F1 season starts with a bang in brilliant Bahrain

Wheel-to-wheel racing, pit wall tactics and an unexpected winner — the Bahrain Grand Prix had it all, and it teased what’s shaping up to be a thrilling season of grand prix racing.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

After 56 laps of racing, after clever strategy and counterstrategy and after three changes of the lead, just 0.745 seconds separated title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the chequered.

To reigning champion Hamilton went the spoils, but this seemingly familiar result was anything but expected. Indeed the Bahrain Grand Prix was confirmation that momentum has swung away from Mercedes for its seventh consecutive title defence and towards the once-dominant Red Bull Racing team.

For the first time since 2013 the German marque hasn’t started the year with the fastest car, and Max Verstappen took full advantage to storm to pole by 0.4 seconds.

But Mercedes hasn’t dominated the sport since 2014 by accident. Already its car is markedly improved on its difficult preseason testing form, and when Verstappen and Hamilton launched from the line and lights-out on Sunday it was clear the W12 was a close match in race trim.

Mercedes, adjusting comfortably into the aggressor role it has so rarely had to play, was immediately on the offensive.

Hamilton came into the pits early, on lap 13, and his out-lap on fresh rubber was so fast that Verstappen was sure to lose the lead if he covered on the following tour. Instead Red Bull Racing changed tactics, leaving the Dutchman out an extra four laps to give him a tyre life advantage to retake the lead.

But Mercedes knew there was little to gain in a straight fight so soon, so when Verstappen cruised up behind Hamilton, Mercedes brought the Briton back into the pits for new tyres on lap 28, committing him to run the entire second half of the race without another stop.

Red Bull Racing was sure the aggression was folly, and the Dutchman stayed out in the lead until lap 39, giving him tyres 11 laps younger with which to vie for victory.

The window was slim but achievable: Verstappen would besiege Hamilton for the final six laps to convert to victory.

But as the late great motorsport commentator Murray Walker once said: catching is one thing, passing is quite another.

It took until lap 53 of 56 for Verstappen to finally launch his move — a sweeping pass around Hamilton’s outside at turn four — but he drove off the track to make it stick. Race control ordered him to hand the position back and try again.

He did as instructed, but he had lost precious momentum. Hamilton maintained centimetre precision in defence to avoid a second pass, and he took the chequered flag without another challenge.

“It was horrifying!” Hamilton said. “I loved every minute of it. Every minute of this weekend I’ve loved.

“Knowing for us as a team that we were behind in performance … for us to come away with this result given that weren’t he fastest car this weekend is a real result.”

Verstappen was sanguine in defeat.

“Of course a shame, but you also have to see the positives,” he said. “We were really putting the fight onto them and I think that’s great to start the year like that.”

Great not just for Red Bull Racing and Verstappen but for the sport overall, for in Hamilton versus Verstappen we have the makings for a generational struggle between old guard and new, and with the might of the two most prolific constructors of the last decade behind them, it’s fight over which every last tenth will be fought and at which everything will be thrown.

Formula 1 started 2021 with a bang in Bahrain, but the battle is only just heating up.