Formula One fans have spent years waiting for a genuine rival to emerge and challenge Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
Those prayers have finally been answered, as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen proved in a gripping first race of the 2021 campaign.
Now there’s a genuine battle at the top of the field, while Daniel Ricciardo has plenty to think about after being beaten by McLaren teammate Lando Norris in an intriguing debut for his new team.
Here are the biggest talking points from the Bahrain Grand Prix.
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The battle is on – and even the drivers are excited
If you looked at the result from the Bahrain Grand Prix, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as a result from the last year or two.
In fact, the trio of Mercedes’ Bottas and Hamilton with Red Bull’s Verstappen have now shared the podium a record-equalling 14 times!
But this was anything but the same-old-same-old routine of the last few years. This was the brutal ‘dogfight’ promised by Mercedes boss Toto Wolff – and it proved that Mercedes finally have a fight on their hands.
Since the hybrid era began in 2014, Mercedes has reigned supreme. Seven straight Constructors’ Championships and Drivers’ titles, with six of those going to Lewis Hamilton. In fact, at no point since midway through the 2018 season has Mercedes ever trailed in either category – a remarkable record of dominance.
But for the first time since his 2017 stoush with Sebastian Vettel, newly-knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton appears to have a genuine contender outside of his own garage.
And he’s happy about it.
“I’m super excited and super happy for the fans, that they are excited,” he said. “I think it’s something that all the fans have wanted for a long time.
“Of course, this is only one race, so we don’t know what the future holds in terms of the pace they have, they could be ahead a lot more.
“But we’re going to work as hard as we can to try and stay close in this battle and I hope for many more of these sorts of races with Max and Valtteri (Bottas).
“There’s a long way to go, 22 (more races), holy crap – I’ll be grey by the end of this!”
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While many would assume Hamilton would prefer to continue dominating the field as he has in recent years, the British driver has repeatedly stated over the past few seasons that he wants a genuine challenge.
He reiterated that attitude after the race, saying: “I think timing is everything and it is going to take everything and more for us to put in performances like this, but we love the challenge. I love the challenge. I still love what I do.”
Red Bull sizzled in pre-season, leading Mercedes to claim their challengers now boast the fastest car on the grid – a claim they repeatedly rebuffed. Then Verstappen comfortably outpaced the Silver Arrows throughout this weekend, including a scintillating qualification performance where he outpaced Hamilton by a hefty 0.388 seconds. And while the Dutchman appeared to have the faster car during the race, Mercedes’ strategy and Hamilton’s exceptional tyre management – sucking all the life out of his Pirellis in the dying laps – helped pull off a surprise victory.
The apparent gap between the two teams from pre-season testing has reduced significantly, which Hamilton put down to his team’s improvement.
“Through testing we thought that we were going to be six to eight tenths (of a second) behind, so the work that has gone on in the last week has been spectacular.”
But he concedes the Red Bull still appears the faster car: “I think Red Bull’s pace is incredibly strong, as you could see. We can’t match them in qualifying right now.”
His team boss Toto Wolff labelled it “an amazing fight for the first race” – but also declared: “I see these guys (Red Bull) still a tiny edge in front of us.”
Perhaps the biggest difference from last year was this: Verstappen was bitterly disappointed at not winning, rather than happy to be second. Verstappen said: “Last year we would have been super-happy with this result and now we are disappointed, so we definitely made a good step forward.”
It’s just one race, as everyone is quick to remind. But Hamilton was pushed all the way – forced to win on the back of his incredible talents, rather than just a superior car.
It’s just what he wants. It’s a battle fans have been hoping for. Bring it on.
Ricciardo ‘struggled’ – but this is his reason to smile
When a driver’s finishing position is worse than their qualifying position, you would genuinely term it a bad day. Such was the case for Daniel Ricciardo, who started the day in sixth and finished seventh as he “struggled with pace” – while his teammate Lando Norris charged from seventh to fourth.
And while Ricciardo was understandably underwhelmed with his performance, there’s plenty of reason for optimism.
“I wasn’t that impressed with my race,” the 31-year-old admitted. “We couldn’t find the pace, so every time I tried to get a bit more out of it, it wasn’t really there – but I think there’s plenty to take from the race, plenty to learn from.
“If what I felt was an okay race ended with a P7, we’re looking all right.”
That’s a healthy dose of perspective.
But his move from Renault (now Alpine) is quickly looking like the right call.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon finished 13th from his grid position of P16, while Fernando Alonso – the two-time returning champion – did not finish the race after starting P9. Both were unfortunate, with Ocon copping a late shunt from Sebastian Vettel while Alonso’s brakes overheated thanks to debris entering his brake ducts.
Nevertheless, Ricciardo was part of a double-points finish for McLaren, while his former team were significantly further down the field.
And while his race pace was off, Ricciardo’s start to life with his new team has been relatively smooth, particularly compared to his early days at Renault after departing Red Bull.
“I remember with Renault two years ago, this (Bahrain GP) was race two – and I was leaving pretty down still after race two. It did take time. I certainly feel much better right now.
“I feel like there’s for sure still things to learn. But I’m certainly much closer to where I need to be. It’s just going to take time … but Imola’s next. I like that place and we’ll go fast.”
Vettel a clumsy shadow of his former self
Sebastian Vettel’s four world championships appear a lifetime ago, and the German veteran’s fresh start at Aston Martin was nothing short of rotten.
Vettel managed just 18th in qualifying – eliminated in Q1 – and then copped a five-place grid penalty for failing to slow during yellow flags during that session. That sent him to the back of the grid for his debut race in the Silverstone outfit (although Red Bull’s Sergio Perez one-upped him in that regard, starting from pit lane after a formation lap issue).
The 33-year-old is increasingly looking a shadow of his former self, and he wasn’t helped by an attempted one-stop strategy.
He was completely at fault in a crash with Sebastian Ocon at Turn 1 late in the race, and finished just P15 – a result that flattered him, given so many rivals retired from the race.
“I was sure he was leaving me space on the left but then he crossed back and as soon as I was behind him I locked up and couldn’t avoid hitting him,” Vettel said, before Ocon later revealed that Vettel had apologised for the incident.
The former Ferrari driver hasn’t won a race since Singapore in 2019, and on current form that’s not likely to change any time soon.
He picked up five penalty points on his racing licence thanks to his errors in qualifying and the race.
“It was obviously a tricky race for me,” he said. It could be a tricky year.
On for young and old
Seven of the 10 teams on the grid boast a different driver line-up compared to last season (the three who have remained the same are Mercedes, Williams, and Alfa Romeo).
And the new-look grid saw plenty of impressive team debuts.
Driver of the day Sergio Perez fought from pit lane to P5 in his first Red Bull outing.
Carlos Sainz (“honestly I was very quick”) finished P8, the same position he had started from, in a strong start to life with Ferrari.
Rookie Yuki Tsunoda started 13th, fell to 15th on the first lap, then fought to a ninth-place finish with a last-lap overtake of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
Tsunoda is the first driver to score points on F1 debut in five years. “The pace was good,” he said.
“It was possible to go more forward for positions, so first points feel OK, but I think there was a lot of space to improve this race in Imola.”
The Japanese starlet is the first driver born in this century to race in F1. Remarkably, he was just nine months old when the Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – the veterans of the grid – made their debuts in the sport.
Speaking of Fernando Alonso, his return to Alpine for a third stint showed plenty of promise, running in the points before a ‘sandwich wrap paper’ (yes, really) got caught in his rear brake duct and forced him to retire.
He is one of a full 10 drivers on the grid to have won a Grand Prix.
It just might be the most talented grid we’ve seen in years – and judging by a number of drivers’ hot starts with their new teams, there should be some epic battles all the way down the field.
Horrible Haas a new wooden spoon contender
While Williams has been the perennial battlers of the last few seasons, there could be a new backmarker this season: Haas.
Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin hit the barriers at the high-speed Turn 3 on the first lap of the race – the same spot that the team’s former driver Romain Grosjean suffered a fireball crash last year.
It summed up a nightmare weekend for Mazepin, who spun multiple times in practice and qualifying, and provoked the ire of many when he broke the unwritten rule of not overtaking rivals during the qualifying out-lap. “It was totally my mistake, it’s very disappointing,” he said of his crash.
His fellow rookie Mick Schumacher suffered a near-identical spin soon afterwards, this time at turn four. He recovered to finish 16th – worst of all drivers who completed the race.
“In general, I’d say I was 90 per cent happy and 10 per cent not – because of the mistake I made, the spin, at the safety car restart.”
Both drivers were trying to get on the throttle when the car lurched out of control. You could call them rookie mistakes – they were – but they also hint at a bigger problem: the VF-21 is a nightmare to drive.
With two youngsters at the helm, Haas can’t rely on a driver’s race experience to guide the development of the car.
They’ll have to hope their undeniably gifted duo can improve – and their car can too – or else it could be a very, very long season.