After what always feel like a long wait, Formula One is back at last! The 2021 season (set to be the longest on record at 23 races) began with the Bahrain GP, and a backdrop of sadness following the death of legendary commentator Murray Walker, earlier in the month. Much has been made of the testing and practice sessions (testing took place at Bahrain as well), with Red Bull looking very, very good, and in qualifying Max Verstappen was able to put his Red Bull on pole position. He looked a fair bit quicker than the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, Would this translate into superior race pace? And would Verstappen have the mental strength to handle the fight from the front?
Before delving too much into the mouth-watering prospect of a Hamilton/Verstappen duel, it was worth looking at the shaken-up field. There were new faces in Formula One, and a returning face too. A number of teams had changed their driver line-ups. Ferrari brought in Carlos Sainz to partner Charles Leclerc. Aston Martin replaced Racing Point and Lance Stroll would be paired with Sebastian Vettel in the revamped team. Renault became Alpine and brought back the experienced, two-time champion Fernando Alonso to join Esteban Ocon. Red Bull waved goodbye to Alex Albon and welcomed the experience of Sergio Perez. Haas had two new drivers – Mick Schumacher (son of the legendary Michael Schumacher) and Nikita Mazepin. More on them later.
Who else? Ah yes, Yuki Tsunda joined Alpha Tauri, partnering Pierre Gasly. There were quite a few movers and shakers, with only Mercedes (Hamilton and Bottas), Alfa Romeo (Raikkonen and Giovinazzi) and Williams (Russell and Latifi) retaining their pairings from 2020.
Much had been made of the apparent advantages Red Bull enjoyed over Mercedes during testing. Modifications to the rules meant changes to the floors of F1 cars, which in turn affected downforce and handling. These changes appeared to favour Red Bull, and as mentioned earlier, Verstappen put his car on pole, with Hamilton nearly 0.4 seconds behind in second. However Perez had a disappointing first qualifying session, only managing 11th, and his race would get off to the worst possible start due to a technical issue on the formation lap, forcing him to start from the pit lane and also forcing a second formation lap. As a result, a 57 lap race became a 56 lap race.
Things did not get off to a good start for Mazepin. He’d spun a couple of times in qualifying and he managed just three corners on his race debut before spinning again, only this time he put himself into a barrier and out of the race. An early safety car followed, and then a virtual safety car after a tangle for Gasly saw him lose his front wing.
When the racing finally got underway in earnest Bottas didn’t take long to get back past Leclerc (who had qualified strongly for Ferrari and passed Bottas early on), but Verstappen and Hamilton were sailing into the distance. Hamilton kept race leader Verstappen honest, keeping to gap to around two seconds until the first round of stops. Both Verstappen and Hamilton were on the yellow-walled medium compound tyre, but Hamilton, who pitted first, put on the wide-walled hard compound for his next stint, and Verstappen and Red Bull didn’t cover off the under-cut. As a result, by the time Verstappen finally stopped on ageing, struggling tyres, he trailed Hamilton by several seconds.
The pendulum seemed to have swung in favour of Hamilton, but he pitted quite early to replace his hard tyres, allowing Verstappen, who had been rapidly catching Hamilton, to retake the lead. Verstappen and Red Bull had to then time their next stop just right, aware they’d concede the lead to Hamilton, but equally aware that the Englishman would be on older tyres – in the end, tyres that were quite a bit older. Any notion of a third stop for Hamilton went out of the window; he had to make his tyres last, and fend off a charging Verstappen. Verstappen did indeed chase Hamilton down, catching him with a few laps to go, but couldn’t quite find the right opportunity to get by Hamilton – save for one occasion where he swept around the outside of Turn Four, but went off-track to complete the move.
Verstappen was forced to give the place back and he’d taken just enough out of his tyres to be unable to mount another good attack. Hamilton had held on to win the opening round of the 2021 season, slightly against the odds.
Bottas completed the podium places but a slow second stop put him well out of the running – and in truth he never looked like he had the pace anyway. Lando Norris took an excellent 4th for McLaren and Sergio Perez demonstrated his ability to scythe his way through the pack, recovering from his early technical hiccup to finish 5th. Charles Leclerc gave a good account of himself to finish 6th and elsewhere, Yuki Tsunda, the youngest driver on the grid, scored two points on his debut with 9th place.
There were some losers. Mazepin, as mentioned earlier, span himself out of the race, and spins in qualifying as well will have added up to his first F1 weekend not being what he’d hoped for. Mick Schumacher also spun, but recovered to finish the race in 16th. The Haas looks like a pretty slow car, with the team probably focusing efforts on the regulation changes for 2022, but Schumacher did finish ahead of Gasly and Latifi. Fernando Alonso suffered an all-too familiar fate – retirement. A brake issue saw his first race back in F1 end prematurely. Not what Alpine would have needed.
So, in a season where Red Bull are expected to take the fight to Mercedes, they certainly offered a fight in Bahrain, but fell just fractionally short of delivering a win for Verstappen. Next time around we’re at Imola for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Can Red Bull charge down the Silver Arrows?