F1’s Hamilton, Verstappen battle it out in Bahrain

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton go toe to toe to start off the 2021 F1 campaign

With the whiff of high octane exhaust finally back in the air, Formula One’s elite talent pool once again spilled out onto the Bahraini tarmac.

There was a sense of excitement about. Positive charges seemed to loom, and for the first time in quite a while, an even playing field looks to have emerged. Through the three practice sessions, the usual one-two punch of the Mercedes squadron hadn’t sat atop the table. Something fans of the discipline have come to take as granted in recent years. Will this be the season where the Silver Arrows finally have a fight on their hands? If the times put up by Red Bull Racing’s wildheart Max Verstappen and McLaren’s budding star Lando Norris would suggest the winds of charge may have blown in.

Unsurprisingly, Mercedes were enjoying better results than recent showings might suggest. This is the mantra we have come to expect from these lads, though. The term sandbagging gets thrown about fairly often. The lull of false hope offered to the nine other teams that comes right before the right-hook haymaker gets thrown and lands for that knock out punch. For years now, Lewis Hamilton has been an untouchable force. When he has had competition, he has smashed it thoroughly and thrived. Yet he needs to be challenged to further assert his dominance. Last year, his only challenge came from his teammate, the talented Finn Valteri Bottas.

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On the flip side of the coin, was a qualifying session that SĂ©bastien Vettel will be in a hurry to forget. Making his debut for his new team, Aston Martin, the rebranded Racing Point team, the former four-time world champion found himself in a predicament. One a veteran of the sport should be prepared for. Due to a difficult, to say the least, Formula One debut from Nikita Mazepin in the Haas, who spun more times than a record player, Vettel was found to have violated waived yellow flags. Already incensed to have been eliminated in the first qualifying session, he was then slapped with a grid penalty that dropped him eighteenth all the way to plum last. He’ll now once more be stuck before the young Russian pilot that caused his distress to begin with.

We haven’t even had a race yet, but based on what we’ve witnessed so far in this inaugural weekend, the sandbags have been less successful this time around. Races, however, are not won in qualifying, and the real beast that is Lewis Hamilton will be out in full force tomorrow, as he hunts Verstappen for the race lead. Red Bull might not be the only team the Briton has to worry about. McLaren have looked good in these early moments, and the Prancing Ponies of the Scuderia Ferrari look like they might be primed to contend once again. Exactly what this great sport needs. Parity. A closer grid. Wheel to wheel action. Guts, grit and a good old fashioned dog fight or three. When the lights go out tomorrow, we’ll learn just how much fight Mercedes are up against.

Lights Out!

A new season is upon us, and seemingly without the drama that hampered the beginning of last year’s championship. Of course, there was nothing that could have been done differently, with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic plague spreading like wildfire across the globe. The responsible and smart move was always to shut down and wait out the virus. It was a testament to Formula One that any racing at all went on last year, and once more with how smoothly things have gone to start the 2021 series. With anticipation in high gear for this new season, one that promises much closer races than we have seen in recent years, all eyes focused on the grid.

Rarely do you see a second formation lap take place at the start of a race, yet that was the case Sunday. Red Bull’s new ace, Sergio Perez would most surely have wished for a better start at his new team than to suffer car troubles before even running a single lap. I can only speculate on the panic and thoughts that were rushing through his head as he sat stagnant in his new ride as his nineteen colleagues took another leisurely stroll about the track. In that time, his pit crew were able to right the wrong but he would have to start from pit lane. This series of events took the spotlight off of another veteran pilot also making his debut with a new team. Four-time world champion Sebastien Vettel was to start plumb last after an unfortunate series of events. In qualifying on Saturday, Vettel’s attempts at the putting up a strong lap time were hampered by the spinning Haas of debutant Nikita Mazepin. Those spins resulted in double yellow flags which the feisty German ignored, earning himself a grid penalty on top of his early elimination in the jostle for grid placement.

If Perez and Vettel were displeased at their beginnings, they can take comfort in Mazepin’s hold my beer moment, as his first race in Formula One lasted just three turns before he and his Haas became one with the wall. It what was purely a driver error. Mazepin lost control of his rear end, and spun, without any contact or conflict with another car. The wreckage was severe. Wheels faced the wrong way and both the nose and rear spoiler showed considerable damage. Surely the suspension was shot, but thankfully the young Russian walked away with little more than a bruised ego. It would seem the woes have continued for Haas, who replaced both drivers to start the season. Out went the veterans Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who had a terrifying fiery crash near the conclusion of last season, in favor of Mick Schumacher and the controversial Mazepin. Many voices have questioned whether Mazepin has the skills to race in Formula One, with his seat falling to him thanks to his billionaire father’s cheque book. Haas will be relying heavily on two rookie drivers, which is practically unheard of in Formula One.

Yet another veteran driver making his debut with a new team, Carlos Sainz, also had some difficulty adjusting to his new seat. Sainz rapidly dropped to tenth place at the start of the race. For Red Bull and Verstappen, the race couldn’t have started much better. The flying Dutchmen was away to the races, with defending champion Lewis Hamilton right on his tail. Bottas too got off to a quick start, despite dropping a spot to his teammate. Perhaps the most impressive start, however, came from the McLaren of Lando Norris, as he stormed in with gusto. The safety car had to be deployed to allowing stewards time to clean up the mess that Mazepin had spilt across the track, giving everybody but the Haas driver a second chance at a fresh start.

The re-start on the 4th lap brought with it a phenomenal battle, with Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas, Leclerc and Norris all vying for position. Great racing and a total dog fight, like those seen over the English channel during World War II. Places switch hands, cars are in close quarters as just millimeters separates the rubber of each vehicle. This is exactly what everyone was hoping to see and it is happening early. In the middle of the pack, Pierre Gasly has a damaged wing after clipping the rear of Daniel Ricciardo, resulting in a puncture for the Australian in his debut with his new team. There is a theme here. So many drivers played musical chairs during the off-season. Mick Schumacher goes for a spin while Lance Stroll and Carlos Sainz bump each other. Gasly has come off worst for wear, and has dropped all the way down to last place.

Meanwhile, Perez’ early issues appear to be resolved as both he and Vettel have begun to make their ways back up the grid. Vettel has made his way into 14th position, on just the fifth lap, showing that there is still a lot left in his tank. He will have much to prove this year, after being unceremoniously dispatched from his Ferrari seat. At the head of the field, Bottas and Leclerc are exchanging passes. Ferrari have been good so far, as they look to regain form and challenge for victories once again. Hamilton remains in hot pursuit of Verstappen. Leclerc is soon under fire for the screaming McLaren of Norris, who also exchange passes before Leclerc holds fast to his racing line, forcing Norris wide and slightly off track. We are privy to some solid driving and we’re just eight laps in. Fingers crossed world-wide that this holds up the remaining races.

Mercedes seem to think Verstappen’s Red Bull is having differential issues, which if accurate, is bad news for a rear-wheel drive cars such as these. Regardless, Verstappen is keeping the hard charging Hamilton at bay, with just under two seconds between the two. Norris attacks Leclerc again heading into turn one, and gets passed his man. Stroll follows suit and gets passed Fernando Alonso who has returned to Formula One for a third stint. Albeit early on, there seems no shortage of excitement or passing. There are edge of your seat moments all over the course. The wolves are hungry and it is feeding time.

Pit strategy is going to be key on this day, as batches of cars pile in for fresh rubber. Squealing back to track and back into the fray. Hamilton is now on fresh hard-compound tires, as he and Bottas both do not have the option of mediums. Verstappen has chosen to stay out attempting to distance himself from the pack. Hamilton has dropped to third position for the time being, but there will no doubt be further battles once Verstappen comes in for his tire change. The ever evolving game of cat and mouse continues, with primo cheese on the line.

Alonso is going wheel to wheel with both Vettel and Carlos Sainz, with the trio traded places over and over. Once more, we see how much closer these teams are this year in contrast to years past. Now, perhaps we will see more challenges that the usual gang of Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen. If the races to come are as action-packed and this one has been so far, then we are in for a fantastic season. Vettel’s tires show their age, causing the Aston Martin to lock up and the German to give way to his challengers. Kimi Raikkonen, now in his twentieth season in Formula One, also puts his Alpha Romeo past the struggling Vettel, who is forced to give up chase and box for new shoes.

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Quietly, Ricciardo is having a good race for Mclaren. Raikkonen, the eldest pilot on the circuit, is having a fight with newcomer Yuki Tsunoda, the youngest driver in the field. Again, the action is tight, fast and furious. More importantly, clean and thrilling. Tsunoda gets by his man, narrowly avoiding hitting Raikkonen who attempts to block his progress, then gets by Vettel and Russel, leading to Raikkonen and Russel coming together as they squabble for position. It’s all gone south for Alonso though, as his Alpine has suffered break issues and his race is over. Vettel claims Ocon moved in front of him, but the stewards have seen it differently and slapped Vettel with a ten second time penalty for causing a collision. It’s all happening today.

Verstappen finally heads to the pit, meaning Lewis Hamilton once again leads. It also means that Hamilton will break another record, beating Michael Schumacher’s 5112 laps led mark. For Bottas though, frustration. His pit stop has gone terribly wrong, with his front right wheel seizing and refuse to come loose. All he can do is sit and idle and his pit crew work. a whopping 10.9 seconds has elapsed and taken away any hope the Finn might have had and catching the race leaders. Verstappen is charging back towards Hamilton, wanting his lead back.

The waning laps  promise to be fulfilling, as Verstappen is gaining on Hamilton, who is now struggling for grip on worn tires. It isn’t an if but a matter of when Verstappen will be within striking distance. This is riveting stuff. With each passing lap, Verstappen edges closer. Just a second and a half separates the top two, as Verstappen pushes hard to get within one second before reaching the incoming DRS zone. Red Bull haven’t been able to keep up with the Mercedes in a long time now, so surely the adrenaline must be coursing through every member of the Red Bull Racing battalion. This is going to come down the wire. The wisdom of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton against the poise and aggression of the young Verstappen.

Hamilton locks up. Verstappen is within DRS range and now just has to time his attack wisely. He lunges in and pressures Hamilton, then goes round the outside and through but all four of his wheels leave the track and he is forced to give the race lead back to Hamilton. We’re on the final lap and these two men are giving it their all. Nothing separates the Hamilton and Verstappen and by the slightest of margins, Hamilton hangs on to win the Bahrain Grand Prix. What a magnificent conclusion to a fantastic day at the races.

With the first contest now behind us, it is clear that all but the Williams and the Haas are competitive this year. There will be a lot of great action to come, and maybe, just maybe someone will be able to finally usurp the master. Hamilton said he wanted stiffer competition and he has it.

It may have been the first outing in the discipline for Yuki Tsunoda, but he drove like a veteran. Fearless. Becoming the first driver to score points in his debut race since Stoffel Vandorne did so on this very track, in 2016. Formula One fans are in for a treat in 2021.