The most dramatic Formula 1 season opener in a generation produced a worthy winner in Lewis Hamilton, and an equally worthy title challenger in Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
There’s always a risk drawing too many conclusions from just one race, but the performances on the seven sessions over the weekend seemed to stack up pretty well with testing form and already the competitive running order is taking shape.
While Hamilton and Verstappen are clearly in top form and they’re not the only ones, but some of their competitors didn’t have such successful weekends.
The heartrate’s finally nearing resting pace – a speed not troubled by the field yesterday – and it’s time to look at the winners and losers of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Winner – Lewis Hamilton
The seven-time world champion needed all his quality to secure his 96th grand prix victory ahead of Verstappen, one of his more unlikely wins.
He was able to make his unorthodox strategy work and yet again his mastery of the tyres, being able to put in consistently strong lap times whilst stretching the hard compound to the very limits of Pirelli’s estimations.
And he showed the nous and guile that ultimately made the difference on the day, exploiting the T4 loophole left by the FIA to its fullest extent while Verstappen was seemingly unaware of the potential gain.
It was a sign of the diamond-forming pressure he was under that he did make one mistake, running wide going onto the back straight and allowing Verstappen to close to within a second of his AMG-studded engine cover.
But his ability to put that straight behind him and hold off the flying Dutchman to the finish is exactly the composure that’s made him into the greatest and will be needed all through this season if he’s to win his eighth title.
Winner – Red Bull
Like Britain after Dunkirk, Red Bull might have lost the battle, but the war is well and truly on.
They showed their outrageous testing form wasn’t a fluke as Max Verstappen took a dominant pole position by four-tenths of a second over Hamilton, the master qualifier looked helpless to deny Verstappen.
In the race the Dutchman was mere feet away from a win, and it was only that drift wide coupled with Mercedes’ ridiculously non-meta strategy somehow working that denied him that.
Meanwhile Sergio Pérez faced hardships and unlikely setbacks all through the weekend but overcame all of that to finish fifth and show he is the man to solve Red Bull’s second-seat conundrum.
Loser – Nikita Mazepin
The Russian had a torrid time in a debut weekend that won’t draw any sympathy from most F1 fans.
Already up against it as the potentially illegally-decorated Haas won’t be developed across the year, Mazepin had struggles in practice before two spins in qualifying with the second one particularly embarrassing.
The 22-year old as he jumped a queue on-track to get onto his final flying lap ahead of the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Ocon but then spun into turn one, bringing out the yellow flags that prevented those drivers setting a competitive laptime and elminating them in Q1
After all of that he made up two places on Sunday before the race had started before the formation lap turned out to be the peak of his weekend, as he crashed out at turn three to complete one of the worst race weekends I can remember.
AND he got properly shaded by Jack Aitken in the tweet of the weekend, and tweet of the season contender:
Suddenly feeling a lot better about the 60 laps I managed in Sakhir before my spin.
— Jack Aitken – 한세용 (@JaitkenRacer) March 28, 2021
Winner – Resurgent icons
As Hamilton’s quest for an eighth world title started strongly it seems strange to think that in the two years that he was battling for his first, McLaren and Ferrari were the dominant forces.
But though they’ve both had spells in the doldrums in the past few years, the Bahrain Grand Prix signposted yet another step back towards the front of the sport.
McLaren reinforced their testing to form to prove the leaders of the midfield and Ferrari have made a Neil Armstrong-level leap forward from their torrid 2020.
Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc had a fantastic battle the former finished a superb fourth, while between them they locked out the top 8 with the next midfield runner 18 seconds back from eighth-placed Carlos Sainz.
This is a fight well worth watching as the season progresses, with both teams capable of producing breakthrough developments in the factory and superb action on it.
Loser – Pierre Gasly
The Frenchman came into Sunday as a dark horse (albeit a dark horse with a fair few white splotches) for a top-five finish but that all unravelled when he hit going into turn 6 after the safety car restart and lost his front wing.
From there he never recovered, and eventually recorded one of the least noticed retirements in F1 history with four laps to go.
The AlphaTauri looks to have outperformed itself a tad in preseason testing and Gasly is already under pressure from his teammate, not the dominant display he’d have hoped for when he flew into Bahrain.
Gasly’s a class act and he will bounce back from this, but that’s a bounce he’d rather not have to make.
Loser – Valtteri Bottas
Last season’s curtain-raiser put Bottas as championship leader and Hamilton’s undisputed closest title challenger. How things change.
He felt closer to midfield leaders than the superlative Hamilton and Verstappen for parts of this weekend, although he was a thorn in Red Bull’s side until his botched pit-stop.
And he did snatch the fastest lap point away from Max Verstappen on his last circumference of the Sakhir Circuit, an astute decision from Mercedes to pit him and the type of marginal gain that will prove crucial in this title fight.
But as the circus heads to Imola it already feels as the Finn is a tool for Hamilton to use against Verstappen rather than a legitimate threat to his title.
Winner – Yuki Tsunoda
It can take a long time to score your first points in F1 – just ask George Russell – so for Tsunoda to do it on his debut is yet another step on his meteoric rise to the top level of motorsport.
Three years ago he was preparing to race with Honda for the first time, in Japanese F4, but today he overtook eleven drivers championships (Alonso, Räikkönen and Vettel twice).
He also recorded an incredulous second place in Q1 (although that euphoria was slightly diluted by his Q2 elimination 15 minutes of track time later) but he already showed he’s already at home in F1 and it’s genuinely exciting to see what he can do over the season.
Yuki makes another move on Vettel! 💪 this time for P12!
next on the list… Alonso
— Scuderia AlphaTauri (@AlphaTauriF1) March 28, 2021
Loser – Sebastian Vettel
The biggest victim of Tsuonda, the four-time world champion didn’t quite enjoy the fresh start he’ll have hoped for at Aston Martin.
He slipped out of Q1 after Mazepin’s howler, and was then given a five-place grid penalty that dropped Vettel to the back of the grid.
He had an unspectacular race until he rammed Ocon at turn one, and laughably tried to blame the Frenchman over the radio.
On top of that, the Aston Martin that seemed third-fastest last season looks to have been swamped by its midfield rivals and it looks like they’ll be fighting more at the back of the top 10 than around the top five.
“Why did he have to change line??”
Vettel’s irate radio message after colliding with Esteban Ocon, but it was the four-time champion who was at fault and subsequently handed a ten-second penalty.
Loser – Alpine
It already feels a long time since Renault grabbed two podiums in three races and looked favourites to take third in the Constructors’ Championship. So far this season, their uniquely-designed car hasn’t been anywhere near recreating those results.
Alonso worked his trademark wizardry to drag the bulbous A521 into Q3 but has forced to retire after 32 laps with a brake problem, while Ocon also had trouble slowing down – although more due to Vettel’s mistake than an issue with the car.
It could be a long season for the French team, although for this weekend at least, Alonso seemed pretty patient and understanding. They’ll need that to last.
“Fernando Alonso might need more titanium in his jaw with the amount of clenching he’ll do this year. That Alpine is not fast.”
Our F1 writer Tayyib Abu’s take on Alpine’s start, in our ‘Writers react’ piece on the Bahrain GP.
Winner – F1 fans
It only took seven years, but finally there’s another team-and-driver combination that can challenge Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in the turbo-hybrid era.
Red Bull and Verstappen look the real deal and it feels like we might even get an Abu Dhabi showdown… Imagine that.
Away from the front, there’s the dynamic midfield battle between McLaren, Ferrari, and whoever else is up for the fight, and even Alfa Romeo and Williams look like they could be semi-regular scorers.
With a host of races back on the calendar feel guarantee to provide action (Baku, Canada, Suzuka, Austin, Interlagos and perhaps Monaco, Singapore and Albert Park) this could be a season for the ages. It’s time for the proverbial buckle-up…