Since the 2018 German Grand Prix, it became painfully obvious to neutral F1 fans that there really wasn’t a car-driver combination to challenge Lewis Hamilton and the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 team. After Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement at the end of 2016, there was no challenge from Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel proved most adept at shooting themselves in the foot in 2017 and 2018.
Pre-season testing this year, however, indicated that Red Bull Racing and power unit suppliers Honda had finally come to grips with F1’s turbo hybrid regulations that had seen Mercedes dominate the sport since 2014. Sunday’s season opening Bahrain Grand Prix proved that Red Bull Racing-Honda have actually given Max Verstappen a car with which he can take the fight to Hamilton and Mercedes. And did he ever take the fight to Lewis!
F1 Fans: Over both a single lap and over a race distance, there was little to choose between Verstappen and Hamilton. The seven-time champion’s winning margin of 0.745 seconds over Verstappen was exactly what the doctor ordered for fans of F1 who had been starved of a proper fight between two different teams for years. Social media was abuzz with excitement over the prospect of this battle continuing for the remaining 22 races of the 2021 season. Although, the pessimist may say that since both testing and the opening race were held at the same venue in similar weather conditions, the competitive order could be very different for the rest of the year. Fingers, toes and eyes crossed that that isn’t the case…
Lewis Hamilton: With little by way of opposition since 2014, F1’s winningest driver of all-time had to keep hearing that his success with Mercedes has been primarily down to the team rather than his talent. There is truth to that given Mercedes’ huge resources and results during that period, but Hamilton is still a supremely talented driver who would welcome a close battle to prove that he has something to do with Mercedes’ success. That was evident in how he kept pace with Verstappen throughout the race and then held him off at the end of the 56-lap race. Very fuzzy rules regarding track limits helped his cause too, but more on that later.
Max Verstappen: There was little to separate the 23-year-old Dutchman from the 36-year-old Hamilton over the course of the opening race weekend of 2021. Despite having to concede the lead to Hamilton due to ambiguity over track limits, Verstappen has many reasons to be happy with his performance. He has a history of being hot-headed and that may work against him in a championship fight with Hamilton, but at least he can hope to have one at last this year.
McLaren-Mercedes: Despite having to modify last year’s chassis rather than make one suited to a power unit from a new supplier (Mercedes-Benz), McLaren appear to be the team that will lead the pack behind frontrunners Mercedes and Red Bull Racing-Honda. They finished third in the constructor’s championship last year and that is where they stand now after Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth and seventh, respectively in Bahrain. The team’s MCL35M appears to be a pretty fast and reliable car that will allow its drivers to snatch the odd podium finish when the leading teams hit trouble.
Charles Leclerc: Ferrari are not yet back to being a contender for race wins, but their pace in qualifying and the race showed that they are unlikely to have as horrific a season as 2020. With no wins and sixth in the constructors’ championship last year, Ferrari appear to have taken a step forward. And that is good news for their super talented lead driver Charles Leclerc who managed to finish sixth, ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo. He was third early in the race after stealing a place from Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and raced hard to try and hang on to the place. If only Ferrari can give him a car with which to battle alongside Hamilton and Verstappen.
Sergio Perez: The Mexican saved his F1 future last year with stellar drives for Racing Point-Mercedes (now Aston Martin-Mercedes) including his first ever victory at Bahrain, albeit on a different track layout to the 5.412km loop used for the Bahrain GP. Those performances netted him a Red Bull seat, but with the unenviable task of having to partner Max Verstappen. Knowing that he isn’t expected to beat the super talented Dutchman, though, allows Perez to just focus on making the most of his chances. A poor qualifying session and a stalled engine on the formation lap meant that he didn’t have many opportunities for season opener, though. However, despite being relegated from eleventh to starting from the pitlane before the race even began, the Mexican finished fifth. In many ways, it was par for the course for Perez, who has always been better over a grand prix race distance of 300km rather than over a single lap in qualifying. Red Bull would still want him to sort out the latter so that they can attack reigning champions Mercedes with two drivers instead of just Verstappen.
Fernando Alonso: The former two-time world champion left F1 at the end of the 2018 a somewhat disgraced man. A reputation of being difficult to work with had seen him be out of the running for drives with race winning teams and having to compete for scraps in the midfield. Since announcing his return last season, F1 fans wondered whether the fast, fiesty and consistent driver still had what made the F1 paddock regard him as the best driver even when he wasn’t winning the title. Qualifying in the top ten with Alpine (the rebranded Renault F1 team) and having the pace to score points in Bahrain proved that the hunger and talent is still there. A stray sandwich wrapper (you read that right) flying on to the track and blocking one of his car’s rear brake ducts caused him to retire from the race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of reason for Alonso to be hopeful of consistent points finishes in 2021, and maybe even a freak podium if luck goes his way.
Clarity: It’s always better if sporting contests are decided between the participants without the rule-makers getting involved. Sadly, due to a lack of clarity on whether drivers could or couldn’t exceed track limits on the outside of turn four of the Bahrain International Circuit, Max Verstappen was forced to give back the lead of the race to Lewis Hamilton after passing him on the 53rd lap of the 56-lap race. Earlier in the race, Hamilton had been exceeding the limits of the track for 29 laps, before the FIA stewards decided that it was not all right to do so. Either the rules are enforced consistently or every circuit has high kerbs or gravel traps placed on the outside of corners at every circuit to stop them from going overboard, so to speak.
Nikita Mazepin: Seeing the Russian driver listed as a loser will make many F1 fans happy. Already unpopular due to his on-track misbehaviour in junior racing and making it through the ranks due to his father’s money, Mazepin raised the ire of many after groping his female friend last year. Fans happily bestowed him with the hashtag ‘mazespin’ after he crashed into the barrier on the opening lap of the race. The sponsorship he brings to the Haas-Ferrari team is the reason why he is in F1 at all and one gets the feeling that this won’t be the last time he struggles to comes to grips with driving an F1 car this year.
Aston Martin-Mercedes: Big talk of becoming the ‘British Ferrari’ and celebrity endorsed team launch was a far cry from on-track reality for Aston Martin. Attempting to use the Aston Martin name to piggyback on the success of a team that originally started life in F1 as Jordan, owner Lawrence Stroll would not be happy to see his squad come away from the season opening race with just one point. Particularly as they finished last season fourth in the constructors’ championship.
Sebastian Vettel: Out-qualified by his teammate, not having sufficient race pace, losing control and crashing into another car. One would be mistaken for thinking they just read a summary of a race during Vettel’s 2019 season with Ferrari. The former four-time world champion’s debut with Aston Martin-Mercedes started in the worst possible fashion and he risks being outscored consistently by the team owner’s son Lance Stroll.
F1 Fans: After such an engrossing season opener, we now have to for almost three weeks until the next race in the 2021 season. The former venue of the San Marino Grand Prix made its return to the F1 calendar last season and will once again host the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this year. The only problem is that after an opening round that has fans salivating for more tense battles for the win, we are being forced to curb our enthusiasm until teams regroup in Europe. Patience is a virtue, I guess.