The Bahrain Grand Prix once again opens the Formula 1 season this weekend, the second time it has done so in a row, and the sign of things to come for the next significant amount of time. Bahrain is one of the more successful of questionable trips to the middle east for F1, producing some pretty good races on a decent track over the years, but which are its best ever?
Five best Bahrain F1 Grands Prix
2014 – The Duel in the Desert
So good they nicknamed this “The Duel in the Desert”. The second race of the turbo hybrid F1 era was when Lewis Hamilton came out swinging.
Defeated, largely due to a car fault, in the first round at Australia, Hamilton was already 25 points in arrears to team-mate, and then friend, Nico Rosberg. Rosberg then looked to be stamping an authority on this new Mercedes hegemony with pole position for Sunday’s race. The two Mercedes drivers then pursued opposite strategies that ended with Hamilton in front in the final stint, and Rosberg ten seconds behind, but on the much faster tyre.
When Rosberg caught up, what ensued was one of the best battles of Formula 1’s modern era. Rosberg attacked lap after lap only to be rebuffed by Hamilton, despite his now-massive tyre disadvantage. By the last lap, Rosberg’s tyre life was gone and Hamilton could maintain the gap one more time to take an important victory. There’s a decent chance that that mental victory helped propel Hamilton into the era that followed.
2022 – Verstappen vs Leclerc
The 2022 season was almost the opposite of a classic. But if we wind the clock back through the seemingly thousands of races, back at the start we were all convinced this was going to be an absolute cracker.
Twelve months ago we arrived at Bahrain thinking Ferrari and Red Bull were probably the ones to beat, but unsure if Mercedes was about to pull a rabbit from the hat after a troubled pre-season. Charles Leclerc slotted his Ferrari on pole, just a tenth clear of champion Max Verstappen and we were all extremely excited for what was to come.
And, at least that one time, what came was worth the 2022 new car hype. Verstappen and Leclerc proceeded to engage in a proper, multiple-lap-long battle for supremacy, more than once. Leclerc managed to maintain the lead thanks to clever defending, often letting Verstappen pass at T1 only to DRS back through before T4. There was even a safety car to make sure the field was bunched right up toward the end of the race.
And then both Red Bulls turned into paperweights and it seemed like we had a fast and functional Ferrari and a rapid but fragile Red Bull on our hands for the rest of the season. And we were proved… wrong.
2006 – Alonso vs Schumacher
Fernando Alonso will be hoping that he can recreate the titanic success of the 2006 Bahrain Grand Prix – the first time a race at Sakhir opened the Formula 1 season. Back then he had a seven-time F1 champion to battle, but it was Michael Schumacher, in a Ferrari, and wound up after losing his string of titles in 2005.
Alonso started fourth, jumped to second early on and then jumped Schumacher in the pit stop phase. Back then there were fuel stops as well as tyres and in today’s vernacular Alonso was able to "overcut" Schumacher, running longer for some quick laps on low fuel and emerging side-by-side with the great German.
The rest of the race was similar to 2014, but with two cars on almost identical tyre life. Schumacher kept the pressure up for the rest of the race, but was unable to overcome the Spaniard at the very peak of his and Renault’s powers. Lower down, Nico Rosberg became, at the time, the youngest driver ever to set a fastest lap in an F1 Grand Prix.
2021 – Hamilton vs Verstappen begins
Just to prove that in the super-high downforce era of 2017-2021 there were some absolutely stonking races, the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix deserves a slot on this list of all-time greats.
After Lewis Hamilton had dominated the covid-hit 2020 season on his way to a seventh F1 crown, the rules had been tweaked, apparently at a pretty major disadvantage to Hamilton’s Mercedes team. It became clear early on that this hadn’t completely destroyed Mercedes' chances, but had brought Red Bull right into the mix, and perhaps in front. Indeed, Max Verstappen stuck his RB17B on pole by nearly half a second over Hamilton.
But the Red Bull did not have enough of a pace advantage to be able to overcome all and every possible strategy trick from Mercedes. While Verstappen built a lead, Mercedes elected to leave Hamilton on a one-stop strategy, gambling that his only chance of victory was with track position.
The #33 Red Bull took a second pit stop, Hamilton having run long in the first stint, and emerged nine seconds off the Mercedes, with what most presumed was a pretty easy chase and pass ahead.
Verstappen took until lap 51 to reach an attacking position and launched try number one when Hamilton ran wide at turn 10. While that didn’t work his next attempt, at turn four on the next lap, did. Sweeping around the outside of the exit Verstappen was off and into the lead. But, he was quickly told by his team he had left the track to gain that position and needed to give the place back. The Dutchman duly did, while protesting loudly to his team, but in doing so dropped not only back behind Hamilton, but into the Brit’s dirty air. With just four laps left to build a proper attack Verstappen was left unable to close right up to the Merc and Hamilton took the win. This time it did indeed set up a titanic season.
2018 – Vettel emerges from the chaos
This one was action-packed all the way through. There was an early battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen that would preview the 2021 season. Ferrari had a pit stop disaster, Valtteri Bottas had a chance to win a race and fluffed it, Lewis Hamilton fought back from a puncture including passing three cars in one lap, and at the end of it all, Sebastian Vettel won the race.
The lead battle wasn’t the most exciting, a bit of a showcase of the issues closing out an overtake that dogged Valtteri Bottas during his time at Mercedes, but overall it was a properly good fight. Vettel did seem to have it all sorted at the front, only for an issue with the light system at team-mate Kimi Räikkonen’s pit stop ending with a mechanic braking his leg and Ferrari being unable to carry out a pit stop for the leader.
Vettel was forced to extend a stint on old tyres and lost all the lead he had built up in front of the chaos behind. Bottas, who had also ridden out the mess in midfield, hunted down Seb but was unable to make his DRS range pay, settling for second just 0.6 seconds back.
Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images
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