By Matt Morlidge
Lewis Hamilton insists he is feeling optimistic after Bahrain GP qualifying as he and Mercedes feared an even bigger gap to pole-sitter Max Verstappen – and the world champion is embracing his “hunter” role in a blockbuster battle for Formula 1 2021’s first race.
Mercedes’ seven-year streak of poles at F1 season-openers was ended on Saturday as Red Bull and Verstappen underlined their title-challenging potential with a masterful qualifying display at Sakhir – the Dutchman nailing his final lap to out-pace Hamilton by almost four tenths of a second.
But Hamilton told Sky F1 he felt “great” after qualifying and that Mercedes, who endured a difficult pre-season testing compared to Red Bull, are a “lot closer than we thought” with their W12 car.
The Englishman, chasing an historic eighth title this season, continued: “It’s definitely closer than we expected.
“I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend – we thought it [would be] double the gap that you see, and so that’s really down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.
“Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge. We know we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb.”
Red Bull’s pace at the start of 2021 means F1 will finally be treated to a head-to-head fight between its two star drivers at the start of a season.
Sunday’s eagerly-anticipated race, which starts at 4pm on Sky Sports F1, will begin with Verstappen and Hamilton on the front row – and for the first time ever in that particular order.
“They clearly still have a good chunk of time on us,” Hamilton told F1. “But we can still fight from second place.
“I like being the hunter.”
Verstappen: No more ‘catch-up’, ready for Mercedes fight
Red Bull are the last team to have beaten Mercedes to an F1 title – although that was eight years ago and the former champions have been slow-starters to seasons since then, with too large a gap to make up.
That is why pole position in 2021’s opening shootout was so encouraging, as Verstappen, who took his fourth career pole, explained.
“For us it’s a great start because we always had to play catch-up,” he said. “It seems like we have a good place to start from and just work from there.”
But Red Bull are still ready for a fierce fight with Mercedes on Sunday – with Verstappen and Hamilton seemingly neck and neck on race simulations.
“I think it’s going to be very, very tight,” admitted team boss Christian Horner. “The whole team has worked tremendously hard over the winter to get ourselves into this position, Honda have done a stellar job as well.
“Everyone was writing Mercedes off over the last couple of weeks and they’re right there, and they’re going to be right there in the race.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge for us to beat them but hopefully we’re starting from the best possible place.”
Verstappen will be hamstrung by the fact team-mate Sergio Perez will only start 11th, with the Dutchman set to take on Mercedes’ Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, starting third, single-handedly.
Not that Max is fearful.
“They will make it difficult for me but I like the challenge,” he added. “I like to fight them. So let’s see what we can do.”
What’s on when? Sky F1’s live Bahrain GP schedule
Sunday, March 28
11.40am: F2 Feature Race
2.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday
4pm: THE BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX
6pm: Chequered Flag
7pm: Ted’s Notebook
8pm: Bahrain GP Highlights
11pm: Bahrain GP Race Replay
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