- Hamilton and Verstappen go wheel to wheel
- Thrilling season opener under the lights
- Closest season in years looks to be likely
Formula One is finally set for a thrilling title battle, if the opening race of the 2021 season at Bahrain is anything to go by.
Seven time champion Lewis Hamilton and the pretender to his crown, Max Verstappen went wheel to wheel around the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday (28 March), with Hamilton just about emerging on top to start his season off with a narrow win.
The series has been dominated by one team and one driver in particular since 2014, with the championship battle over that time barely contested due to the superiority of Hamilton and his Mercedes team.
The only man to beat the British driver in recent years was his former teammate Nico Rosberg, who claimed the title in 2016 and retired from racing straight after, such was the strain of a championship campaign.
Since then, only Sebastian Vettel in 2018 has come close to mounting a major challenge to Hamilton, who has won the last two championships at a canter.
But this season looks set to be very different. Coming into the first weekend of the year last weekend, it seemed likely that Verstappen and the Red Bull Honda team would be superior. That certainly seemed to be the case initially, as the Dutchman set the fastest time in each of the three practice sessions, and then claimed pole position in qualifying with a comfortable margin over Hamilton.
In the race, Red Bull’s Verstappen held his advantage and led the early stages, but the Mercedes team opted to pit Hamilton earlier than their rivals, and crucially gave Hamilton what is known as the ‘undercut’, pitting early when 1.8 seconds behind, making full use of the fresher tyres to lap faster than Verstappen, who then fell 6.6 seconds behind Hamilton when he pitted later on.
The Red Bull man was able to close the gap by around half a second a lap afterwards, demonstrating the underlying pace advantage he held, but Mercedes made their second stop early again, with Hamilton still ahead after the second round of stops, this time by 8.8 seconds.
But Verstappen still seemingly had the upper hand, with his tyres being 11 laps younger than Hamilton’s, and therefore offering more pace and life, but also knowing he’d need to overtake the British driver to win the race.
Heading into the final 10 laps, Verstappen began to close the gap rapidly, and with five laps remaining was within striking range. On the run to the wide turn four, Verstappen got alongside and attempted to go around the outside of the Mercedes, braking later and edging ahead through the turn. But in doing so he ran off the track, and was ordered by the race controllers to let Hamilton back past; in running off track while completing the move, he was judged to have gained an unfair advantage.
With Verstappen’s pace advantage, it still seemed likely that he would find a way past, but Hamilton somehow kept the Red Bull at arms length, with Verstappen unable to re-enter the Mercedes’ DRS zone, which would have allowed him to open his rear wing and gain more speed.
Hamilton ultimately clung on to win by just seven tenths of a second, while Verstappen was unhappy at having to let Hamilton pass, claiming that had he not done so, he could have gained enough of a gap to counter any potential penalty that would have come down from the stewards.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was a distant third after a late pit stop, giving him fresh tyres for an attempt at gaining the extra point on offer for the fastest race lap, which he was successful in doing.
After such an enthralling race, the closest season for years seems in store, something both Hamilton and Verstappen are relishing.
I loved every minute of it. Every minute of the weekend I’ve loved. Knowing for us as a team that we were behind in performance… these guys [Red Bull] have done a better job so far and so for us to come away with this result, given that we weren’t the fastest this weekend, is a real result.
We have to look at the positives, we are taking the fight to Mercedes and I think that’s great, it’s good to start the season this way and we managed to score some good points for the Team. We will analyse what we can do better as there are always things you can improve and it’s great to get Honda’s 200th podium this weekend. Now it’s full focus on the next race.
The next race takes place in three weeks time at the legendary Imola circuit in Italy.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.