Well it was far from his usual parade around the track, but Lewis Hamilton again finished on top of the podium, as the new 2021 Formula 1 season began this past weekend at the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir.
Though the record books will read the 34-year-old Briton picking up his 96th career win, this was one of his toughest, and as Max Verstappen pushed the seven-time World Drivers’ Champion to the chequered flag, the first race of the season has left F1 fans wanting more.
Pipping Verstappen to victory, Hamilton won the campaign curtain-raiser for the first time since 2015 and though that may point to hopes of a genuine and competitive title race being dashed this term, there was more than enough evidence to the contrary.
For Hamilton meanwhile, the win represents a vital step toward his goal of claiming an historic eighth title.
As the man who is gunning for his fifth-successive crown this year, the 100 win mark will surely be his next goal en-route to sporting immortality, but his latest victory – less than a second in margin – was one of his closest yet.
Bahrain duel a hopeful taster
Regarded as something of a favourite to win in Bahrain this weekend, Verstappen’s latest runners-up spot will be irksome to the Dutchman, but after a cat-and-mouse, see-saw battle to begin the 2021 season, his optimism will surely be raised.
Building on a strong pre-season testing on the same track earlier this month, Verstappen came into race day after grabbing pole on Saturday by some 0.4 secs.
Forging out an early lead, Red Bull’s number one looked to have a control on a race that seemed destined to be his 11th win, and after a tactical battle highlighted by staggered pit-stops, Verstappen looked on course to reel Hamilton in over the closing laps.
Indeed, with three laps remaining, his overtook his rival at Turn 4, but only as a result of running wide and cutting part of the track kerb.
Verstappen was forced to hand the place back to Hamilton concerned over a potential post-race penalty, but then, after a wheel lock on lap 50, fell back to a second off; his chance realistically gone.
As his chances of DRS whittled away over the final two laps, only a mere literal stone’s throw separated the two drivers, as they crosses the finish line in the desert.
Stepping onto the middle step of the podium the Red Bull man seemed content enough – another sign of his increased levels of maturity – but should Verstappen miss out on the title in December by say, seven points, it could yet be a huge moment.
What a thrilling narrative at the head of the pack did however, saw Sakhir deliver what it promised, and whilst it is of course early days, the opening race of the season drew the audiences in globally.
We hoped the new season could be a vintage year for Formula 1. It appears, we may have our wish.
McLaren make strong start
After assembling an on-paper impressive line-up this season, McLaren’s hopes for 2021 look extremely healthy also, after completing a top-seven double in Bahrain.
Coming home within nine seconds of a second career podium, Lando Norris enjoyed a stellar opener in what is now his third competitive season.
Even after pitting, Norris yoyoed between his finishing spot and seventh, where Daniel Ricciardo came home in. That may be considered something of a surprise, given the fashion the Australian finished last year in.
Putting on a united front this term, McLaren look as though they have replaced Carlos Sainz Jr. effortlessly and after finishing third in the Constructors’ last year, the next nine months promises much after opening weekend for the Brackley-based team.
Tsunoda impresses on debut
With three drivers making their F1 debuts in Bahrain, Mick Schumacher and Haas F1 understandably took the pre-race headlines.
But as the German finished off the pace in 16th and teammate Nikita Mazepin‘s first race lasted just three turns, it was however, Yuki Tsunoda, who became the talk of the paddock to begin the campaign.
The 20-year-old Japanese driver, making the step-up from Formula 2 last season, came home with an impressive P9, becoming the 65th driver after Stoffel Vandoorne in 2016, to pick up points on debut.
The AlphaTauri man also records the first points finish for a Japanese racer since Kamui Kobayashi at Interlagos nine years ago.
As we pointed to last week, the Asian is one to watch this season, and after gaining another place on Lance Stroll during the final lap here – the latest in a string of classy overtakes this weekend – the rookie has made an imperious start. Eyes peeled for Tsunoda.
As we have touched upon, Bahrain was not one to be looked back on with relish for Haas, but neither was it for Aston Martin, in their first race since mid-winter rebranding.
Sebastian Vettel looked to leave memories of a difficult 2020 behind him, but after starting at the back of the grid after incurring a five-place penalty for a racing infringement, the German endured further woe to begin the new year in P15.
Though teammate Stroll did pick up a point in 10th place, the Canadian’s ambitions would have been far loftier having taking strides in the past 12 months and will be keen to improve in Italy in three weeks’ time.
On the subject of Monza, the winner of last season’s trip, Pierre Gasly had a rotten start to the term, with only Nicholas Latifi finishing below the Frenchman in Sakhir.
Bahrain was a mixed bag for the returning Fernando Alonso, who despite being forced to retire on lap 32, had been flirting with a perhaps unlikely top-10 berth.
Completing what was strong opening weekend for Red Bull, Sergio Perez‘ P5 may not statistically go down as a memorable, but after suffering power failure on the formation lap, his drive on Sunday very much was.
Forced to start from the pit lane, the Mexican stormed through the field – underlining the Red Bull Honda engine’s performance – earning F1 driver of the day.
For the other Britain in the field George Russell, the King’s Lynn driver finished a lap off the pace, but as tongues wag with rumours of a potential switch to Mercedes gathering pace for 2022, Russell may have to bide his time this season, and earn those racing stripes, down the field.
The 2021 Italian Grand Prix takes place over the weekend of 16 and 18 April.
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