- it's all the more important to keep providing that entertainment and excitement for all of us. That's what it's all about," he said.

Mercedes had won comfortably enough in Australia and Malaysia but Bahrain showed just how much of a performance advantage the team have.

Hamilton and Rosberg were in a race of their own, almost a minute clear of the rest before the safety car was deployed and pulling away again rapidly once it came in.

Such domination might be a recipe for boredom but with two evenly-matched drivers going wheel-to-wheel, this year could really be back to the future and a classic in the making.

In 1988, during the last turbo era, McLaren team mates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna won all but one race between them in an epic title battle.

Boring? Predictable? Not a bit of it.

"It was a massive fight out there and that's what I'm here for. For racing like that," said Rosberg on Sunday night.

"I think it was a good day for the sport, which is important, because of recent little bits of criticism. I think they (the critics) are all going to be rather quiet tomorrow - which is a very good thing."

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Martyn Herman)

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