It may have been the shortest offseason in memory, but it felt like forever. After a short three-day test, F1 finally got underway at Bahrain this past weekend. The opening round of the 2021 Formula One season is covered here by our F1 correspondent Nick van der Meulen in his report F1 Review Bahrain 2021.
Max Verstappen (Red Bull Racing-Honda) fired the first warning shot after dominating the free practice sessions and blasting to pole position. The team looked strong, but teammate Sergio Perez’s had electrical issues on the formation lap, forcing an extra round of formation for the entire grid. Perez managed to get going again, but had to start from pit lane.
Verstappen looked calm and in control throughout the race, easily having the measure of world champion Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes). It was the German marque’s more aggressive pit stop strategy for Hamilton that kept the Englishman in the game, however, the Dutchman managed to close down on the leader in the closing stages and lunged past Hamilton for the lead with five laps to go.
Unfortunately, he ran over the rumble strip with all four tyres at Turn 4, where he made the pass, exceeding the limits of the track. Verstappen had to give the position back. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to repeat the feat and he chased Hamilton home to the chequered flag. The disgruntled Dutchman wanted the team to let him go so that he could make up a five-second gap, which would give him victory…
Perez, on the other hand, had an eventful race after his start from pit lane. He carved his way into the top five, working hard after each pit stop, and crossed the finish line in fifth place, earning the Driver of the Day accolade from F1 fans around the world.
Mercedes spent the last fortnight trying to iron out the issues of their new W12 in time for the opening round of the season. Hamilton worked hard to stay in contention in the race and it was clear when the lights went out to start proceedings that this was to be a two-horse race. Hamilton wasn’t close enough to challenge Verstappen for supremacy, but an aggressive two-stop strategy where the team switched both drivers to hard rubber, was enough for Hamilton to keep Verstappen at bay to the chequered flag.
Of course, being F1, there is some controversy: Hamilton had a tendency of running wide in Turn 4, which Race Control eventually warned him over. Valtteri Bottas had a more difficult day, battling with Ferraris and McLarens before he managed to pull clear. He still managed to finish on the podium, despite a problematic second stop. A small consolation was fitting soft rubber on the penultimate lap and steal the one point on offer for fastest lap of the race.
McLaren had a good debut with their new Mercedes powerplant, with Lando Norris putting in a spirited performance to finish fourth, ahead of illustrious teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who finished seventh in his first race for the team. Ferrari also had a relatively decent day in the office, with Charles Leclerc finishing sixth (after vying for third position with Bottas in the early stages) and new teammate Carlos Sainz claiming points for eighth place.
Alpha Tauri will be ruing what could have been, as Pierre Gasly qualified strongly for the race, but it all went awry for the Frenchman on lap four just after the restart, as he lost his front wing by making light contact with a McLaren. He did not manage to recover from the incident and retired from 16th place in the dying stages of the race. Teammate Yuki Tsunoda impressed on debut and brought his mount home in ninth place to score well-deserved points.
Aston Martin did show some speed, but did not have the results to show for it. Lance Stroll struggled in the latter stages of the race to finish tenth and claim the final point on offer. New teammate and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had a disastrous weekend. Forced to start 20th after receiving a penalty for not respecting yellow flags in qualifying, the German worked his way into the top ten, only to tangle with Esteban Ocon (Alpine) and cannon into his rear under braking into Turn 1. The German trundled home a disgruntled 15th.
Fernando Alonso showed that he had lost none of his race craft after two years in the wilderness, but the rear brakes failed on his mount and he was forced to retire. Mick Schumacher (Haas-Ferrari) had a solid, if anonymous, debut. Teammate Nikita Mazepin, on the other hand, had an adventurous time trying to keep his machine under control, having two spins in qualifying and running wide and spinning into the wall at Turn 3 on the first lap of the race, bringing out the Safety Car…
Business as usual…?
From the performances in this race, it is clear Red Bull and Mercedes have the advantage over the rest of the field, with McLaren, Ferrari, Alpha Tauri and Aston Martin the best of the rest. How accurate the initial assessment is will be further determined at Imola on 18 April 2021.