Perez’s Q2 stumble leaves Verstappen fighting Mercedes single-handed

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix pre-race analysis

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The championship fight which was teased throughout the build-up to the new season has crystallised on the front row of the grid for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen beat world champion Lewis Hamilton to pole position by just under four-tenths of a second. It was a near-reversal of the situation last year, where Hamilton took pole and Verstappen was four-tenths behind in third.

With 22 more races to follow this one, we should be wary of investing too much significance in the first round of many. But it’s clear the fairly minor changes in the regulations over the off-season – certainly compared to what’s coming next year – has had a profound effect on the competitive order.

All the teams are slower than they were in Bahrain four months ago. But the key change as far as the championship is concerned is that Mercedes have lost over two seconds to Red Bull’s 1.3.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
This may be the only time Hamilton gets ahead of Verstappen
Hamilton suspects Red Bull will at least sustain that pace advantage in the race. “I think they’ve got the pace gap they have today, usually they carry that through into the race,” he said.

“They’re very strong in the race conditions. I’d like to think that we can close up a little bit, but I think they’ve still got at least two tenths in hand.”

Friday’s running suggested the two teams were closer on lap times over longer runs. But Hamilton said that isn’t the case “from the information that I’ve been given and from what I can see.”

“Our balance wasn’t really that spectacular, but it wasn’t the worst, driving,” he said. “It was just if you put all the workings out, it looked like it was a couple of tenths difference between us.

“But we’ll see. It definitely didn’t look terrible, and it was a lot better than what I thought was going to be in testing.”

One weakness Red Bull had last year has persisted into the first race of the new season: they still look like a one-car team. Sergio Perez failed to accompany Verstappen into the final round of qualifying, though to be fair his 0.3 second deficit to his team mate in Q2 is less than what was typical of his predecessor last season, and this was only his sixth day driving the car.

Still, it leaves Verstappen up front without a wingman, with two Mercedes potentially able to exploit different strategies to put pressure on the Red Bull. Unless, of course, Perez can make rapid progress through the seven cars which separate him from the leading trio.

That will likely be quite a bit harder than last year as the midfield has got a lot quicker since the last Bahrain Grand Prix. Red Bull was the only team within a second of pace-setters Mercedes in Bahrain last year. But this weekend three other teams besides Mercedes are as close to Red Bull – McLaren, Ferrari and AlphaTauri – and five of their six cars line up in front of Perez.

The speed of the midfield leaders will have another bearing on the race. Last year whichever of the two Mercedes drivers was typically leading a race left the field behind so quickly they could pit for fresh tyres and come out in clear air. It may take longer to get the necessary lead this year and the cars they emerge behind will be quicker.

That could make for some tricky strategy calls. But realistically it’s less likely to be a problem at Bahrain – where long, wide straights aid overtaking – than at narrower, twister circuits like the next one on the calendar.

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With limited testing data on the new cars and revised tyres, the Bahrain Grand Prix is going to be a race of discovery. That will be more so for some drivers than others. Fernando Alonso – back in F1 after a two-year absence and, as his qualifying performance showed, clearly as sharp as ever – is approaching the race less in terms of the result he can get out of it than the information he can glean.

Alonso wants to learn as much as he can on his return
“Tomorrow we will have a rough idea on what we want to do, how many stops we want to do, which laps we want to do,” he explained. “From my side, I will like to do a good start, a good first lap with no incidents, try to have a clean race and then executing those tyre management and those pit stops the best way I can.

“Because I need that information. I need to do 15, 20 laps with each of the compounds and feel how the degradation is going, how it keeps changing the balance, how to manage those tyres.

“There are a lot of things that some of the people around me on the grid have much more knowledge right now to start the championship. And I want to have those lessons in the pocket tomorrow night when you finish the race.

“So if that’s enough to finish seventh, fantastic. If it’s 11th, okay. If it’s 15th, okay as well. But I need that information tomorrow night.”

But for the occupants of the front row, this race is about who draws first blood in the championship fight. Curiously, Hamilton hasn’t started a new season with a win since 2015. But Red Bull are eyeing their first shot at victory in a season-opener for a decade.

Almost everything so far this weekend points to them achieving it.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Qualifying times in full

DriverCarQ1

Q2 (vs Q1)

Q3 (vs Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’30.4991’30.318 (-0.181)1’28.997 (-1.321)
2Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’30.6171’30.085 (-0.532)1’29.385 (-0.700)
3Valtteri BottasMercedes1’31.2001’30.186 (-1.014)1’29.586 (-0.600)
4Charles LeclercFerrari1’30.6911’30.010 (-0.681)1’29.678 (-0.332)
5Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri1’30.8481’30.513 (-0.335)1’29.809 (-0.704)
6Daniel RicciardoMcLaren1’30.7951’30.222 (-0.573)1’29.927 (-0.295)
7Lando NorrisMcLaren1’30.9021’30.099 (-0.803)1’29.974 (-0.125)
8Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’31.6531’30.009 (-1.644)1’30.215 (+0.206)
9Fernando AlonsoAlpine1’30.8631’30.595 (-0.268)1’30.249 (-0.346)
10Lance StrollAston Martin1’31.2611’30.624 (-0.637)1’30.601 (-0.023)
11Sergio PerezRed Bull1’31.1651’30.659 (-0.506)
12Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo1’30.9981’30.708 (-0.290)
13Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’30.6071’31.203 (+0.596)
14Kimi RaikkonenAlfa Romeo1’31.5471’31.238 (-0.309)
15George RussellWilliams1’31.3161’33.430 (+2.114)
16Esteban OconAlpine1’31.724
17Nicholas LatifiWilliams1’31.936
18Sebastian VettelAston Martin1’32.056
19Mick SchumacherHaas1’32.449
20Nikita MazepinHaas1’33.273

Sector times

DriverSector 1Sector 2Sector 3
Max Verstappen28.349 (1)38.229 (1)22.419 (1)
Lewis Hamilton28.372 (2)38.457 (2)22.422 (2)
Valtteri Bottas28.493 (4)38.642 (5)22.451 (3)
Charles Leclerc28.419 (3)38.598 (3)22.642 (7)
Pierre Gasly28.578 (6)38.658 (6)22.566 (5)
Daniel Ricciardo28.568 (5)38.772 (8)22.587 (6)
Lando Norris28.624 (7)38.659 (7)22.667 (10)
Carlos Sainz Jnr28.628 (8)38.628 (4)22.702 (11)
Fernando Alonso28.747 (10)38.806 (9)22.642 (7)
Lance Stroll28.640 (9)39.016 (11)22.820 (13)
Sergio Perez28.959 (16)38.994 (10)22.536 (4)
Antonio Giovinazzi28.773 (11)39.283 (13)22.652 (9)
Yuki Tsunoda28.857 (12)39.030 (12)22.720 (12)
Kimi Raikkonen28.858 (13)39.388 (15)22.919 (15)
George Russell28.861 (15)39.291 (14)23.164 (17)
Esteban Ocon28.999 (17)39.706 (17)22.912 (14)
Nicholas Latifi29.174 (18)39.581 (16)23.181 (18)
Sebastian Vettel28.858 (13)39.903 (18)23.001 (16)
Mick Schumacher29.295 (19)39.918 (19)23.236 (19)
Nikita Mazepin29.349 (20)40.391 (20)23.533 (20)

Speed trap

PosDriverCarEngineSpeed (kph/mph)Gap
1Sebastian VettelAston MartinMercedes323.1 (200.8)
2Nikita MazepinHaasFerrari320.9 (199.4)-2.2
3Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda318.9 (198.2)-4.2
4Nicholas LatifiWilliamsMercedes317.8 (197.5)-5.3
5Pierre GaslyAlphaTauriHonda317.8 (197.5)-5.3
6George RussellWilliamsMercedes317.2 (197.1)-5.9
7Antonio GiovinazziAlfa RomeoFerrari316.8 (196.9)-6.3
8Daniel RicciardoMcLarenMercedes315.6 (196.1)-7.5
9Lance StrollAston MartinMercedes315.3 (195.9)-7.8
10Kimi RaikkonenAlfa RomeoFerrari315.1 (195.8)-8.0
11Esteban OconAlpineRenault315.0 (195.7)-8.1
12Fernando AlonsoAlpineRenault314.6 (195.5)-8.5
13Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedes314.2 (195.2)-8.9
14Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedes314.2 (195.2)-8.9
15Max VerstappenRed BullHonda313.6 (194.9)-9.5
16Valtteri BottasMercedesMercedes313.4 (194.7)-9.7
17Charles LeclercFerrariFerrari312.4 (194.1)-10.7
18Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrari311.7 (193.7)-11.4
19Sergio PerezRed BullHonda311.4 (193.5)-11.7
20Mick SchumacherHaasFerrari311.0 (193.2)-12.1

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Over to you

Red Bull have looked on course to win all weekend – will Mercedes deny them on race day? And who have you got your eye on for the season-opening race?

Share your views on the Bahrain Grand Prix in the comments.

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Browse all 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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28 comments on “Perez’s Q2 stumble leaves Verstappen fighting Mercedes single-handed”

  1. Cristiano Ferreira
    28th March 2021, 0:59

    The only thing Checo can do, at least for this race is to put his Red Bull at least in 4th place, after all we can see that the car is good enough. I know it’s only the first race of the calendar but he cannot emulate the poor performances of Gasly and Albon if he hopes to remain a Red Bull driver for longer than 1 year.

    Also he needs to be close to / beating Bottas, and i think he showed he can do that despiste his problems in qually.

    1. Cristiano Ferreira
      28th March 2021, 0:59

      *despite

    2. alastair joyce
      28th March 2021, 7:12

      It is interesting on how most of the experienced drivers new to their respective teams are offering excuses for not being on the pace (DR excluded) They should all look at what George Russell did in the Merc! Are they admitting George is a freak or are they just not as good as they thought they were?

      Reply moderated
    3. Indeed, someone said he will get back to 6th but honestly that would be albon-like to me, so from perez I expect a 4th place and that is if nothing happens to verstappen or the mercedes.

  2. Unless, of course, Perez can make rapid progress through the seven cars which separate him from the leading trio.

    Perez’s more immediate problem is going to be Tsunoda right behind him on the grid.

    1. You sir, are correct

      I expect Yuki and Lance to gain places at the lights. If that happens, the race from 4th downwards gets way more interesting.

      1. Yeah, Lance may gain a place or two, but will it last… It rarely does. As for Yuki, I wish him a stable and clean race without unnecessary risks to build some confidence. The danger is that he knows he’s fast, he knows his car is quick and he knows he starts in a very poor position all things considered, after he tasted that great Q1. I don’t expect him to be patient and I recall Sato’s races. I hope he’ll have a great first season, I like having Japanese racers around (F1, MotoGP / GP500 before that and anywhere else). They always bring something different, a specific mentality that can be entertaining, yet sometimes stressful to watch due to inconsistencies and taking too many risks.

  3. Checo has to take less time to catch his rhythm at 100%, RBR wants to fight for the championship, and for that he requires Pérez to be fighting points at the top, Checo has experience, tomorrow he has to leave clean at the first lap, and then focus on strategy to get to the last laps near the top and grab as many points as possible.

    The midfield is very tight, I hope we see a good race.

    1. He should be able to in the race, and don’t forget he was a bit of a victim in qualifying, you see how verstappen ended up 7th in q2 and perez 11th, had he managed to get 1 more place he’d have qualified decently in q3, and they both were on mediums while others ahead on q2 were on softs, so it was a risk to get a better performance in the race, which didn’t pay off for perez, when compared to albon and gasly, I remember them doing q2 on softs and even so barely beating verstappen’s medium times! They knew they had no chance on the same tyres, perez got close and it was his first red bull race.

  4. Perey has done a brilliant job, I’d say, but the field has just closed up to the extent that minor errors can be huge. If the top 3 remain close, it is crystal clear that Mercedes will attempt to pit one of their cars early. If this occurs, I expect it to be Bottas, with Hamilton going long on the stint. Although, are we expecting a one-stop race?

    1. Talk of the race should be tires. We haven’t seen them being pushed/nurtured in a long-enough stint that also sees dirty air from competitive driving.

      1. Looks like nobody knows if it’s a one-stop or two-stop? Mercedes have saved two sets of hard tyres, and I think Red Bull too.

    2. But with a closed up pack it’s not necessary possible because of the traffic

  5. Red Bull have looked on course to win all weekend – will Mercedes deny them on race day?
    – No unless something comes into their favor.
    And who have you got your eye on for the season-opening race? – Mainly Perez and Tsunoda.

  6. If Verstappen wasn’t there Hamilton would be purple in every sector, brilliant!!

    Ferrari for me are the huge surprise, Leclerc almost split them. What confidence from him to leave his one and only Q3 run to the end and then blitz it.. Both he and Carlos are quick in Q2 and slow in the speed trap which is more promising really.
    Perez is an expert at starting from P11 he’ll be in the mix at the end if he keeps it clean

    1. Correction: Leclerc almost split the Mercs and both ferraris are quick in sector 2 which means the car is handling well and possibly has more down force which will help with tyre wear in the race

  7. Unwanted Pierre could be of some help… last year AT made some gambles with the strategy. It worked few times.
    Can they afford to play like that when possessing genuine speed?

    Reply moderated
  8. Shame with Perez, but it’s of course different when Verstappen is on pole. If he takes the start, and the race pace as we glimpsed in practice, it should be Ok as it’s likely Mercedes to wear their tyres out faster.

  9. Perez should have an opportunity to come into play, particularly if he plays the long game on the first stint, the front runners could come out behind him.

  10. The story repeats.. Redbull should have put him on soft and not risk damage to his confidence….

    1. Jonathan Parkin
      28th March 2021, 9:20

      Was that RB’s choice or Perez’s?

      The best thing I can think of for Perez to do is not think about Verstappen just think about himself. Don’t worry what Max is doing just consider what he has to do to get further up. That’s what Damon Hill did in 96 after being battered by Michael the previous year.

      I’m looking forward to seeing what Mick does. If he gets to Lap 3 the sky is the limit

    2. Agree 100%.

      They’ve should have addressed that, but they were probably too focussed on the pole. They put him at a greater risk of being caught In a first-lap contact that could cost him (and RB) dear.

  11. With a 4-tenth advantage, I can’t see Mercedes catching Verstappen. No matter what kind of strategy they try, there is no overturning that kind of pace differential. But I hope I’m proven wrong.

    1. You used the word pace, but that is only qualifying, I think mercedes was better in the long runs, and also on the medium tyres, so we’ll see.

      1. I remember example a much smaller deficit in 2018 between mercedes and ferrari in the first race than qualifying.

    2. I’m waiting for Verstappen’s engine to blow. Redbull very likely have ‘his’ engine turned up to 11, with the expectation Verstappen will ‘manage’ that engine mode over the course of the race. If Mercedes can find a way to put him under preassure, we’ll see what he’s made of. I have the sense of a lot being gambled with this first roll of the dice.

      The rule changes on qualifying modes introduces the potential for all kinds of unfair play. In the same way Ferrari found a way to bend the rules on fuel management, that same potential exist with the rule on ‘party modes’.

      it means those who dare, can take that chance and potentially get away with it. At least before everyone knew where they stood.

  12. Incidently since the ban on party mode has there been any statistical evidence on DNF’s occuring more frequently as teams gamble with that qualifying setting for the race?

    1. Well Verstappen DNF’d 3 time due to engine related issues and other more minor issues with his engines after the engine mode ban.

      I don’t remember other drivers having such issues. Indeed probably just a matter of going to risky with the engine mode for the race.

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