The question after Bahrain is this: Did Mercedes win the race or did Red Bull lose it?
After the last day of pre-season testing in Bahrain, the F1 world was buzzing. The entire grid seemed closer together and the usually unflappable Mercedes were undoubtedly left on the back foot, while a class act Red Bull in the hands of young Max Verstappen was in commanding form. Into the season opener in Bahrain and that Red Bull shone through every practice session, including a blistering pole lap in qualifying - some 4 tenths ahead of Hamilton. Red Bull was on fire and firm favourites to win the race.
But a wily Sir Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes won instead, making Hamilton the all-time leader of laps led in a GP, some 5 126 laps. It started with a strategic undercut by Mercedes who pitted Hamilton on lap 12 for a fresh set of hard tyres. Red Bull chose not to react, opting to play the long game instead and so it was that Lewis stayed ahead of Max for most of the race. When Max made his last pit stop for fresh medium tyres, and emerged some 8,6-seconds behind Lewis, our hearts started racing in anticipation of Max closing in and passing the Mercedes.
Lewis’ famous “Leave me to it Bono!” message was indeed a sign that Hamilton was not going down without a very serious fight. The moment arrived on lap 53 when Max was right on the back of that Mercedes into turn 1 and then deployed DRS after Turn 3, ever so slightly nudging ahead of Lewis who took the inside line, the pair going side by side into Turn 4 with Lewis forcing Max the long way around the corner. In effect, Max had made the move, but he did it by going beyond track limits and so it was that he had to give the position back. Or did he? The other option was to just drive as hard as he could for the remaining 3 laps and hope that he pulled out enough of a gap to get a 5-second penalty and yet still retain the win. It’s not clear whether the stewards would have allowed this but it was a gamble either way.
The intrepid never-give-up Lewis Hamilton crossed the line in first place some 0,7-seconds ahead of a disappointed Max Verstappen. It was a nail-biting battle to the finish and it opens the door to a stellar showdown from two of the most exciting drivers in modern F1.
Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, finished in 3rd place, never quite matching the pace of the front runners but also suffering from a painfully slow pitstop after a sticky front right wheel took longer to come off. He was lucky to keep this position considering the mighty drive from Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull.
Perez’s race seemed doomed from the start after his car ground to a halt on the formation lap. Much to our and his surprise, he was able to get it reset and started his race from the pitlane. The scene looked familiar to his last outing in Bahrain as Checo had it all to do once again. The win may have been almost impossible, but he drove a mega race to finish 6-seconds shy of 4th place man, Lando Norris.
The middle of the pack was dominated by a battle between McLaren and Ferrari really, with the young guns Norris and Leclerc looking ever more racy. Norris was admirably aggressive early on in the race, pulling a slick overtake on his teammate on the first lap, thereby gaining a position after Gasly broke his front wing and then stealing another position from Leclerc into turn 1 a few laps later. Despite slightly different strategies, Norris held that position to bring it home with some great points for a visibly resurgent McLaren team. Daniel Ricciardo had a quiet race, one position higher with Sainz finishing in 8th place, the same position in which he qualified.
The biggest winner apart from Perez of course, was rookie Yuki Tsunoda in the Alphatauri. After Gasly’s collision that left him at the back of the field, the Japanese driver had the team’s hopes on his shoulders. After 4 laps, Tsunoda had lost 4 places and was down in 16th position – but he kept his head and seemed to manage his tyres better than most, applying pressure when it mattered and executing some feisty overtakes when he had to. He finished in 9th position on his F1 debut.
A lacklustre show from Aston Martin
The Aston Martin Mercedes of Lance Stroll came home in 10th position, but both he and teammate Vettel never looked as impressive as we had hoped. Vettel’s race was hampered by his poor luck in qualifying but even in race conditions, the smarts and experience didn’t seem to shine through. His attempt at a long first stint was good but after his pitstop, things didn’t seem any better before a collision with Ocon really doomed his race. It was a mistake we have seen before where Vettel seems to forget that braking right under the tail of a car in front reduces the brake efficiency. It was entirely Vettel’s fault, but it was not what we expected from the ‘new’ team.
Some Key Talking Points
- Red Bull is definitely the team to beat. Of this, there is no doubt. That car looks mighty in the high speed corners and seems to look after its tyres well too. The Max-Checo pairing will surely be formidable.
- Fantastico Alonso – he still has it. An old boy he may be, but Fernando Alonso looked every bit the racer we know. He outqualified his teammate making it into Q3 with the Alpine and then mixed it with the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and the Aston Martin of Vettel in some stunning on-track battles. Some debris found its way into the Alpine brake ducts and forced Alonso to retire on lap 34. At least he’s still got it.
- Haas needs some serious help: It was questionable to get rid of both Haas driver’s last year and opt for 2 rookies in 2021. Both Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher spun off the track at the same corner, seemingly applying too much throttle at the exit that sent the rear wayward. But more concerning than that is the general lack of performance of the Haas. It is, undoubtedly, the slowest car on the grid and it is perhaps the only team that has taken a step back rather than forward in terms of closing the gap in performance.
- The track limits debacle is becoming a problem: There are valid arguments for why Max should not have given Lewis that position back. These are valid because of the grey areas of track limits at Bahrain, where Michael Masi created some confusion. If everyone else was able to run beyond track limits during the race, why did Max have to hand the place. The issue is around conclusive decisions – ambiguity, is a double-edged sword in F1 and someone will always get hurt. Going forward, the decisions and the consequences need to be conclusive – it was clear that this wasn’t the case in Bahrain 2021.
The F1 show heads to the iconic Imola for the next race on 18 April. Bring it on.