To quote a great man: catching is one thing, passing is quite another.
It appears that 2021 could be the year when F1 fans finally get to see the no-holds-barred fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen that they have been craving for years.
It was largely expected that this season would prove to be another tale of Mercedes dominance; one more efficient stroll to an eighth consecutive title double. But those expectations have gradually dissipated over the last few weeks. Pre-season testing may always boil down to rumours, sandbags, and cloak-and-dagger lap times but, by the end of the truncated three-day meeting, there was a growing consensus that Red Bull may actually have the fastest car.
And so it proved to be, as Verstappen claimed pole position by nearly four tenths on Saturday, with Hamilton claiming he “gave it everything”. It was Red Bull’s race to lose – but lose it, they did.
Both leading drivers got away well and the first stint was something of a stalemate. Crucially, though, Hamilton was able to remain within two seconds of the Red Bull and could therefore undercut the Dutchman when his pit window opened on lap 13. That gained the World Champion the lead and he – just about – kept it to the end.
Verstappen still appeared the more likely victor as he closed the Mercedes down with a set of tyres that were 10 laps fresher. The gap reduced steadily to the point that, when Hamilton ran wide on lap 51, Verstappen was straight into the DRS window. And, sure enough, the Red Bull was ahead a couple of laps later. However, not legally, as he had passed Hamilton whilst off the circuit.
Going around the outside at Turn 4, Verstappen had a snap of oversteer which took him wide and his team immediately informed him to allow Hamilton back past. That would prove to be his best chance, as his tyres overheated following the Mercedes and his advantage was significantly reduced. The frustrated Dutchman gave it his all over the remaining three laps but ultimately had to watch as Hamilton took the chequered flag, ending a gripping battle of strategy and racecraft.
There has been some controversy regarding the track limits. Not really with the decision for Verstappen to give up the place – the drivers know you can’t complete a pass off the track. But that temporary overtake ironically came at the corner where the Mercedes drivers were told to stop ‘extending’. So, the question has revolved around what constitutes a ‘lasting advantage’. As ever, the stewards lacked consistency and, having initially told the drivers there would be no issue with track limits at Turn 4, changed their minds and sent Mercedes a warning halfway through the race. The pundits and fans have said it numerous times, but surely grass run-offs are the easiest way to clear up this issue…
How Mercedes Won the Battle
For once, this was a Mercedes team acting as the hunter rather than the hunted. We have grown so accustomed to the Silver Arrows leading from the front in the hybrid era that this felt like something of a novelty. And they proved that they are predictably good at it.
It is usually Red Bull doing the chasing and making the aggressive strategy calls with Mercedes maintaining a conservative approach. This time, it was Hamilton who profited from a perfectly executed undercut. By the end of the following lap, Verstappen’s gap back to Hamilton was too small to get out ahead and, with Bottas uncomfortably close behind, Red Bull were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Red Bull’s second seat really is the Defence Against the Dark Arts professor of F1. And the curse didn’t hang about this year, as the latest victim – Sergio Pérez – ground to a halt on the formation lap. He was able to get moving again but had to start from the pit lane, which meant – as has usually been the case for the last two years – Red Bull were left to fight one-handed. Bottas pitted two laps after Hamilton and forced Red Bull to respond against another undercut; this prevented them from building the tyre off-set they would have liked.
The second stops would likely have followed a similar pattern, but a painful, 10-second pit stop for Bottas meant Red Bull could leave their driver out this time and he was able to pit 10 laps later than the race leader. At this point, it was largely out of Mercedes’ hands. Fortunately for them, it was in the hands of Hamilton. And if there is one man on the grid who can keep his tyres alive whilst still pounding out respectable lap times then it is the seven-time world champion at their disposal.
It was another masterclass in tyre management. By rights, Verstappen should have been on his tail far sooner than lap 51. And, if he had been, the pass would likely have been more of a done deal. When he did catch up, the pair traded blows with the excellent car control and positioning you would expect. Under immense pressure, each made one slight mistake, but eventually it was Hamilton who held his nerve as the Red Bull breathed down his neck for the final three laps.
How Red Bull Have Started the War
They may have lost on the day, but Red Bull undoubtedly had the fastest car in Bahrain. So, how has that happened when we were all told repeatedly that so little was changing on the cars between 2020 and 2021?
Well, it would appear the regulation changes that did happen have affected the teams with low rake far more significantly than those with high rake. A large portion of the rear of the floor has effectively been chopped off over the winter in a bid to reduce downforce. The idea being to reduce speed and, thus, the strain on the overworked tyres in the wake of the multiple blow-outs experienced at last year’s British Grand Prix.
One of the greatest strengths for Mercedes was their rear downforce. And it would appear that the chunk removed has severely affected their rear stability. They have done an impressive job in the two weeks since the pre-season test to improve that and close the gap – which they believe was around 0.8 seconds – to Red Bull.
This theory is backed up by the other main losers in this regulation change – Aston Martin. The former Racing Point team infamously did their best to copy the Mercedes philosophy and appear to have been hit hard in the same area, but with less of an advantage to fall back on. They have seemingly gone from arguably the third best car last year to Lance Stroll fighting for a solitary point in Bahrain, whilst Sebastian Vettel had a debut to forget further back.
Honda have also given Red Bull a significant helping hand. The Japanese marque leaves the sport – again – at the end of the year, so rushed through its 2022 engine a year early and it would appear to be a masterpiece. This was also demonstrated by AlphaTauri’s pace at the opening weekend.
Time will tell who is truly the team to beat. Bahrain is a fairly unique circuit, located in a gusty desert, and there is now a three-week gap for teams to further refine their new machines. It would also not be a surprise to see some updates in time for the return to Imola – so let’s watch this space. Either way, it appears that we have a race on our hands.
What About the Rest?
Now, bear with me as I attempt to condense down a lot of information into a few paragraphs…
McLaren lived up to expectations, claiming ‘best of the rest’ thanks to an impressive fourth for Lando Norris and a solid debut for Daniel Ricciardo in seventh. Surprisingly, it is Ferrari who seem to be their biggest challengers currently. The Scuderia were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the much-improved SF21 and Charles Leclerc produced a signature qualifying lap for fourth on the grid. The red cars reached the chequered flag in sixth and eighth and, whilst you still couldn’t exactly call that success for a team like Ferrari, it is certainly a big step up from last year.
Sergio Pérez recovered impressively after his nightmare start to claim fifth place and remind those instantly writing him off what he can do on a Sunday. The experienced Mexican claimed Driver of the Day and will surely continue to improve as he gets better acquainted with the RB16B. Another contender for Driver of the Day was Yuki Tsunoda. The AlphaTauri rookie shocked the paddock by finishing Q1 in second, before making a mess of Q2 and starting down in 13th. But he produced a mature performance on Sunday and finished ninth to become the first Japanese rookie ever to score points on his debut.
Aston Martin and Alpine appear to have dropped back from their positions – under different names – last year. Fernando Alonso briefly ran in the points on his return before retiring due to an unwanted sandwich wrapper. Meanwhile, the other multiple world champion in the midfield – Vettel – crashed into the back of Esteban Ocon to cap off a terrible first weekend in British racing green. That earned him two penalty points to add to the three he picked up for ignoring yellow flags on Saturday.
Alfa Romeo appear to have made progress but didn’t end up with anything to show for it, finishing just outside the points in 11th and 12th. Williams will be happy to at least no longer be propping up the field, as that honour now goes to the Haas team. The controversial Nikita Mazepin immediately earned himself a new nickname of Mazespin, with no fewer than five spins over the course of the weekend, the final one pitching him into the barriers three corners into his debut race.
Answering the Burning Questions
What is the pecking order? Who was holding the most back during testing? …See above.
Do Red Bull actually have the fastest car?! It’s close but, for now at least, it appears they do!
How will Sergio Pérez do in his first race for Red Bull? A tricky start but a trademark race performance.
How will Fernando Alonso fare on his return? Showed that he still has the speed…but does his car?
Have Ferrari made progress since last year? Yes, quite a lot!
The Race in 60 Seconds
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