Fastest in pre-season testing.
Fastest in qualifying – by nearly four-tenths of a second.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull ticked every pre-season performance box. Surely there was always going to be one inevitable outcome when the chequered flag flew during the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix?
Yet, as the fireworks exploded in the night sky above to Bahrain International Circuit, a familiar cry of celebration erupted on the Mercedes pit wall:
“Get in there, Lewis!”
The opening round of the 72nd Formula 1 world championship was among the more gripping out-and-out races we have seen in recent years. With minimal testing, a raft of new and not-so-new names joining the grid and a world still held largely to ransom by a global pandemic, it would have been easy to expect Mercedes’ iron grip over the sport to hold firm into 2021.
But while Lewis Hamilton may have claimed his 96th grand prix victory and Toto Wolff could once again raise his arms aloft in satisfaction of yet another accomplished mission for Brackley’s finest, Mercedes have rarely looked as vulnerable at the start of a season as they did under the lights in Bahrain.
Whatever anyone may claim, the opening race of a season is never just a case of ‘business as usual’. It’s a crucial moment of recalibration – not just for the 20 drivers and 10 teams, but also for the FIA personnel that oversee them.
Thursday’s regular race director’s event notes laid the groundwork for the final act in Hamilton’s defeat of Verstappen before a wheel had even turned. Instruction 21.1 outlined the sole track limits concern for the weekend ahead:
“The track limits at the exit of turn four will not be monitored with regard to setting a lap time, as the defining limits are the artificial grass and the gravel trap in that location,’ it stated, unambiguously. The issue became rather more ambiguous when a revised document appeared before second practice stating that the provision would only apply for the race itself, not practice or qualifying.
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“In all cases during the race, drivers are reminded of the provisions of Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations,” it added. In other words ‘do not even think of passing anyone on that same stretch of asphalt we are allowing you to otherwise abuse at your leisure’.
If Verstappen and Red Bull’s season-closing victory last time out in Abu Dhabi had been their warning shot to Mercedes for 2021, then their domination of the timing screens over three days of testing and the first two days of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend was them throwing their gloves to the ice and circling their opponents menacingly, fists raised.
Verstappen’s undeniable raw pace had always threatened to one day challenge Mercedes’ hegemony, but now here they were, toe-to-toe on the grid, starting a new season on level terms, with Hamilton and his team knowing they would need to be the ones to throw the first punch.
As the cars rolled into position on the grid, Verstappen calmly clicked through his pre-start procedure but his new team mate, Sergio Perez, was frantically flicking switches on his steering wheel trying to bring life back to his screen and his Honda power unit, which had cut out through turn 12 on the formation lap. The original start was abandoned and the field sent around on a second controlled tour, at which point Perez somehow willed the RB16B back into life and recovered back into the pits, ensuring he would made his Red Bull debut after all.
When the five red lights finally extinguished to signal the start of F1’s longest ever season, Verstappen led away with the two black Mercedes of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in pursuit, and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari snapping at their heels. Behind, Pierre Gasly’s mirrors were briefly filled with orange as the new McLaren team mates of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo scrapped over sixth, before a plume of dust was suddenly kicked up as a car speared off at the back.
Rookie Haas driver Nikita Mazepin had brought one of the most tumultuous grand prix debut weekends for many years to an end on the exit of turn three – his fifth off-track incident in five sessions. Mazepin was quick to take responsibility for his latest excursion, which was far less destructive than the last time a Haas had a first-lap crash at that end of the track.
“The tyres were cold, I got on the kerb, took too much throttle and spun,” he explained. “Totally my mistake. I’m very sorry to the team, because they deserve to do much better than that. I’m very angry with myself.”
Aston Martin’s brand new Safety Car for 2021 was immediately called into action before a single lap had been completed. Perez took the opportunity to pit for slightly fresher medium compound tyres as the gap to the field he otherwise would have had to make up was now conveniently wiped out.
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At the restart, Verstappen’s deliberate strategy of waiting until the last second to let the hammer down saw him successfully prevent Hamilton from getting a run into turn one as Leclerc – who had passed Bottas for third before the Safety Car – decided to remind Hamilton that Verstappen was not the only elite young talent eager for his crown as he swept to the outside.
Hamilton held off that challenge while, behind, the two McLarens ganged up on Gasly for fifth. Norris passed the AlphaTauri, but as Ricciardo and Gasly went side-by-side through turn six, the pair touched, sending Gasly’s front wing skidding along the ground. Carlos Sainz Jnr, in his first race for Ferrari, was a little too optimistic in his efforts to impress his new team and clattered into Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin at the apex of turn 10, but without significant damage to either cars.
After his team mate’s undignified early exit, reigning Formula 2 champion and rookie Mick Schumacher had his own spin on the exit of turn four. Unlike Mazepin, Schumacher kept his VF-21 out of the barriers and was able to recover, though a long and difficult first grand prix lay ahead of him.
The Virtual Safety Car was deployed to allow a clean-up of the debris littering the opening sectors of the lap. When racing finally resumed, Verstappen continued to lead from Hamilton, despite complaining about his car feeling “weird” under acceleration. It did not take long for Bottas to relieve Leclerc of third place thanks to DRS along the pit straight and now Verstappen was truly alone out front with two Mercedes chasing behind.
With Perez making his way through the rear of the field, Mercedes knew Red Bull were especially vulnerable to the undercut with the nature of the Sakhir circuit. So with the gap out front sitting steadily around 1.5 seconds, Mercedes took the call to bring Hamilton in at the end of lap 13 to switch to hard tyres.
“The out-lap will be critical,” came the message to Hamilton. And the world champion duly responded, wasting no time in getting up to speed and putting the onus on Red Bull to react immediately if they wanted to secure track position for their leading man.
They chose not to. With a lap and a half, Hamilton had already virtually covered the spread to Verstappen – guaranteeing that whenever the leader now pitted, he would relinquish the position to Mercedes. Verstappen eventually came in for mediums at the end of lap 17, resuming a full seven seconds behind the new leader and with the knowledge that he would have his work cut out to end up back ahead before the chequered flag.
Unlike last year, where Hamilton made a habit of disappearing out front once given a sniff of the lead, Verstappen used the superior grip offered by the mediums to begin to eat into Hamilton’s advantage bit by bit. This was in spite of the lack of rear grip that still appeared to be plaguing Verstappen in the many traction zones around the Sakhir circuit.
While a clash between the sport’s two most celebrated current talents was brewing, back in the pack, a battle between one of F1’s brightest young stars and its most celebrated veterans was being fought.
Yuki Tsunoda, on his grand prix debut for AlphaTauri, was making his way through the field after a disappointing qualifying session and cautious opening lap had seen him lower in the standings than his pace throughout the weekend had predicted. Ahead of him was none other than double world champion Fernando Alonso, making his return to the sport with Alpine after retiring two seasons prior.
Tsunoda had DRS along the pit straight but was still some way back when he decided to dive up the inside of Alonso into turn one and take 11th place with a bold move. Tsunoda later described how it was an “emotional moment” for him to pass the very same driver he, as an eight-year-old boy 13 years prior, watched win the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji. Sadly for Alonso, his solid comeback drive was halted shortly afterwards when a rear brake duct ingested a sandwich bag and overheated.
At the halfway point of the race, and with Verstappen now in reach of Hamilton, Mercedes decided track position was paramount and called Hamilton in for his second stop to cover off Red Bull from springing the same tactic they had used so successfully themselves earlier. Despite telling Bottas that they would ask him to go longer, Mercedes decided it was better to also bring the sister car in, but a slow stop frustrated their efforts and caused Bottas to fall completely out of touch with the top two.
Despite race control’s earlier advice that track limits at turn four would not be monitored, Hamilton’s repeated use of the full extent of the circuit drew their attention anyway. Mercedes advised him they had been warned to stop being so brazen in how much they were straightening the troublesome turn, or risk being given a penalty.
Verstappen made his second stop for hard tyres 11 laps after Hamilton pitted. Now he and his Red Bull team had 17 laps to overturn a 7.6s deficit to Hamilton and make sure they not only left Bahrain with a win, but having made a clear statement of intent to Mercedes – we can beat you and we will beat you.
As Verstappen began to rapidly close on Hamilton, Esteban Ocon was closing even more rapidly on Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin in 12th place. The sole remaining Alpine used DRS to easily slide by Vettel before the braking zone of turn one, but Vettel completely misjudged his braking point, locked up and slammed into Ocon’s rear, sending them both around. Despite the force of the collision, both were able to continue.
It capped off a miserable first race weekend for Vettel at Aston Martin, who was awarded two penalty points on his licence for the collision to go with the three others he had received that morning for failing to respect yellow flags in qualifying.
But the real drama was about to unfold out front. Hamilton was keeping things smooth and steady at the wheel of his Mercedes as the chasing Red Bull grew just a little bit larger in his mirrors each lap. It had taken 10 laps for Verstappen to cut his advantage to within 1.5 seconds, but with the pressure now tangible, Hamilton locked up into turn 10 and ran wide, crucially putting Verstappen within DRS range of the lead and the win.
As the pair began their 53rd lap, Verstappen was tantalisingly close to the rear of the Mercedes and went to the outside into turn one to set himself up for a good exit and a run at the Mercedes heading to turn four.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi got the best view of anyone as he leapt of the way to be lapped and watched Verstappen sweep around the outside of Hamilton, out onto the asphalt on the exit and into the lead. Hamilton was on the radio before he even reached turn five.
“He’s overtaken on the outside of the track,” Hamilton reported to the team. The call from race director Michael Masi was instant.
“Okay, for the moment, let Lewis through. Let Lewis through,” Gianpiero Lambiase instructed Verstappen after race control suggested to Red Bull that their driver’s move had been less than legal.
Verstappen did not protest or hesitate, immediately pulling to the side of the track along the back straight and blending out of the throttle to allow Hamilton to retake the position. Verstappen had already passed him once. Could he do it again?
Knowing that he needed to continue to apply the pressure, Verstappen tried to stick as close to the rear wing of the Mercedes as possible, but a brief dirty air-induced oversteer moment in turn 13 cost him valuable momentum to take him out of DRS range with only two laps to go.
Despite the superior confidence in his car and fresher tyres than Hamilton, Verstappen could not find a way to get within half a second of the Mercedes to make a second run for the lead of the race. Instead, he could only watch on helplessly as Hamilton held on to take the chequered flag an deny him and Red Bull the win that had looked all weekend to be theirs for the taking.
“Why didn’t you just let me go, man?,” lamented Verstappen, wishing Red Bull had let him stay ahead and cop a penalty. “I could easily have pulled the five seconds. I’d prefer to lose a win like that than be second like this.”
Christian Horner was quick to assure him that they did not have a choice. “We had the instruction from race control unfortunately, Max,” Horner replied. “But that was a hell of a drive you put there.”
As much as Red Bull may have been kicking themselves for somehow letting this one get away from them, they had at least shown they could bloody the noses of Mercedes, even if they had not knocked them to the canvas this time around.
For Hamilton and Mercedes, who were celebrating a 75th win together, it was surely one of their most satisfying triumphs.
“Amazing job,” a jubilant Hamilton told the team over radio.
“I’m so grateful to everyone back at the factory. Everyone’s been working so hard and I know we’re not quick enough, but we managed to do it. And that’s teamwork.”
Bottas rounded out the podium for Mercedes after setting the fastest lap of the race with a very late switch to soft tyres thanks to a sizeable gap to fourth place. That position was taken up by Lando Norris, who had quietly toiled away in his McLaren to secure ‘best of the rest’ status and the best realistically possible result on the day.
After believing his race to be over before it even started, Perez had recovered well to finish in fifth. More important to the Mexican than the points was the ability to get a full race distance worth of experience under his belt in his new car for the 2021 season.
Leclerc demonstrated that Ferrari will be more of a force this season with he and new team mate Sainz in sixth and eighth, split by Ricciardo in his first race for McLaren.
Tsunoda punctuated an impressive debut grand prix with an outrageously late lunge on Stroll on the final lap to take two points for ninth place, later joking that he would not have been able to sleep that night if he had not made the move.
A season that had offered so much promise had certainly delivered during the opening round. Even if the usual suspects had ultimately prevailed at the end, Mercedes will return home knowing how easily they could have been made to taste defeat and how hard it is going to be to keep ahead of the two Red Bulls over the 22 scheduled rounds of the season still to come.
In a season when so many teams will have one eye firmly on 2022, the Bahrain Grand Prix has thankfully shown that the rest of us cannot afford to take our eyes off the action left to come in 2021.