Game on. The new Formula 1 season erupted into life with a stone-cold classic in the desert on Sunday as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen went wheel-to-wheel at the climax of a wonderfully tense Bahrain Grand Prix. For once, pre-season testing hasn’t over-promised: if they’re all like this, we’re in for one of the great F1 seasons.
Seven talking points from the Bahrain Grand Prix
Verstappen fluffs his lines
Did Verstappen blow it when he chose to attack Hamilton around the outside of Turn 4 on lap 53 of 56? It must be said, he did – and from his stony face afterwards, it was clear that deep down he knew it. As we’d seen in testing, in practice and in qualifying – when Max put together a beautiful lap to clinch pole position over Hamilton by a clear 0.3s – Red Bull had a pace advantage at the Sakhir circuit. But in the race it was not by much, Verstappen complaining about a traction problem early in the race that he felt never really went away.
Mercedes and Red Bull conducted strategic warfare on tyre choice, as Hamilton took the lead on the undercut at the first stops. But Red Bull gave Verstappen his chance by running a longer middle stint, gifting the Dutchman much fresher Pirellis at the end – to the tune of 11 laps. Hamilton looked powerless to stop his rival hunting him down and blasting past, but after Verstappen’s over-eagerness at Turn 4 Max had no choice but to cede the place he’d just gained, under orders from the stewards via his own pitwall. And he never got back within range as the final laps ticked down, despite a clear pace advantage.
As dear Murray Walker might have said, you could have cut the tension with a cricket stump in those final minutes, but just as he did in Turkey last year Hamilton won a race he probably shouldn’t have. “Still got it, Bono,” he said on the slow-down lap to trusted race engineer Pete Bonnington. “Yeah, not bad for an old man,” came back the cheeky reply. But it must be said, at 36, Hamilton had probably never driven a better race. He didn’t look like a man preparing for retirement, did he? Just as well. He’s got a proper scrap on his hands this year, as he happily admitted. Roll on round two at Imola.
Lando Norris sets out his stall
“Were those fireworks for me?” Lando Norris’s quip on his slow-down lap reflected just how happy he was with the biggest performance of his career so far. The 21-year-old knows he has to stamp his mark in his third season at McLaren, up against an elite performer in new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo. And in Bahrain he put the Aussie properly in his place.
Ricciardo pipped Norris by just four-hundredths of a second in qualifying to start one place ahead of him in sixth. But a determined first lap carried Lando past the other McLaren, just before the safety car was called for the second Haas driver’s frankly embarrassing crash in the Haas. Thereafter, Norris got his head down and delivered a brilliant fourth, seeing off Sergio Perez’s Red Bull and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari – with Ricciardo finishing a low-key seventh. Just the start the 21-year-old was looking for.
Good save from Perez
He qualified poorly on his Red Bull debut, then was forced to start from the pitlane when his Honda engine cut out on the formation lap. But you have to hand it to Sergio Perez for the comeback drive that netted him fifth place. He’s been hired as a replacement for Alex Albon to scoop up points, and he sure earned some the hard way in Bahrain. This is why he’ll be an asset to Red Bull as the team attempts to chase down Mercedes this year, especially once he sorts his qualifying out.
Bottas fumes at “defensive” strategy
Perez will need to get the better of Valtteri Bottas regularly if Red Bull is to have a shout in the constructors’ standings, and in Bahrain the Finn was certainly on top in this respect. But the number two Mercedes driver – c’mon, he is and he knows it – was a downcast figure after the race, knowing he had the pace to threaten for the win, but feeling hurt that his team put him on what he described as a “defensive strategy instead of attacking”. A long second pitstop because of a sticky right-front tyre only compounded his misery. He needs a big performance at Imola to put this one properly behind him.
Vettel fumbles the fresh start
It was not exactly the resounding start Aston Martin was hoping for, on its return to F1 as a factory team for the first time in 61 years. Lance Stroll scrapped a point in 10th, but all eyes were on Sebastian Vettel, who had something best described as a shocker in Bahrain.
A yellow flag infringement left him starting from the back, although having qualified only 18th it made little difference anyway. A long first stint at least gave him a cameo as his Aston rose up the order and there was a fun couple of laps where he found himself battling with old rival Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. – the man who has replaced him at Ferrari. But it ultimately counted for nothing as he inevitably slid back towards the rear of the field.
On the radio, Vettel blamed Esteban Ocon for their collision, even though he rear-ended the Alpine on the brakes into Turn 1. It was more than a little sad to see. Early days, obviously – but Seb finds himself already under pressure with 22 races of the season left. Four world championships will start to mean little to Lawrence Stroll if he doesn’t pick up his form.
Points for rookie Tsunoda
AlphaTauri’s new Japanese ace, Yuki Tsunoda, was the talk of pre-season testing and again showed a great turn of speed in practice, before fluffing his qualifying performance. But come the race, he kept his cool and drove well to rise from 13th on the grid to ninth to score on his F1 debut. He finished behind Carlos Sainz Jr. in the Spaniard’s first race for Ferrari.
Alonso shows his class
Bahrain marked a return for another Spaniard, but for Fernando Alonso it turned into an anti-climax under floodlights at Sakhir. The 39-year-old easily outqualified Alpine team-mate Ocon to start ninth and ran as high as seventh in the early stages, proving that age is no barrier to an effective comeback. But rear brake problems cost him ground and eventually he called it a day. Still, he’d made his point – even if he couldn’t score one. It was good to have him back.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.
Sign up for Motorsport news
Stay in the know with our newsletters that contain all the latest news, stories and event information.