The opening race of the 2021 Formula 1 season in Bahrain confirmed a crucial pre-season narrative " that Mercedes finally have a challenger in Red Bull Racing. Yes, one could argue that such a conclusion from just the first race of the season could be premature. But the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix offered sufficient signs that we will witness two teams battle for top honours across the season.
Apart from the natural ebb-flow of form over a 23-race calendar, the key factors on which a season-long battle between the two teams would depend are, first, a switch of focus to their 2022 car. Second, going down a development direction that hampers season-long progression. And third, the sliding scale aero regulations that permit Red Bull Racing more development time than Mercedes till at least the end of June.
Is it the car or the driver?
'Is it the car or the driver?' is a question that will come up each time the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix will be referenced while discussing Lewis Hamilton's legend in the sport. This was one of those rare races in which the reigning World Champion wasn't racing a car that was the class of the field. The performance gap between the Mercedes and Red Bull Racing cars was marginal and it was Hamilton's talent that bridged this gap when thwarting off attacks from Verstappen late in the race. In the end, Hamilton crossed the finish line just seven-tenths ahead of Verstappen to clinch his 96th win in Formula 1.
"They have had an amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special to get the win tonight. We stopped for that last stint and trying to find the right balance between pushing hard and saving tyre performance for the end of the race was difficult. And 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 and massively thankful for the men and the women back at the factory and here, for continuously pushing the boundaries and never giving up, even if we do feel we're behind. But we love the challenge, I love the challenge, I love what I do," said a jubilant Hamilton.
Track limits controversy
Formula 1 managed to divert attention from the battle of the two generations to the recurring issue of drivers obeying track limits and the FIA's inconsistent monitoring. In his charge for the lead, Verstappen completed his overtake of Hamilton whilst off track limits at the famous Turn 4 of the Bahrain International Circuit. Michael Masi, the FIA Race Director, instructed the team to radio their driver and give the place back. A few corners later, Verstappen promptly surrendered the lead to Hamilton. After that, Verstappen lacked the bite in his tyres to launch a second attack on Hamilton and was forced to follow his rival across the finish line in second place.
In the pre-race drivers' briefing, the FIA had informed the drivers that track limits at Turn 4 wouldn't be actively monitored in the race. However, drivers had to adhere to the sporting regulations which regulate that gaining a lasting advantage by crossing track limits wouldn't be permitted. In the case of Verstappen's overtake on Hamilton, the change of position happened off-track. Hence, it was correct of the FIA to ask Verstappen to relinquish his lead. However, the controversy around track limits was mainly around the FIA's mid-race warning to Hamilton to obey track limits at the same corner. If they weren't being actively monitored, why did the FIA issue such a warning?
Social media was quick to point out that Hamilton had gone off-track at Turn 4 29 times in the 56-lap race. However, he wasn't engaged in battle with another driver during his infringements.
"Well, throughout the race I was told that people were going wide so they told me to do the same because you do gain lap time doing it, so I did, and then at one point they told me not to do it any more. I don't know. In qualifying it was not allowed, your lap time got deleted and so I don't know how it got to the point where people were doing it without getting warnings but at the end of the day, when I was fighting Lewis, I went outside of the track limits, so I think quite quickly the race director was onto us to tell me to give the position back to him and that's exactly what I did," confirmed Verstappen in the post-race press conference.
After out-classing the Mercedes cars in qualifying, Verstappen started from pole and led till the first round of pit stops. Mercedes made good use of their strategic advantage of having two cars fight against Verstappen. The reigning world champions made the first move by pitting Hamilton " a decision that limited Verstappen's strategic options at that juncture of the race. By the time Verstappen pitted four laps later, Hamilton had taken the lead of the race.
As the race progressed, it was clear that Red Bull Racing's only option to claiming victory was Verstappen overtaking Hamilton on-track. The strategists from both teams did well to maximise their drivers' chances and Verstappen did have the speed and tyres to attack Hamilton in the closing stages. However, Verstappen's strategy was further limited by the fewer options of compounds available mid-race. In our 'what's new in 2021' column, we had pointed out that drivers have a standard allocation of tyres to use every weekend. For his second stop, Verstappen only had the soft or hard tyre to choose from.
Verstappen explained further, "I think, strategy-wise, we'll have to analyse what we could have done better, maybe. But also, we didn't have the tyres like they had. So, we didn't really have a lot of flexibility in the strategy. So maybe also there we could have done better in choosing our tyres throughout the practice."
The other pre-season narrative that was confirmed in this race was the competitiveness of the mid-field team. Seven out of the ten teams scored points in the race " Alpine, Haas and Williams being the ones missing out. The Mclarens looked pacy all weekend and Lando Norris' fourth and Daniel Ricciardo's seventh place finish vindicated the team's pre-season form. Norris' overtake on Ricciardo on the opening lap was decisive and helped him cut away from the mid-field chaos.
Also battling on the opening lap was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who briefly overtook Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas for third place. As with 2020, Leclerc continued to impress with his Alonso-esque performances. In qualifying, he managed fourth " ahead of the quicker Mclarens. In the race, he settled for a sixth place finish in a car that definitely isn't the third quickest on the grid. Carlos Sainz Jr. finished eight to score points in his debut race for Ferrari.
AlphaTauri's fortunes took an early hit in the race when Pierre Gasly, who starred in qualifying to take fifth, lost his front wing during scrap with Ricciardo. The Frenchman could only manage 17th. However, his debutant team-mate, Yuki Tsunoda, scored points for the team by finishing 9th " ahead of Aston Martin's Lance Stroll in 10th.
Alpine's no-score was due to issues beyond their control. Fernando Alonso ran in the points for most of the race before being forced to retire due to rear brake issues (caused by debris). Formula 1 fans witnessed the 'Alonso magic' in qualifying when the Spaniard managed to squeeze into Q3 in only his first race upon returning to the sport. Esteban Ocon finished 13th, but his race chances were marred after being hit and spun around by Sebastian Vettel.
Haas' rookie drivers suffered from early race spins " Mazepin crashing out, while Schumacher managed to continue to finish 16th. In his first race for Aston Martin, Vettel finished 15th after a weekend that went from bad to worse to worst. Vettel was eliminated in Q1 (not entirely his fault though) and later penalised for ignoring yellow flags (relegated from 18th to 20th " dead last). However, his worst moment was when he made an unforced error " locking up, hitting and spinning Ocon while also spinning himself. The only silver lining of the weekend was when Vettel climbed six positions on Lap 1. The former World Champion left Bahrain with five penalty points " accumulated after his infringements in qualifying and the race.
Perez's Red Bull racing debut
The winner of last year's Bahrain Grand Prix had a bittersweet start to his career as a Red Bull Racing driver. The Mexican was eliminated in Q2 of qualifying and had an issue with his car on the formation lap " one that almost saw him retire from the race before it started. However, he managed to get his car going and started the race from the pitlane. Perez made good of his 3-stopping strategy to overtake cars in the mid-field and finish fifth.
As the season progresses, one expects Perez to find his feet in the Red Bull car and get closer to Verstappen. Should this happen, Red Bull Racing will have more options in their race strategy for Verstappen " one they crucially missed in the race in Bahrain.
Jehan Daruvala in F2
The young Indian racer made a solid start to his second season in Formula 2. In the three races contested in Bahrain, the Red Bull Junior Driver finished 2nd, 4th and 6th to score 28 points. Jehan is 3rd in the Drivers' Championship.