Updated at: 04/21/2013 2:35 PM
By MICHAEL CASEY
(AP) SAKHIR, Bahrain - Sebastian Vettel gave a reminder of how dominant he can be when he’s at his best.
The Red Bull driver won his second straight Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, easily beating Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in a display that will bolster his chances of winning a fourth consecutive championship.
"Fantastic race. It was seamless from start to finish," said Vettel, who was heavily criticized last month after ignoring team orders and passing teammate Mark Webber for the victory in Malaysia.
This race, a political flash point, was run free of commotion off the track. It has been the target of rights groups that contend it glosses over the country’s problems. There were, however, sporadic clashes in other parts of the Gulf country.
Vettel started from second but grabbed the lead for good on the 17th lap and beat Raikkonen by nine seconds. Grosjean was nearly 20 seconds back in third. The Frenchman passed Force India’s Paul di Resta for third with five laps to go for his best finish this season. The fourth-place finish for Di Resta matches his best finish _ last year in Singapore.
"I thought it was crucial to get into the lead from the start and go from there," Vettel said. "It seemed to get better and better toward the end."
Raikkonen started the race ninth and Grosjean 11th. It was especially heartening for Grosjean, who a few days earlier complained about struggling with the softer tires this season and not being able to challenge the leaders.
"The first three races have been consistent but not where we wanted," Grosjean said. "We worked hard, the whole team. It wasn’t easy to find out what was missing to get the feeling back into the car basically we got it. ... Very pleased to be here."
Di Resta’s finish comes a week after he ended up after colliding with teammate Adrian Sutil.
"It’s great to round off the fly-away races with a fourth place and a race that was probably my strongest Grand Prix," di Resta said. "The podium was very close, but with our strategy we were always going to be vulnerable at the end of the race."
Vettel extended his lead in the championship standings to 10 points ahead of Raikkonen after four of 19 races, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton moved up to third after finishing fifth.
It was a day to forget for Ferrari, with both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa encountering problems early on that dropped them from contention. Alonso had to pit twice in the first few laps when his DRS system malfunctioned while Massa damaged a front wing in a collision with Sutil. Alonso finished eighth while Massa was 15th.
While the lead rarely changed hands, the race featured some of the best racing of the season down the grid. Teammates Jenson Button and Sergio Perez touched wheels at one point as the Mexican tried to pass him for fifth. Red Bull’s Mark Webber was in the thick of much of the action in what was his 200th Grand Prix, nearly colliding with Rosberg and going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton on the last lap as the two battled for sixth. Hamilton ultimate passed Webber, whose tires were shot.
"It was nice to have a clean battle like that. I can’t remember fighting with someone so well for a long time," Hamilton said. "It felt similar to the old days in karting where you wait to the last lap."
With his 28th career victory and second of the year, Vettel significantly boosted his chances of defending his title.
Having already joined greats Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher by winning three consecutive F1 titles and becoming the youngest triple champion in the sport’s history, Vettel can match Fangio and Schumacher’s feat of four straight crowns.
Red Bull, which has won the last three constructors’ titles, goes to Europe leading Lotus by 16 points followed by Ferrari 32 points back.
"To be heading to Europe having won two out of the four races plus a second place has been strong start to the campaign for us," team principal Christian Horner said.
Security was tight around the perimeter of the track to deter protesters. Attendance was disappointing, with about only 28,000 spectators at the 45,000-seat circuit. The 10,500-seat grandstand was about a third full and the celebrities that are commonplace around the paddock were fewer than usual.
"We were always confident we could hold this race," said Sheik Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, chief executive of the Bahrain International Circuit. "I think it’s very important that racing stays above everything else that was talked about this week. The racing was unbelievable. That is the message that comes out. Racing is a fantastic sport."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)