04/21/2013 10:14 EDT | Updated 06/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Vettel wins Bahrain GP over Raikkonen in race targeted by rights groups

SAKHIR, Bahrain - There was nothing controversial about Sebastian Vettel's victory this time, just a reminder of how dominant the Red Bull driver can be when he's at his best.

Vettel won his second straight Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, easily beating Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in a dominant display that will bolster his chances of winning a fourth consecutive championship.

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 managed to pass 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-ever finish last year in Singapore.

"Fantastic race, it was seamless from start to finish," said Vettel, who was heavily criticized after ignoring team orders and passing teammate Mark Webber for the win in Malaysia last month. "I thought it was crucial to get into the lead from the start and go from there. It seemed to get better and better toward the end."

It was also a strong showing the year for and impressive, considering 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 called this his "strongest" Grand Prix — and comes a week after he ended up after colliding with his team 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 - especially to Grosjean who had two new sets of medium tires."

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 out of 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. ... I had to kind of call his bluff. He was always defending into turn one and the one lap I made think I was going to the left and went to right. Caught him napping."

Tires also seemed to be less of an issue this race, with most teams on three pit stops and strategy playing less of a role. Teams have criticized the tires this year as degrading too quick, which forced some to focus their strategies on preserving them.

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.

The race has been the target of rights groups that contend it glosses over the country's political problems while anti-government protesters intensified their demonstrations against the Sunni-led government. While the race went off without incident, there were sporadic clashes in other parts of the Gulf country. Riot police fired tear gas and stun grenades and rights groups said authorities launched raids on houses of several protesters.

Race organizers said they were thrilled to have an incident-free race, with security tight around the perimeter of the track to keep away protesters. The turnout was disappointing, however, with only about 28,000 spectators coming to the 45,000-seat circuit. The 10,500-seat grand stand was about a third full and the celebrities that are commonplace around the paddock were much fewer than usual in Bahrain.

"I feel very good, 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."