The 2021 Formula 1 season is finally underway! After pre-season testing last week at Bahrain, the teams return to the circuit for the first competitive round of this year. In testing, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had dominated the Mercedes cars and we were expecting more of the same in race trim as well.
Qualifying results were somewhat predictable as Verstappen took pole position with Lewis Hamilton alongside him on the front row. The surprising part was the margin with the Red Bull being three-tenths of a second quicker than the fastest Mercedes. Bottas was third fastest on Saturday and joined by Charles Leclerc on the second row, an impressive result for the Scuderia man. The next fastest was Pierre Gasly who had outpaced both the McLarens with Daniel Ricciardo ahead of Lando Norris. Carlos Sainz was eighth fastest despite outpacing teammate Leclerc in free practice and most of qualifying. The last of the Q3 runners were Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll. Sergio Perez ran into trouble during qualifying and was starting 11th on the grid with a time that was set on the Medium tyres.
After last year’s dramatic events, everyone was hoping for a much cleaner start to the Bahrain GP this time around. There was also a lot of anticipation to finally see Max and Lewis go head-to-head with similarly competitive cars for a change. For Red Bull, things got tense even before the race started as Sergio Perez pulled over to the side on the formation lap. While he did get the car started again, it meant he’d be starting from the pit lane exit after another formation lap.
When the lights finally went out, both Verstappen and Hamilton got a good start. Max pounced on the inside line to stay ahead of Hamiton as they rounded the first corner. Leclerc had a flying start and was alongside Bottas as they approached Turn 2. It seemed like everyone had made it safely past Turn 3 and then we saw a Haas car skidding backwards into the gravel pit at the tail end of the pack. Luckily, there was no fireball this time. Nikita Mazepin had lost control on the exit of Turn 3 and gone off towards the barriers bringing his F1 debut to a swift end. This incident immediately brought out the new Aston Martin Vantage Safety Car for the next few laps.
As Verstappen was weaving about in front of Hamilton, we got an excerpt from the Dutchman’s team radio claiming to have some issue with the throttle on the low-speed corners. It seemed that the issue was not critical as he was able to continue driving but it did put a strain on the fans of the No.33 car. Meanwhile, Perez had made an early pit stop, after his pit lane start, for a new set of Medium tyres which kept him at the back for the race restart. At the end of Lap 3, the SC pitted and Max holds up the traffic till the last possible moment to ward off Hamilton’s slipstream advantage on the long start-finish straight. It worked and the Red Bull driver stayed in the lead at the 2021 Bahrain GP.
On Lap 6, Pierre Gasly just kissed the rear tyre of Lando Norris’ McLaren but the contact caused his front wing to snap off. Around the same time. Mick Schumacher seemed to have mimicked his Haas teammate by sliding off track, out of Turn 3. However, the German managed to keep it out of the wall and return to the track. A short-lived Virtual Safety Car period was enabled to allow track marshalls to clear the debris of Gasly’s AlphaTauri. The race resumed the very next lap with Verstappen still in the lead.
By Lap 7, Bottas reclaimed P3 with some DRS assistance while Verstappen made sure to stay more than a second clear of Hamilton. The Dutchman radioed his team again about the issue but it was nothing that the team could help with. With two cars in the podium spots, Mercedes took out their strategy playbook to try and put pressure on Red Bull whose second driver was a long way back.
Hamilton pits at the end of Lap 13 to switch to a set of Hard tyres while Verstappen stayed out for a longer stint on his Mediums. It seemed like Mercedes got the benefit of the undercut as the No.44 car starts setting much quicker lap times than the race leader. But then we realised that Red Bull had to cover off Bottas so that Verstappen did not get held up by him once he was on fresh rubber. Red Bull finally pitted Max by the end of Lap 17 after Bottas pitted the lap before. While both W12s went for the Hard tyres, Red Bull confirmed its two-stop strategy when they put Max on a fresh set of Mediums. After these stops, Hamilton was in the lead with Verstappen and Bottas behind. It seemed like the undercut had shifted things in favour of Mercedes.
Around ten laps later, the gap between the top three drivers had closed up again and Mercedes decided to cover off Verstappen’s second stop with another undercut. Hamilton made his second pit stop at the end of Lap 28 for another set of Hard tyres and Bottas did the same two laps later. Unfortunately, Bottas had yet another nightmare pit stop in Bahrain with trouble putting the front left tyre on which meant he was stationary in the pits for over 10 seconds as compared to a usual time of 2.5 seconds. The Mercedes stops placed Verstappen in the lead again and Red Bull decided to play the long game, opting for a longer stint while they had a comfortable gap from both Mercedes cars.
Red Bull pitted Max at the end of Lap 39 to finally switch to the Hard tyres. The No.33 car rejoined the race in P2, less than 10-seconds behind race-leader Hamilton and comfortably ahead of Bottas in P3. Verstappen’s fresher tyres would allow him to challenge Hamilton for the win in the closing laps. The odds were in favour of Red Bull once again but the Mercedes still had the straight-line advantage. Max closed the gap to less than 2 seconds with five laps left in the race. A slight lock-up from Hamilton on Lap 51 allowed Verstappen to come within DRS range.
But it seems that the Red Bull had eaten up the Hard tyres quite aggressively in the catch-up. Plus, Verstappen still seemed to be struggling in some corners which allowed Hamilton to pull away out of the turns. The main DRS zone between Turns 3 and 4 was Verstappen’s best chance. On Lap 53, the Red Bull took the outside line to overtake the Mercedes but the overtake was completed outside the track limits. Verstappen seceded the lead to Hamilton a few corners later and would have to try it all over again. On the penultimate lap, Verstappen was short on grip at the exit of the final corner and lost some time to Hamilton. In the end, Max just ran out of laps.
With older tyres and a slower car (per lap), Sir Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag in Bahrain to win the 2021 season opener. But this was very close as Max Verstappen was 0.745s behind as he crossed the finish line in P2. Not the result we were hoping for but certainly the kind of win-deciding battles that were long overdue. More proof that a fast car alone does not make a 7-time World Champion. A phenomenal effort from both drivers and their teams. Bottas crossed the line a distant third, having pitted for Soft tyres on the penultimate lap to claim an extra championship point for the fastest lap, on the final lap.
Behind the front runners, there was plenty of action spread over the race. We witnessed a fun battle between Charles and Lando in the early stages where the Ferrari held its own before being passed by the Merc-powered McLaren in the DRS zone. In the final race standings, Norris finished fourth for an impressive start to his season while Leclerc finished sixth. The two youngsters were split by Sergio Perez who delivered another classic comeback performance, a strong result for his Red Bull debut despite the troublesome start. At one point, Perez was running in P2 after the rest of the order had made its first pit stops.
Sainz had a strong debut performance in the Ferrari, considering the form the Scuderia was in last year and finished the race in a solid P8. We still didn’t get too much of the Spaniard in the live telecast but he did have a stunning moment on Lap 21. A three-way battle for P9 with Sebastian Vettel defending from Alonso and Sainz behind. The Alpine goes past down the main straight with DRS but locks up and goes wide into Turn 1, pushing Vettel a bit wide as well. Sainz dives down the inside of both cars, gets past the Aston Martin out of Turn 3 and uses the DRS to overtake Alonso ahead of Turn 4. Vettel, still close behind, uses the DRS too and gets past his former championship rival down the inside at Turn 4. Brief, but brilliant bit of racing from three Ferrari-associated drivers.
Alonso’s race ended early as he had to park the car due to a brake issue but the returning Spaniard showed plenty of pace on track. Meanwhile, Vettel continued to have a bad time at work. In qualifying, he was obstructed by yellow flags and was out in Q3 before being penalised for speeding under yellow flags and starting at the back of the grid. He was then put on an unfavourable tyre strategy that saw him contend mostly outside of the points. The final cherry was his incident with Esteban Ocon on Lap 44.
Esteban had passed Seb down the main straight with DRS, heading into Turn 1. Vettel locked up his front tyres under braking and punted into the back of the Alpine, causing both cars to spin. Luckily, the damage was minimal and both could resume racing even though Seb had a partially-broken front wing endplate. Worst of all: Vettel claimed on team radio that it was somehow Ocon’s fault.
Daniel Ricciardo had a somewhat subdued debut for McLaren. He finished P7 and scored good points for the team but was mostly invisible through the race. Rookie driver Yuki Tsunoda had a brilliant start to his F1 career with a P9 finish on his debut. He made some impressive passes on far more experienced drivers to work his way into the points after starting 13th on the grid. The final point was picked up by Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll who finished the race who wasn’t far ahead of P11 finisher, Kimi Raikkonen.
It might be too early to base the season’s expectations on the first race. Red Bull is certainly closer to Mercedes at the start of the 2021 season but it could vary greatly depending on the circuit. The reigning champions were able to maximise Red Bull’s misfortune with Perez by using alternative strategies to improve their odds but they also suffered a setback in terms of Bottas’ bad stop. While I’m looking forward to a closely contested championship in 2021, I won’t count on it just yet. For now, the 2021 Bahrain GP has simply been one of the most exciting races in modern F1. The next race nearly three weeks away and it’s at Imola, Italy.
We’ll catch you for that one and you can follow us on Twitter @autoloons for shorter, more frequent updates. Feel free to share your thoughts on the race in the comment section and don’t forget to subscribe to the blog for more automotive and F1 content.
Final race standings
- L. Hamilton Mercedes — 1:32:03.897
- M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda +0.745
- V. Bottas Mercedes +37.383
- L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +46.466
- S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda +52.047
- C. Leclerc Ferrari +59.090
- D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +66.004
- C. Sainz Ferrari +67.100
- Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +85.692
- L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +86.713
- K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari +88.864
- A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari +1 lap
- E. Ocon Alpine Renault +1 lap
- G. Russell Williams Mercedes +1 lap
- S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes+1 lap
- M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +1 lap
- P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda DNF
- N. Latifi Williams Mercedes DNF
- F. Alonso Alpine Renault DNF
- N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari DNF