Pre-season testing promised an exciting race in the Bahrain opener and we were all richly rewarded, of that there can be no doubt. A classic race-long duel between two of the greatest drivers and teams in F1 history.
In many respects, it looked like Red Bull’s and Max Verstappen’s race to lose, and unfortunately for them, they did. The 2021 Mercedes F1 car leading up to the race had looked quite a handful, especially regarding rear grip, but the team were clearly dialling it in nicely with every track session.
In qualifying Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas could begin to carry the kind of speed and confidence we’ve become accustomed to with the Merc these past, slightly painful, seven seasons.
But still, they were no match for Verstappen, who was on pole by four tenths and surely had a better car too for the windy conditions and tough night race ahead. Max was brilliant off the start line to cover off Hamilton and the baying pack on the 350-metre run down to Turn One.
It was a one-lap delayed start after his team-mate Sergio Perez had a total power failure on the original formation lap and eventually joined the race from the end of the pit lane.
Safety car interventions when Nikita Mazepin deposited his Haas into the fence all by himself, and then Pierre Gasly wrecking a brilliant fifth place in qualifying by running into the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren and taking off his front wing, meant that it was a messy race until we finally got under way on lap five.
The Red Bull & Mercedes strategy battle begins
Once again Verstappen had been cunning in the way he restarted from the safety car, leaving it until the last moment near the finish line to plant the throttle knowing he would be punching a hole in the air into a strong headwind for his pursuers. Later on, his guile would desert him momentarily.
Red Bull controlled the early part of the race nicely but weren’t really dropping Hamilton even if Bottas was fading a little. Then Mercedes used their two cars versus one scenario and on lap 13 boldly pitted Hamilton for new hard tyres to get him ahead of Verstappen on the track with the extra grip of the tyre.
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Red Bull kept faith in their strategy and didn’t respond immediately and ran to lap 17 before fitting their new set of medium compound tyres onto Max’s car, which Mercedes didn’t have left in their allocation.
Mercedes took control of the race but when Hamilton had to pit on lap 29 again for a further set of hard tyres, with 27 laps remaining, the pendulum swung heavily in Red Bull’s favour. Maybe they relaxed a little at that point expecting Merc would have to stop yet again or be plain slow later on, relatively.
Reviewing Verstappen’s hunt, and illegal pass
Max pitted a full 10 laps later for his one new set of hard tyres which is a very long way for F1 tyres on this abrasive surface with heavy traction zones. It was just a matter of time when Max would regain the lead it seemed, Lewis would be a sitting duck with the powerful Drag Reduction System available to his pursuer into the long pit straight and headwind.
Max duly relentlessly closed the gap, albeit on one lap less so when he lapped a couple of squabbling midfielders. Then Lewis out-braked himself into Turn 10, running wide and enabling the young Dutchman to lock in his slipstream with DRS capability.
He had a look into Turn One and then enjoyed a second helping of DRS up to Turn Four to sail past on the outside as they both lapped an Alfa Romeo. Verstappen was in the lead again! Except he’d collected up a rear axle slide mid-corner which walked him left and thereby he completed the pass off track, which at T4 it was decided was when no part of a tyre was touching the outside kerb.
The sporting and supplementary regulations along with event briefings are quite clear on this, if you gain a ‘lasting advantage’ off track, which clearly he had by completing the overtake, then you will be penalised unless you hand the place back.
Verstappen vs Hamilton: The track limits debate
But, I hear you cry, particularly the Mercedes drivers were off track at this point for much of the first half of the race, so much so in fact that Red Bull instructed Verstappen to do the same. The advantage of this is that you can brake less and take more speed into the corner, a ‘lasting advantage’ in a timed race as far as I’m concerned. Christian Horner reckons it’s worth two tenths of a second each lap.
But how do you quantify a ‘lasting advantage’ unless it’s clearly involving a pass? We are told that the resource is there to watch and police Turn Four, and at other circuits on the fourth occasion of ‘cheating’ the circuit confines you will be warned and then penalised.
We really do have to police this issue consistently everywhere and not just in qualifying; it’s confusing and annoying for everybody, including teams and drivers I’ve spoken to post-race.
Max was told by his team to hand the place back which he chose to do immediately between Turns 10 and 11 where Hamilton had his DRS rear wing open just as Max was lightly filling up his molten slick tyres with rubbish as he moved offline.
Why didn’t he wait until after Turn 13 and let Lewis past by him going offline, and then getting DRS behind him again for the start of the next lap? Or even just stay on-line down to Turn 11 so he would have been given an immediate slipstream as Lewis moved back in front of him?
We must remember Spa 2008 when Lewis went off track, then let Kimi Raikkonen past by the slimmest margin and then very quickly re-passed him. Hamilton was given a 25-second penalty for this ‘lasting advantage’ even though technically he yielded the place, and of course, such dramas could have cost him the 2008 world championship.
Super Lewis salvages win, and the other big stories
After a further scruffy couple of corners, Max’s chance for a glorious and expected victory ebbed away as the mercurial Hamilton did indeed somehow make his tyres last to the chequered flag. What a magnificent drive.
In what was the 14th time he’s finished second to Lewis, Max complained to his team that he should have been allowed to stay out front and pull out more than a five-second gap. That would not only have been ambitious but there’s no guarantee any post-race penalty would have been just five seconds.
Track limit shenanigans aside, if that’s a sign of things to come this season we are in for a wild ride. Behind them, Bottas put in an increasingly fast performance but on a less racy strategy and after a wheel-sticking 10.9-second pit stop his night was spoiled even if he did get fastest lap on the final tour.
Lando Norris had a stellar race for McLaren in fourth, albeit 46 seconds behind the winner. The team look set to be leading contenders for third in the championship again.
Perez drove from the pit lane to a fine fifth place for Red Bull, repairing the damage from his lacklustre qualifying and the car failing before the start. They desperately need him up front to take away Merc’s strategy call luxury.
It was a solid day for Ferrari in sixth and eighth for Leclerc and Sainz albeit a minute behind, which bodes well for a better season than 2020 at least.
Yuki Tsunoda scored a couple of points in his most impressive debut for AlphaTauri. What a little star he’s going to be, and very exciting to watch out on track.
Lance Stroll had a strong weekend for Aston Martin and claiming a point in 10th, but like Alpine, they have a lot of work to do on their car.
Seb Vettel in the other racing green beauty had a nightmare, collecting five (of the allowed 12) points on his licence for a yellow flag infringement in qualifying thereby starting last, and for a clumsy accident with Esteban Ocon in his Alpine, who also had a race to largely forget.
Ocon’s team-mate Fernando Alonso was typically feisty running as high as seventh but probably took too much out of his tyres along the way before retiring with brake issues.
Bahrain yet again served up a cracking race at their stunningly lit venue, we should start the season here again. And when push came to shove Hamilton and Mercedes stole their 75th victory together in a most impressive style, albeit with some handling work still to do.
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