“We have a real fight on our hands.”
Those eight words, from Mercedes-Benz team supremoToto Wolff, are the best thing to come out of the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix.
There were plenty of questions before the race but many were answered by the finishing order, from the lacklustre effort of Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin to the speed of the new McLaren with Mercedes motivation.
The result was fairly predictable, with newly-knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton winning and Mighty Max Verstappen in second place, with the ‘invisible man’ Valterri Bottas doing his usual thing for third.
But Mercedes won with tactics, not speed, after Verstappen had used a quicker new Red Bull racer to claim pole position.
Verstappen led from the start until Hamilton went for the classic early stop and tactical ‘undercut’, fought back to (almost) re-take the lead when his pass was ruled an out-of-bounds move, and was only seven-tenths behind at the finish.
It all points to a year of racing, not just high-speed parades by the black arrows from Benz.
“We are taking the fight to Mercedes and I think that’s great,” said Verstappen.
“Of course it’s a shame not to get the win. But there are positives to take from today and the whole weekend.”
The biggest of the plus factors is the speed of the Red Bull-Honda, which is also reflected in the pace of the latest AlphaTauri with the same power-plant Pierre Gasly was fifth on the grid before first-lap contact with Daniel Ricciardo and rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who came home ninth, was fast and entertaining all weekend.
But McLaren is looking like a born-again operation with fourth – and ‘best of the rest’ – for Lando Norris and Ricciardo still making it home in seventh, as Ferrari is showing promise.
“I stayed out of trouble and I’m very happy. It’s encouraging that we were able to fight with pure pace. It’s a good start,” said Ricciardo.
On the downside, the good looking Aston Martin, which was strong as a Racing Point last year, is in trouble and Alpine, formerly Renault, was unimpressive.
Lance Stroll managed tenth for Aston as Sebastian Vettel struggled all weekend and was only 15th, while the best of the Alpines was Esteban Ocon in 13th as former world champion Fernando Alonso failed to finish.
“The start was fun, we gained some places and I had some enjoyable battles with old colleagues. However, it was disappointing to not see the chequered flag in the end,” said Alonso, who surprised many people when he qualified inside the Top 10.
“The issue we had after the second stop was a rear brake issue as some debris entered the brake ducts and overheated the temperatures of the car.”
For Hamilton, who always says he wants to race, the battle in Bahrain was a good one.
“Max was all over me right at the end but I just about managed to hold him off. It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while so I’m really grateful for it,” he said.
But Wolff is the one with the helicopter view and the Mercedes’ perspective on the dust-up in the desert.
“If somebody had predicted this would be the result on Sunday, I wouldn’t have believed it. If you are 100 per cent honest with yourself, we are still lacking pace in qualifying,” Wolff said.
“Today we were definitely competitive, and the strategy made all the difference. We made a bold call in the beginning to take track position and the lead of the race, then at the end the racing gods were on our side.
“Bahrain was never the strongest race for Red Bull and they have never traditionally been the quickest out the blocks, so after today I have no doubt that they are going to be extremely difficult to beat in 2021.”
2021 BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX
|2||Max Verstappen||Red Bull|
|5||Sergio Perez||Red Bull|
|10||Lance Stroll||Aston Martin|