Hamilton edges thrilling curtain-raiser against Verstappen: 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Review

Formula One in 2021 is here! Starting off two weeks later than originally planned in the dessert with the traditional Sakhir International Circuit layout for the Bahrain Grand Prix hosting the season opener for only the third time. The opening race can be crucial for setting the tone for the season ahead with the driver winning the opening race going on to be crowned World Champion 34 times. That said, that has not happened since Nico Rosberg in 2016. However, this was one of the best season-opening races in recent years and if the Bahrain Grand Prix is only the first of many such races we will see in 2021, it is sure to be a scorcher!

For the first time in the hybrid era, it looks like we may have a sustained challenge to the all-conquering Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton [Pictured above; image from formula1.com]. Red Bull looked very strong in the three-day pre-season testing that was undertaken in Bahrain while Mercedes looked to be a bit on the backfoot. That appeared to be the case when it came to the first weekend with Max Verstappen looked mighty! Red Bull were aiming to win their first season-opening race since 2013 and with Honda power in their cars, could it have been Honda’s first since Ayrton Senna in 1991. Verstappen put them on the right track with an epic pole position lap going almost four-tenths quicker than the Mercedes of Hamilton with these two titanic drivers qualifying on the front row together for only the first time!

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying

Q1:
1st Max Verstappen 1:30.499……………15th Carlos Sainz 1:31.653; 16th Esteban Ocon +0.071, 17th Nicholas Latifi +0.283, 18th Sebastian Vettel +0.403, 19th Mick Schumacher +0.796, 20th Nikita Mazepin +1.620

Q2: 1st Carlos Sainz 1:30.009………10th Lance Stroll 1:30.624; 11th Sergio Perez +0.035, 12th Antonio Giovinazzi +0.084, 13th Yuki Tsunoda +0.579, 14th Kimi Raikkonen +0.614, 15th George Russell +2.806

Q3: 1st Max Verstappen 1:28.997, 2nd Lewis Hamilton +0.388, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +0.589, 4th Charles Leclerc +0.681, 5th Pierre Gasly +0.812, 6th Daniel Ricciardo +0.930, 7th Lando Norris +0.977, 8th Carlos Sainz +1.218, 9th Fernando Alonso +1.252, 10th Lance Stroll +1.604

If 2021 serves more races like this then long may it continue. The battle between Verstappen and the reigning world champion was intense albeit a tactical battle. With Verstappen leading from the front, it was down to Mercedes to try and force Red Bull’s hand. They did this twice by going for the undercut and gaining track position. Track position can be king and that is what it ultimately proved. On lap 53, with fresher tyres and Hamilton struggling on his older set, the key moment came when Verstappen seemed to have the move done for the lead at turn 4 but had to concede position after an instruction from the stewards.

The decision caused some controversy with red Bull not impressed at all. Verstappen complained on team radio, ‘Why couldn’t you just let me go? I could’ve easily pulled the five seconds. I prefer we lose a win like that than be second like this.’ Team Principal Christian Horner told him, ‘We had the instruction from race control unfortunately, Max’. The instruction had come from Race Director Michael Masi. Verstappen conceded position along the back straight to turn 11 and never seemed to be able to get close enough. Could he have allowed Hamilton through differently? Perhaps, but the feeling from Red Bull must have been that they thought they had the pace to get the move done again.

Were the stewards right? The short answer is yes. As spectacular as it was, Verstappen completed the move with all four wheels off the race circuit much as he did against Raikkonen at the 2018 US Grand Prix or Daniel Ricciardo when he gained places at the 2019 French Grand Prix going off track. He had in effect gained a lasting advantage in going off track as it allowed him to complete the pass. Verstappen was also assuming that the penalty would have been 5s. It could have been more and could easily have cost him the race. It also would not have set a very good and sporting precedent if you the team had elected to ignore the stewards and carry on so I imagine the penalties would have been more severe.

Should the rule regarding track limits at that turn have been more consistent? Masi believes they were, insisting, ‘With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race, it was mentioned very clearly in the meeting and the notes that it would not be monitored with regard to setting the lap time so to speak – but it will always be monitored in according with the Sporting Regulations that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.’ In Qualifying, if you went wide there, lap times were deleted and perhaps it should have been that strict in the race as red Bull noted Mercedes drivers were going wide consistently before the stewards warned them. If there are track limits in place for Qualifying, they should be equally consistent in the race.

Still, it looks like we have a real battle for the titles this year and at least the outcome of the season opener was not decided in the steward’s room post-race. That would have been a real damper. It must also be said, Max Verstappen who was in a league of his own trying to challenge Mercedes last year, continued into 2021 in the same vein with a consistently impressive performance. With a quicker, potential title-challenging car, the flying Dutchman topped the timesheets in all three practice sessions and his pole position lap was phenomenal. Leading from the front, he did just about everything right up until that crucial moment on lap 53.

What a battle Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen produced in Bahrain! [Image from Autosport].

As for the race winner, Lewis Hamilton, just how did he do that? The first active driver to be knighted did not seem to have the tools to match the Red Bull of Verstappen until the race but did well to qualify within four-tenths having expected the gap to be twice that. In race trim, Hamilton looks closer to Verstappen as he was able to stay within two seconds to make the undercut work but the final stint was most impressive. He had only managed to do 15 laps on his first set of Hard tyres but managed to do the remaining 28 on his second. There was certainly luck during those ‘horrifying’ final laps but it is the sort of race win that only Lewis Hamilton can seem to deliver. Hamilton has now won in all 15 seasons he has competed in; maintaining his record as the only driver to do so and won the season opener for the first time in six years.

Mercedes know they were fortunate with Toto Wolff even hinting towards the gods for their victory. It does look like Red Bull are the quicker of the two teams at the moment and this sort of battle is what we have been crying out for; that excitement at the front and a battle between two different outfits. Verstappen was also nursing an issue with dif during the race so it will be interesting to see next time just how much that had an impact on his car’s performance. If we are going to see a sustained battle between Red Bull and Mercedes in 2021 then the two teammates of the lead protagonists will be crucial to the battle in the Constructors. They will both want to have title aspirations for themselves which makes it all the more intriguing.

Valtteri Bottas after being quicker than Hamilton in FP1 seemed to struggle with his Mercedes more than his teammate and even described the car as ‘undriveable’ after Friday practice. That isn’t something we’ve heard about a Mercedes in a long while! He Qualified behind Hamilton and was caught out at the start by a fiery Leclerc and lost time in the few laps behind him but was coming back strong. A slow second pit stop cost him dearly and while he was ahead enough of Norris to go for a fresh set and the fastest lap point, he felt Mercedes were too defensive on his strategy.

Sergio Perez very nearly did not start his debut Grand Prix for Red Bull but from the pit lane, it was a very strong recovery to finish 5th. [Image from The Daily Express].

At Red Bull, Sergio Perez had a topsy turvy Grand Prix weekend and for Red Bull to counter Mercedes strategically they will need fewer issues. The Mexican had a lap time deleted in Q2 and a team gamble to stick with the Medium tyre saw him fail to reach Q3. He almost didn’t start the race after his engine cut out despite having a Control Electronics and Energy Store change pre-race. Managing to get it back up and running so he could start from the pit lane was followed by an epic recovery drive as he came through the field; much like he did in last years Sakhair Grand Prix. Perez was still struggling to get adjusted to the car but if he can keep his race drive levels that high then he could have a part to play as Red Bull and Mercedes lock horns.

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Race Result

1st Lewis Hamilton 1:32:03.897,
2nd Max Verstappen +0.745, 3rd Valtteri Bottas +37.383, 4th Lando Norris +46.466, 5th Sergio Perez +52.047, 6th Charles Leclerc +59.090, 7th Daniel Ricciardo +66.004, 8th Carlos Sainz +67.100, 9th Yuki Tsunoda +85.692, 10th Lance Stroll +86.713, 11th Kimi Raikkonen +88.846, 12th Antonio Giovinazzi +1 Lap, 13th Esteban Ocon +1 Lap, 14th George Russell +1 Lap, 15th Sebastian Vettel +1 Lap, 16th Mick Schumacher +1 Lap, Pierre Gasly DNF, Nicholas Latifi DNF, Fernando Alonso DNF, Nikita Mazepin DNF

Fastest Lap: Valtteri Bottas 1:32.090

Behind the Mercedes and Red Bull battle is an interesting battle for third quickest and best of the rest between McLaren, Ferrari and Alpha Tauri. The newly rebranded Alpine and Aston Martin look to be a little bit behind these three based on Bahrain.

McLaren look to be just ahead of this battle although they may not be the quickest throughout a single lap (they were content with 6th and 7th in Qualifying), in terms of race pace they were. Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris look evenly matched so that battle will be intense during the season. The honeybadger maintained his record of never being out-qualified by a teammate in Bahrain by going 6th in Q3 but only 0.043s separated them. In the race, Norris had a feisty start and getting past his teammate before the Safety car in lap 1 was key. It allowed him to attack Leclerc and after passing the Ferrari on lap 9 had a strong but relatively lonely race to finish a very strong 4th. Ricciardo still scored points on his McLaren debut finishing 7th but it is something for him to build on as he acclimatises to his new team.

Ferrari have certainly improved on their performance in 2021 and with their new line up of Carlos Sainz alongside Charles Leclerc pushing each other, it looks like it could be a decent year for them. The Scuderia got both cars into Q3 for the first time since Hungary last year with Leclerc producing an excellent effort to start 4th. The Monegasque’s race start was strong too as he briefly got ahead of Bottas. That did not last and while the race pace seems stronger in 2021, he did not have enough to finish ahead of Norris or Perez but 6th is an excellent result. He finished 10th and a lap down at the corresponding race only four months ago. As for Sainz, it was a solid if not spectacular Ferrari debut. He was content to get the race distance in a new car under his belt and after being cautious at the start produced some strong overtakes, on Vettel and Alonso in particular as he finished where he started, 8th. It was Ferrari’s first double points finish since Turkey and a strong start to 2021.

Ferrari’s improvements in the engine department seem to have benefited the other Ferrari powered teams like Alfa Romeo. Both Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovianzzi were able to get into Q2 while four months ago neither car got out of Q1. In the race, the pair came home so agonisingly close to the points with 41-year-old Raikkonen finishing 11th and Giovinazzi 12th, a big improvement on their 15th and 17th in December. Raikkonen being the quicker of the two in race trim, was able to finish on the lead lap having been running in the top 10 for most of the race though Giovianzzi had the first bragging rights in the Qualifying stakes. While missing out on points was slightly disappointing, they feel they have cemented their place back in the midfield battle.

Kimi Raikkonen is still in F1, after 20 years since his debut and put in a strong showing in the race for an improved Alfa Romeo. [Image from Football24 English News].

Alpha Tauri look like they will be challenging for the top 10 regularly with the impressive pace they showed in Bahrain. As the de facto team leader, Pierre Gasly looked to have started where he left off with an impressive effort to Qualify 5th. Unfortunately for him, that was all undone by being a bit too aggressive after the Safety Car restart, losing his front wing battling Ricciardo into turn 5. Only just getting back t the puts when the VSC ended meant his race was destroyed and Alpha Tauri subsequently retired the car near the end.

As for Yuki Tsunoda, what a talent he looks set to be! It was an impressive Grand Prix debut for the rookie who caught the eye with his driving style and also going 2nd in Q1 although was disappointed not to get into Q3 as Alpha Tauri gambled with the Mediums. Still, that’s a sign of how confident they are in the pace of their car. In the race, the rookie almost got in trouble taking the wrong grid slot and had an awful launch sending him to the back of the grid but after that, it was an assured drive of someone who has been around for years and not making his debut as the first driver to be born this century. He made a string of impressive overtakes on the likes of Vettel and Alonso into turn 1 as well as a late move on Stroll into turn 1 on the final lap as he scored points. He became the 65th debutant to score points and the first Japanese driver to do so since 2012.

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Points

Drivers:
Lewis Hamilton 25, Max Verstappen 18, Valtteri Bottas 16, Lando Norris 12, Sergio Perez 10, Charles Leclerc 8, Daniel Ricciardo 6, Carlos Sainz 4, Yuki Tsunoda 2, Lance Stroll 1

Constructors:
Mercedes 41, Red Bull 28, McLaren 18, Ferrari 12, Alpha Tauri 2, Aston Martin 1

At Alpine, Fernando Alonso was the star attraction. The car does not seem to be as quick as they were hoping it would be but the two time Champion extracted everything he could out of the car as he got it into Q3. Just having Alonso back on the grid was good for the entertainment value and he raced strongly until a sandwich wrap of all things getting stuck in his brake ducts brought his race to a sadly premature end. It is a big year for Esteban Ocon after his disappointing showing against Ricciardo and it was not a great start for the Frenchman. Yes, he was unfortunate to be caught out by the yellow flags at the end of Q1 which put him on the back foot but he did not look to be near points contention and was then unfortunate to have been spun in the race at turn 1 by Vettel.

Fernando Alonso’s return to F1 was brought to a premature end. [Image from Sporting News].

What happened at turn 1? Racing for 13th and 14th, Ocon passed Vettel only for the four-time world champion to try and get back onto the racing line only to lock up and go into the back of the Alpine. On team radio, Vettel complained, ‘why did he have to change line? I lock up, he changes line’. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what Vettel thought he saw because it is not what the footage shows. Vettel did apologise post-race but the stewards handed him a 10s time penalty for the incident.

Moving to Aston Martin was meant to be a fresh start for the four-time world champion after his difficult year at Ferrari. Instead, his debut stretched to depths he did not reach last year. Vettel was unfortunate with the yellow flags at the end of Q1 but he never qualified as low as 18th last year and then found himself sent to the back of the grid for not abandoning his lap. A one-stop strategy saw him struggle with tyres culminating in his incident with Ocon and an additional trip to the stewards who gave him five penalty points. It was not a good day.

Sebastian Vettel was given a 10s time penalty for this incident with Esteban Ocon on his debut for Aston Martin. [Image from Wires Pool].

Aston Martin are not happy with the new set of regulations. Otmar Szafenaur complained, ‘We will not be anywhere near that kind of performance here now, and the direct cause of that performance drop-off is the new-for-2021 aero regulations, imposed on all the teams…if you compare the qualifying times between those two races here in Bahrain, now and four months ago, it looks like the high-rake aero philosophy cars have gained around a second per lap compared to the low-rake aero philosophy cars. So Mercedes and ourselves are the teams worst affected’. This was a team that was challenging for 3rd spot in the Constructors last year and won at Sakhir four months ago. Now, they look to be around the 6th or 7th quickest. So, something has changed. With Vettel struggling though, it was down to Lance Stroll to try and lead the charge. The Canadian did a solid job of that getting into Q3 and driving a solid enough of a race drive to finish in the points. He may have been a bit aggrieved that Tsunoda got past on the final lap.

Williams look like they are no longer the slowest car on the grid but it could still be a long year for them. [Image from AutoMobilSport.com].

Williams appear to have made some progress in 2021. They are by no means the slowest car this year but it was still described as ‘worst-case scenario‘ by George Russell. Russell, back at Williams maintained his Mr Saturday record of never being out-qualified by a Williams teammate and got into Q2. In the race, he extracted everything he could from the car but that was only good enough for 14th. Nicholas Latifi seems to have made a modest step forward and looked closer to Russell in Qualifying but in the race was relatively lonely as he did the bare minimum in being ahead of Schumacher before being forced to retire with an engine issue.

Haas have openly declared they will not be developing their car much in 2021, electing to focus more on 2022. On the evidence of Bahrain though, it is going to be a painfully long year for the American outfit. They were the slowest team and occupied the back row. It was a debut Grand Prix to forget for Nikita Mazepin. He spun on his first Q1 run, then broke the gentleman’s agreement for the final runs before spinning again and ruining it for everyone else. The Russian qualified last and his race lasted all of three corners as he spun again. As for Mick Schumacher, in that car, it is hard to ask for much more. He out-qualified his teammate and although he too had an early spin, he did get to the end. Not all rookies manage to finish the first race (his dad retired after lap 1 on his debut in 1991) so it will be good for him to get that race distance under his belt.

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Ratings

Drivers:
Lewis Hamilton 9.5, Max Verstappen 9.5, Valtteri Bottas 7.5, Lando Norris 9, Sergio Perez 8.5, Charles Leclerc 8.5, Daniel Ricciardo 7.5, Carlos Sainz 7.5, Yuki Tsunoda 8.5, Lance Stroll 7.5, Kimi Raikkonen 7.5, Antonio Giovinazzi 7, Esteban Ocon 6, George Russell 7.5, Sebastian Vettel 4.5, Mick Schumacher 6.5, Pierre Gasly 6.5, Nicholas Latifi 5.5, Fernando Alonso 7.5, Nikita Mazepin 3

Constructors: Mercedes 9, Red Bull 9, McLaren 8.5, Ferrari 8, Alpha Tauri 7.5, Aston Martin 6, Alfa Romeo 7, Alpine 6, Williams 6, Haas 5

Now, not every race will be as exciting as this Bahrain Grand Prix. I wish it were but on some circuits, overtaking is extremely difficult, especially if they are narrow. Also, different conditions, temperatures etc and the weather will throw over obstacles into the midst. With that in mind, it is on to the second race of 2021. Imola hosted the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix last year in the makeshift schedule. The narrow layout produced only son track overtakes so it could be another tactical battle. It is the slightly renamed Made In Italy E Dell’emilia Romagna Grand Prix next…

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