Max Verstappen survived a wild moment under the Safety Car to win the 2021 Emilia…
History will simply state that Lewis Hamilton won the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, as has been noted with monotonous regularity throughout the hybrid engine era of Formula One. Another record fell to the British driver along the way in what many may see as another year of Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 dominance.
This is quite simply untrue.
For reasons largely unknown beyond the walls of the team’s Brackley headquarters, the Mercedes
AMG Petronas F1 W12 E Performance 06 cars struggled for pace during testing, and despite long nights of collective head scratching and a raft of new concepts, the cars were still some way from competitive in FP1 and FP2. Valtteri Bottas labelling his car “undriveable” over the team radio during the second practice session.
By Sunday the situation had improved dramatically for Hamilton and Bottas, who finished qualifying in second and third respectively. While still claiming Red Bull Honda’s RB16B to be the superior car, the Mercedes drivers were optimistic that the team’s race strategy would provide a competitive edge.
And it proved correct for Lewis Hamilton.
The undercut proved crucial to the results in the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton used the advantage of track position to hold out a fast-finishing Max Verstappen to claim what had seemed an unlikely victory when the weekend began. Valtteri Bottas fought back from a lengthy pitstop to take third and the fastest lap of the race, while Lando Norris finished 4th for McLaren. Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc, Daniel Ricciardo, Carlos Sainz, Yuki Tsunoda and Lance Stroll completed the top 10 in what was an exciting and incident filled event.
“Firstly, can I just say it’s the first time I have seen fans in a long time, it’s so good to see people out here and everyone keeping their distance and staying safe,” Lewis Hamilton said to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Media. “I’m so proud of what Formula One has been able to do, to start on a normal schedule this year and wow, what a difficult race that was! Definitely by stopping early, we knew it would be difficult, but we had to cover Max and keep the track position in the lead. They have had an amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special to get the win tonight. We stopped for that last stint and trying to find the right balance between pushing hard and saving tyre performance for the end of the race was difficult. Max was all over me right at the end but I just about managed to hold him off. It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while so I’m really grateful for it and massively thankful for the men and the women back at the factory and here, for continuously pushing the boundaries and never giving up, even if we do feel we’re behind. But we love the challenge, I love the challenge, I love what I do.”
Sergio Perez’s debut for Red Bull Honda almost ran out of steam during the formation lap when his car ground to a halt momentarily at the side of the circuit. He managed to restart the car and was consigned to a pitlane race start.
On track it was his teammate and pole sitter Max Verstappen, who grabbed the early lead from a fast starting Lewis Hamilton. Sparks flew as Verstappen veered towards turn 1, effectively discouraging the Mercedes driver from lunging either side of the Red Bull Honda. Verstappen led Hamilton, Leclerc, Bottas, Gasly and Ricciardo. Lando Norris worked feverishly to gain the upper hand on his new teammate and eventually forced his way past and into 6th place by lap 4. Norris then ran side-by-side with Leclerc as the Ferrari struggled to defend 4th place, only to see the McLaren sail past on lap 9 with the benefit of DRS.
Haas debutantes Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher found the thin layer of sand at the edge of the circuit and looped their Haas cars. Mazepin found the wall at turn 3 on the opening lap of the race, which brought out the Safety Car for a three-lap recovery period, while Schumacher completed a 360 degree spin just after the restart, but managed to avoid contact and continued on.
Pierre Gasly’s race came undone when he also looked to pass Ricciardo during the 4th lap only to nudge the left rear of the McLaren in a misjudged braking maneuver. The impact broke the front wing of the AlphaTauri and perhaps left the McLaren with some damage to the rear end of the car.
Fernando Alonso maintained his place towards the back of the top 10 throughout the first half of the race and engaged in an entertaining battle with Lance Stroll for 7th place.
The race swung in favour of Mercedes when Hamilton was the first of the leaders to stop for the harder compound tyres on lap 14, while Verstappen stayed out longer. The decision saw Verstappen eventually emerge from the pits with Hamilton comfortably ahead on lap 18.
A second round of stops from lap 29 had Hamilton in the pitlane before Verstappen once more and the Mercedes maintained its place at the head of the field after the Red Bull Honda stopped on lap 40 with a sub 2 second pit stop. Valtteri Bottas had been far more comfortable with his Mercedes throughout the race and presented an ever present danger to Verstappen until a slow pit stop saw him lose ten-seconds to the leaders.
Sebastian Vettel’s first race for the Aston Martin Cognizant Team was spectacular for all the wrong reasons. His qualifying ended early when two yellow flags caused him to slow during what was supposed to be his flying lap. He was then demoted to the rear of the grid when stewards deemed that he had ignored double wave yellow flags. Having worked his way back towards the top 10 and dicing amongst Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz, he was then involved in an incident with Esteban Ocon on lap 44. Vettel subsequently received a post race penalty for his role which will carry over the next race at Imola.
“I don’t feel at home in the car. Many things are fighting against me so that I cannot concentrate on the driving,” Vettel later told RTL.
Fernando Alonso’s return to Formula One ended on lap 32 with temperature related issues with the rear brakes. The cause of the problem was later revealed to be a plastic food wrapper that had lodged in a brake duct according to Alpine Executive Director Marcin Budkowski. Alonso himself reportedly enjoyed many aspects of his return to the F1 grid.
“The start, the first couple of laps, some battles with my old colleagues I did enjoy, but obviously I’m disappointed not to see the chequered flag,” Alonso said.
Verstappen’s later final stop began to pay dividends as the Dutch driver clawed back the gap to the race leader. It seemed to be only a matter of time before the Red Bull Honda took the lead, though Lewis Hamilton was equally determined to stay ahead. A wide exit at turn 10 with five laps remaining saw the gap reduce to a single second. By lap 53 the margin was less than 0.5 seconds and Verstappen loomed with DRS at his disposal.
The pair came towards turn 4 almost parallel with Hamilton on the inside line. Verstappen edged to a third of a car length lead into the Esses which comprise turn 5-7 and exited with the race lead. In doing so the Red Bull Honda had crossed the red and white lines that marked the track limit. Whilst the Mercedes pair and indeed most of the field had done so earlier, Race Control had instructed teams mid race that this was not to continue.
Verstappen was then told to cede the position to Hamilton. In that process Lewis Hamilton was able to etch out a narrow lead. That was the closest he came to the race lead as Lewis Hamilton took the win with Verstappen barely 20 metres behind.
“Why couldn’t you just let me go?” Verstappen asked on team radio. “I could’ve easily pulled the five seconds. I prefer we lose a win like that than be second like this.”
Race Control’s apparent easing of the track limit rule for turn 5-7 and subsequent reiteration of penalties mid-race became a major topic in post-race discussions.
“Max made a tiny mistake there and he had to give the position back,” said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff. “We were told suddenly during the race that track limits were imposed – and that is what won us the race today.”
Verstappen was later quizzed about the incident and how quickly he gave back the position rather than wait for a more advantageous opportunity a short time later.
“I knew that I ran out of the track limits and then immediately at Turn 8, I think, they told me so I gave the position back out of 10. It’s what it is,” said Verstappen. “Then it was just impossible anymore to really go for it, I was always just too far behind. If I would have let him by later, then it’s an unfair way of giving the position back, because then you’re so close and it’s an easy DRS pass, so I had to do it after Turn 10. It was just super hard to follow. I got into Turn 13 and had a big oversteer, and from there onwards, I just didn’t have the tyres anymore to attack. But at the end of the day, when I was fighting Lewis, I went outside of the track limits so I think quite quickly, the race director was onto us to tell me to give the position back, so that’s exactly what I did.
Valtteri Bottas took the final place on the podium after taking a third for soft tyres and subsequently recorded the fastest lap of the race.
“We lost a lot of time on the slow pit stop otherwise it was a close race with Red Bull,” Valtteri Bottas said to Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Media. “The cars were quite close on pace but if you lose 10 seconds like that, racing against Max and Lewis, you are not going to get that back. On a personal level it’s not satisfying but at least as a team, we have more points than Red Bull. It was the right thing at the end to stop for new tyres and set the fastest lap so we have an extra point. The car was more drivable today, it was better than yesterday and we are continuing to make steps forward. Hopefully we can make further progress. We have three weeks of work ahead of us before Imola. If you had said at testing that we would have two drivers on the podium and be top of the Constructors’ table after the first race, we would have taken it.”
Daniel Ricciardo finished 7th in his first race for McLaren and, whilst grateful for a points finish, was not impressed with his race.
“The race itself I struggled with pace,” Ricciardo said. “I wouldn’t say it was a strong race by any means but plenty to work on and learn from. “Definitely not discouraged, just still definitely some work to do.”As the race went on I felt like I was just falling back and back and just struggled to push on the tyre and keep (tyre temperature). I felt like I’ll just cook it,” Ricciardo said. “I’m sure there’s still some finessing that I can do with the car and just learn probably what sweet spot I’m after in the set-up. I feel like there’s for sure still things to learn. But I’m certainly much closer to where I need to be. It’s just going to take time … but Imola’s next. I like that place and we’ll go fast.”
It has now been confirmed that contact on the opening lap left the seven-time grand prix winner with damage.
“Post-race we found damage to Daniel’s floor from the impact of Pierre [Gasly] running into the back of his car at the beginning of the race,” Seidl explained. “The level of damage cost a considerable amount of downforce. “Despite the performance loss Daniel used his experience to cope with the issues and score important points for the team. “We now look forward to the next race.”
While Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 relied on race strategies and the odd ounce of luck for their victory in Bahrain, one wonders what will happen at Imola in a few short weeks from now. Given the improvements to the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W12 E Performance 06 since testing and across the race weekend what further improvements can be made in that short window of time?
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