Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton won a nail-biting Bahrain Grand Prix season opener, triumphing over the Red Bull of Max Verstappen in a fantastic duel in the desert that went down to the very last lap of the race, as the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas completed the podium.
Starting from the fourth pole position of his career, Verstappen had taken control of the race early on, but lost his advantage when Hamilton was able to undercut the Dutchman into the lead in the first round of pit stops. Following a second stop for both drivers – Verstappen’s coming 10 laps after Hamilton’s – a thrilling finale was set up, Verstappen eating into Hamilton’s lead before attempting a pass on Lap 53 but running too wide and giving the place back.
That would be Verstappen’s last opportunity, with Hamilton able to hold on until the flag to take his 96th career win by less than a second – while Hamilton also passed Michael Schumacher’s record of 5,111 for the most laps led in F1 history.
Behind the duelling lead pair, Bottas finished a distant third after a late stop to successfully gain the fastest lap bonus point, while Lando Norris equalled his result from the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix with a fantastic drive to fourth for McLaren.
After a formation lap issue that forced him to start from the pit lane, Sergio Perez recovered to fifth on his debut for Red Bull, ahead of the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and the second McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo.
It was the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz who took eighth, ahead of rookie Yuki Tsunoda in ninth, while Lance Stroll gave Aston Martin points on their return to F1 with P10.
So, it was disappointment for Verstappen and glory for reigning champion Hamilton at round one – but after a thrilling battle, it looks like we’ve definitely got a tight struggle for supremacy in 2021 between Red Bull and Mercedes on our hands.
AS IT HAPPENED
Sergio Perez gave Red Bull a heart-in-their-mouths moment even before the race had begun, his Red Bull RB16B pulling up on the formation lap with an issue. Perez – who, like Pierre Gasly, had taken a new control electronics and energy store on his car before the race – was able to get the RB16B going and take up position at the end of the pit lane to take the race start, as the grid were forced into a second formation lap.
When the five red lights on the Bahrain International Circuit gantry were eventually extinguished and the 2021 season got under way, all eyes were fixed on how the sister Red Bull of Max Verstappen on pole would fare against the menacing black Mercedes W12s of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas starting alongside and astern of him.
Very well, as it turned out. Verstappen smoothly covered off the threat from Hamilton, to hold the lead going through Turn 1, with Bottas coming under attack from the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc starting P4, Leclerc eventually getting ahead of the Finn before a Safety Car was called into action. That was because of Nikita Mazepin, who’d spun his Haas coming out of Turn 3 and smashed into the wall – an inauspicious, but fortunately non-serious, way to conclude his F1 debut.
The race got going again on Lap 4 of 56 (the aborted first formation lap having taken one lap off the planned 57), Verstappen waiting as late as possible to put his foot down at the restart as he tried to reduce the opportunity for Hamilton to slipstream him into the lead down the straight.
The Dutchman managed it cannily, heading Hamilton, who himself led Leclerc, Bottas, Gasly, Norris and Ricciardo – Norris having passed his new team mate before the Safety Car was called – with Fernando Alonso in eighth ahead of Stroll and Sainz.
Norris was looking fighty early doors, though, and straight away passed Gasly at the restart. Ricciardo did too, but clipped the Frenchman’s front wing, ripping it from the AlphaTauri AT02 and forcing Gasly in for a change – while debutant Mick Schumacher dropped his own Haas coming into Turn 6 and spun. Bottas re-passed Leclerc for P3 on Lap 6, while Norris too was past the Ferrari driver three laps later.
On his F1 return, Alpine’s Fernando Alonso pulled the trigger for the first round of pit stops on Lap 11, and with Verstappen having eked out a near two-second advantage over Hamilton in the early stages, the work of Red Bull and Mercedes’ pit crews and strategists would be key as to whether the Dutchman could keep his advantage.
Hamilton was in for hards on Lap 13, and flew on his out laps. Verstappen would wait four more laps to make his own stop – but the undercut is powerful in Bahrain, and Red Bull’s delay in bringing their man in meant that Hamilton was able to jump into the lead, and by a full 7s at that.