Round 2 of the 2014 MRF Challenge saw a close fight for the top laurels as the championship battle heated up further.
Briton Toby Sowery, the reigning F3 Cup champion, GP3 racer Ryan Cullen and home hero Raj Bharath were the top three championship contenders coming into the second round of the MRF-backed series which uses 210bhp, Renault-powered cars built on a Dallara F3 chassis.
Qualifying session at the 5.4 kilometre venue saw an intense battle for pole position between Raj Bharath and Ryan Cullen, with the Indian eventually coming out on top with a 0.076 second margin.
In the first race of the weekend, Bharath started on pole and had a great start to comfortably lead into the first corner. Cullen had a slow start and lost out to championship leader Toby Sowery and then Kyle Mitchell. On lap two, Cullen passed Sowery before making a move on Mitchell to move into second.
Bharath was pulling away at the front but his lead was erased when the safety car came out on lap three after Tarun Reddy retired on track with a driveshaft failure. After the restart Cullen started reeling Bharath in and made a move into the long left hander after the back straight to take the lead. Cullen was unchallenged as he took his first win in the series ahead of Bharath and Mitchell.
In race two, Briton Struan Moore who made his debut in the MRF Challenge drove brilliantly to hold off Toby Sowery for the win, which saw the lead change 6 times over the 12 lap race while Cullen took the final spot on the podium.
Race three once again saw Cullen led from the start with Bharath in second place. There was chaos behind as Vinicius Paparelli nudged Tarun Reddy who hit Vikash Anand and sent both Indians crashing.
At the front, Mitchell had a great start and was up to third, putting pressure on Bharath. Cullen pulled away comfortably to lead by over 5 seconds with Mitchell finally getting past Bharath on lap six. Bharath lost another place when Sowery passed him on the next lap. Cullen held on for a comfortable win with Mitchell finishing in second place and Sowery in third. Bharath finished fourth with Paparelli in fifth and Mathias Lauda in sixth place.
Starting on pole for the final race of the weekend, Mathais Lauda led into the first corner ahead of Paparelli with Sowery in a close third. Safety car came out on lap two after Lee Keshav collided with Freddie Hunt, who was pushed into a spin. On the restart, Bharath got past Sowery but Mitchell who was running second was a long way up the road. Ultimately Lauda held on to take his debut victory ahead of Mitchell and Bharath.
Tarun Reddy, who had started from the back, moved up to ninth place and then took advantage of the restart and got past Cullen and Paparelli to move into fifth position on lap four, but was forced to retire from a fourth after his engine cover came off.
2014 MRF Challenge
Round 2, Bahrain International Circuit
Pole position: Raj Bharath
1. 2. Raj Bharath
3. Kyle Mitchell
1. Struan Moore
2. Toby Sowery
3. Ryan Cullen
1. Ryan Cullen
2. Kyle Mitchell
3. Toby Sowery
1. Mathais Lauda
2. Kyle Mitchell
3. Raj Bharath
1. Toby Sowery GBR 141 points
2. Ryan Cullen IRL 126 points
3. Raj Bharath IND 112 points
Kyle Mitchell RSA 112 points