Predictable result conceals fascinating tactics in Formula 1 season opener; Ricciardo seventh in McLaren
The predictable result, with Hamilton on top and his Mercedes-AMG teammate Valterri Bottas third, disguised a race that shows Verstappen and Red Bull Racing are serious contenders for the 2021 world F1 titles.
The mercurial Verstappen even led with three laps to go, before being forced to let Hamilton pass after officials ruled he had made an illegal pass.
But he had already showed the essential speed for success by taking pole position and refusing to be intimidated by the man who is aiming to make history with eight world championships this year.
“We are taking the fight to Mercedes and I think that’s great,” said Verstappen.
“It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while,” said Hamilton.
Daniel Ricciardo was solid in seventh in his first start with McLaren, although his teammate Lando Norris – who he had out-qualified – was ‘best of the rest’ in fourth place.
“I stayed out of trouble and I’m very happy. It’s encouraging that we were able to fight with pure pace. It’s a good start,” said Ricciardo.
There are many take-outs from Bahrain, from the obvious pace of the Red Bulls to the reshuffled order in the midfield.
McLaren appears to have the third-quickest car, Ferrari has rebounded strongly from its ignominious results in 2020 and AlphaTauri – using the same invigorated Honda powertrain as Red Bull – is genuinely quick.
But Aston Martin, which was strong as Racing Point last year, is in trouble and Alpine, formerly Renault, was unimpressive.
Lance Stroll managed 10th for Aston as Sebastian Vettel struggled all weekend and was only 15th, while the best of the Alpines was Esteban Ocon in 13th and former world champion Fernando Alonso failed to finish.
Verstappen was the star in Bahrain, jumping into the lead as the race developed into a predictable tactical battle over the use of two compounds of Pirelli tyres, while a series of silly incidents – including a spin by rookie Mick Schumacher in his Haas – marred the early laps.
He looked to have the speed to beat the Mercedes until Hamilton stopped early for a tyre change in a move that reshaped the race.
By the closing laps, it was Hamilton in front and Verstappen challenging. He managed to get ahead for a few corners but, once he was forced to return to second for passing off the track, he fell seven-tenths short at the flag.
“We definitely made good steps forward today. It’s good to start the season this way,” said Verstappen.
2021 Bahrain GP results:
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Max Verstappen Red Bull
3. Valterri Bottas Mercedes
4. Lando Norris McLaren
5. Sergio Perez Red Bull
6. Charles Leclerc Ferrari
7. Daniel Ricciardo McLaren
8. Carlos Sainz Ferrari
9. Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri
10. Lance Stroll Aston Martin