The 2021 F1 Season began in full earnest with the opening round at the Bahrain International Circuit. The season, with 23 races, would become the longest ever in the history of F1. Bahrain was the first night race of the year, and the teams had gathered a good amount of data from the three days of testing the previous week. The pre-season tests suggested a change in the pecking order, but would the results at the end of the race authenticate the claim?
Was Red Bull able to start their season on a high? Was Mercedes able to iron out their travails from the pre-season tests? How did the rechristened teams like Aston Martin and Alpine fare? Did Ferrari begin their 2021 campaign on a more positive note? How did the rookies like Tsunoda, Mazepin and a certain Schumacher perform at their maiden F1 GP?
Time for a recap of the Bahrain GP weekend!
The FIA reduced the practice sessions in 2021 from 90 minutes to 60 to accommodate the shifting of media interviews held earlier on Thursdays.
FP1 got underway with Mercedes and Red Bull trading the quickest lap times. Alpine Racing carried out aerodynamic tests with its drivers while the rookies continued to add more mileage and gain experience in F1. A lot of teams ran the soft compound tyres, something that is uncharacteristic during FP1. Verstappen topped the timesheets at the end of FP1 ahead of Bottas and Norris, with Hamilton, Leclerc and Perez completing the top 6. Gasly was the quickest Alpha Tauri in 7th, followed by Sainz, who had a productive FP1 with his new team, Ferrari. Ricciardo was 9th in the other McLaren, with Giovinazzi completing the top 10 in his Alfa Romeo. His team-mate Raikkonen was 11th, followed by the Aston Martin cars of Vettel and Stroll. The rookie Tsunoda finished FP1 14th, followed by the Alpine cars. Russell, Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin were more than 2.5 seconds slower than Verstappen's time.
Kimi Raikkonen was the first victim of the weekend when his car hit the barriers at turn two, ripping off his front wing in FP2. The Finn limped back to the pits, his session compromised with limited running. The FIA introduced track limits at turn 4, and the Mercedes duo had their lap times deleted. Sainz, Norris, Bottas and Ocon had off-track moments, and Mazepin suffered a spin in sector 3. The teams shifted their focus to race-simulation runs in the second half of the session, and data suggested close battles would unfold come Sunday.
It was Verstappen who set the quickest time of the session, followed by Norris and Hamilton. Sainz was 4th in the other McLaren, followed by Bottas, Ricciardo and Tsunoda. Only six-tenths of a second separated the top 10, with Stroll, Gasly and Perez completing the first half of the field.
Ocon was 11th in the Alpine from Leclerc and Giovinazzi. The veterans Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen were only a second slower than Verstappen's best effort. Schumacher split the two Williams, followed by Mazepin, who was the slowest.
There was a lot of data gathering completed by the teams on Friday. The midfield battle now featured more players, and with FP3 being the final session before parc ferme conditions got imposed, Saturday was to be yet another busy day for the teams and drivers.
The teams and drivers faced a hot afternoon during FP3. Mazepin and Leclerc suffered from spins at turn six and two, respectively. Vettel got forced to return to the pits after a piece of bodywork from his car got dislodged. Thankfully, there was no damage done. Eight different teams featured in the top ten at the end of FP3, which underlined how close the contest could be.
Verstappen again bagged the quickest time at the end of FP3, seven-tenths clear of Hamilton and Gasly. Bottas and Perez were 4th and 5th in the other Mercedes and Red Bull cars, followed by Sainz, who posted his best lap on the medium tyres. Raikkonen, Ocon, Stroll and Ricciardo completed the top 10.
Leclerc, in the other Ferrari, also set his quickest time on the medium tyres in 11th. Giovinazzi was 12th in his Alfa Romeo while Tsunoda and Vettel ended FP3 more than two seconds slower than Verstappen in 13th and 14th. The struggle to find the right balance continued for Alonso, who was 15th, followed by Norris, who ended the session a disappointing 16th. Schumacher and Mazepin split the Williams of Russell and Latifi at the back of the field.
Verstappen and Red Bull had dominated the practice sessions, but would they grab pole in Qualifying? The battleground was ready for a great tussle!
Alpha Tauri detected an anomaly and replaced Gasly's Energy Store and Control Electronics before Qualifying. No penalty received since it was within the allocation of units for the season.
The first Qualifying session of 2021 ( Q1 ) got underway, with Williams and Haas being the first teams to send their cars out on track. Mazepin suffered from a spin at turn 13 and had to abort his first attempt. The rest of the field emerged from the pits for their first runs, with 11 minutes left, everyone opting for the soft tyres. Verstappen, Tsunoda, Hamilton, Gasly, Perez and Bottas were the top 6 at the end of the first runs, with Ocon, Latifi, Russell, Mazepin and Schumacher in the drop zone. The Honda-powered cars ( bar Perez ) chose not to run again in Q1. It was frantic at the end of Q1, with drivers jostling for track position. As drivers began their final runs, Mazepin spun again, this time at turn 1, bringing out the double-yellow flags.
The incident compromised the final runs of several drivers. The stewards flagged Ocon, Stroll, Vettel and Russell for an investigation to ascertain whether they slowed enough under yellow flag conditions. Verstappen, Tsunoda, Hamilton, Leclerc, Riccardo and Gasly were the top 6 at the end of Q1. Sainz escaped elimination in 15th, the Spaniard's Ferrari going into a stall after it clipped the kerbs. The drivers eliminated were - Ocon, Latifi, Vettel, Schumacher and Mazepin.
Ocon and Vettel were the surprise casualties, the latter not having the best qualifying debut with his new team. To add insult to injury, the stewards decided to penalize Vettel ( in the Mazepin incident ) with a five-place grid drop, relegating him to the back of the field, besides adding three penalty-points to his licence for not "slowing down enough".
Red Bull, Alpha Tauri, Mercedes and McLaren chose the medium tyres at the start of Q2 while the rest persisted with the softs. Russell stayed in the pits, opting to go out of sync. Perez and Ricciardo had their lap times deleted for exceeding track limits at turn 4. Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Norris, Sainz, Alonso were the top 6 with Stroll under threat in 10th. The drivers in the drop zone were Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Perez and Russell. Russell emerged from the pits on soft tyres for his only run in Q2, improving to 13th.
Red Bull debated about the tyre choice for Perez but persisted with the medium tyres again. His team-mate Verstappen, Mercedes and Alpha Tauri were confident and remained on medium tyres for their final runs of Q2. The end of Q2 sprung a few surprises as the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc went the quickest ( albeit on the soft tyres ), followed by Hamilton, Norris and Bottas. Riccardo was 6th in the McLaren, Verstappen in 7th, with Gasly, Alonso and Stroll completing the 10 for Q3.
Perez didn't make it into Q3, another upset amongst the top-running teams, with Giovinazzi, Tsunoda, Raikkonen and Russell being the others.
"The battle" for pole position began with Leclerc and Alonso staying put and the remaining drivers exiting the pits with a fresh set of soft tyres. It was Verstappen on provisional pole, two-hundredths of a second clear of Hamilton. Meanwhile, Stroll went out of sync with the rest and posted the 5th quickest time. Bottas and Sainz were 3rd and 4th, while Ricciardo and Norris completed the top 6.
It was time to put a fresh set of soft tyres and get ready for the final dash to pole! Hamilton and Bottas were setting purple sectors, and it looked like Hamilton had taken pole position. Verstappen, further back, had other plans. The Dutchman smashed the sector times to take pole position, four-tenths clear of Hamilton and Bottas!
Leclerc qualified 4th for Ferrari, with Gasly and Ricciardo taking up the third row on the grid. Norris and Sainz were 7th and 8th, followed by Alonso and Stroll, who occupied row five.
Verstappen and Red Bull had been the quickest at pre-season testing and carried the momentum into Qualifying. There was some floor damage on Verstappen's car after taking too much kerb during Q1, but that didn't deter the Dutchman from taking pole position at the opening race. Mercedes pushed hard, but they were in a stronger position considering they had both cars in the sharp end of the grid. Perez needed an optimum strategy if he was to take the fight to the Mercedes on Sunday. Ferrari had worked hard over the winter to set things right, and it seemed Leclerc's effort was the fruit of their labour. McLaren, Alpha Tauri, Aston Martin and Alpine weren't far behind, and with Alfa Romeo ready to pounce at any slip-ups by the rest, the midfield battle promised to be a blockbuster come Sunday. It was intriguing to see what Ocon and Vettel could accomplish from further down the grid. As for Williams, they seemed closer to the rest, while Haas remained well off the pace in its all-rookie lineup.
So who won the Season-opener at the Bahrain International Circuit?
Perez, like Gasly, got a new Energy Store and Control Electronics unit before the race as a precautionary measure. Since it was within the allocation, Perez didn't incur a grid penalty.
C2, C3 and C4 were the tyre compounds available for the Bahrain GP. Russell, Ocon and Latifi were the only drivers outside the top 10 to choose the soft tyres, while the rest opted for the mediums. Pirelli predicted a two-stop race, making tyre management important.
The drivers began the first formation lap of 2021, and there was drama at turn 12. Perez suffered from a complete shutdown on his car, the steering wheel display going blank, and his RB16B coming to a stop. The Mexican seemed to have had a horrid start to his career at Red Bull. The rest of the field made it back to the grid, but the stewards needed time to clear the stricken car. As a result, the drivers got sent on a second formation lap. While Perez contemplated climbing out of his car, his engineer, over the radio, passed on some instructions for a reset, and thankfully, his car roared back to life! Perez, however, would now start from the pitlane instead of 11th, his qualifying position.
There was no further drama on the 2nd formation lap, and the five red lights went out to signal the start of the Bahrain GP!
Verstappen had a clean getaway, fending off a challenge by Hamilton into turn one. Leclerc was pressuring Bottas and got past him to move up to 3rd. Further down the field, Raikkonen moved up three positions while Vettel made up five, the duo up to 11th and 14th. Mazepin, the rookie, was too enthusiastic on the throttle out of turn three, sending him into a spin and the barriers. The stewards deployed the Safety Car to ensure the safe removal of the stricken Haas.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Leclerc, Bottas, Gasly, Norris, Ricciardo, Alonso, Stroll and Sainz were the top 10 at the end of the opening lap.
Perez, who had started on the medium tyres, had a white patch on his right front tyre after his drama on the formation lap. The team decided to switch him to another set of used medium tyres behind the Safety Car, pitting him on lap 3.
The race got underway again on lap 4, and Verstappen had a clean getaway, weaving to avoid giving a tow to Hamilton behind. Norris got past Gasly for 5th while Gasly ran wide, having lost his front wing after tangling with Norris. The Frenchman got relegated rapidly to 12th. Schumacher suffered a spin at turn four at the back of the field. Giovinazzi got past Raikkonen for P10 while Perez overtook Tsunoda for 16th. Sainz and Stroll also had a coming together, but neither got any damage.
The stewards enforced a Virtual Safety Car period to remove the debris left behind by Gasly's front wing. The VSC didn't last long, and racing resumed in full earnest. DRS got enabled on lap five, and Bottas wasted no time and reclaimed 3rd from Leclerc a lap later. Russell lost two positions to Vettel and Perez and got relegated to 15th.
Meanwhile, at the front, Verstappen reported a differential setting issue to Red Bull. Red Bull affirmed that they were monitoring it. Vettel and Perez sparred over 13th, but the former managed to hold stations. Tsunoda overtook Russell for 15th ( lap 7 ) while Verstappen set two fastest laps back-to-back. Raikkonen reported over the radio that Giovinazzi, his team-mate, was slowing him down, and he could go faster if the team allowed a position swap. Norris tried to get past Leclerc, but the Monegasque didn't budge in his defence of P4. It was job done, however, on lap nine. Stroll overtook Alonso for P7 while Tsunoda got past Vettel for P14 on lap nine. Ocon got relegated to 13th on lap ten as Perez continued his charge up the field.
Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas, Norris, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Stroll, Alonso, Sainz and Giovinazzi were the top 10 at the end of lap 11.
There was a slew of pit stops from the 12th lap. Alonso pitted for mediums, rejoining in 17th, while Norris, Leclerc and Stroll pitted for medium tyres, along with Giovinazzi, who switched to the hards, a lap later. Alonso's early stop allowed him to undercut Stroll. Hamilton, Ricciardo, Ocon and Raikkonen pitted on lap 14, Hamilton and Raikkonen switching to the hards and Ricciardo and Ocon choosing the medium tyres. The overcut worked for Raikkonen while Ricciardo rejoined behind Alonso but ahead of Stroll.
Ocon got past Schumacher for 15th ( lap 15 ) while Hamilton started to eek into Verstappen's lead, Red Bull opting to go longer with its driver. Latifi pitted for mediums, rejoining in last while Norris set the fastest lap of the race. Hamilton got past Sainz for 3rd while Schumacher pitted for mediums, rejoining in 19th. Hamilton went the quickest, while Sainz and Tsunoda switched to the medium and hard tyres, respectively. Bottas, who was also in contention for victory, pitted for the hard tyres, relinquishing P3 to Perez.
Leclerc got past Vettel for 6th, while Stroll overtook Alonso for 9th on lap 17. Verstappen finally pitted on the 18th lap, switching to another set of medium tyres. Bottas reclaimed P3 from Perez, Latifi got past Gasly for 17th, while Ricciardo overtook Vettel for 7th. Perez made his 2nd stop of the day, switching to the hard tyres, and rejoined in P12. Vettel lost another position to Stroll ( lap 20 ) but managed to fend off Alonso, holding onto P8. Ocon and Tsunoda were involved in an intense fight for P13, while Perez got past Raikkonen for P11.
Tsunoda finally got past Ocon for P13 on lap 21. Alonso challenged Vettel for P8, but Sainz managed to jump them both. Alonso couldn't get past Vettel and fell back to 10th ( lap 21 ). It got worse for the Spaniard, who lost another place to Perez on lap 22, the Mexican then relegating Vettel to P10. Vettel was running out of grip on his medium tyres and ran wide at turn 1, dropping down to P12. Raikkonen was into the points with a move on Alonso on lap 23.
The battle at the front was hotting up, with Hamilton's lead getting cut down to 4 seconds. Vettel finally pitted for hard tyres, having lost another place to Tsunoda before his pit-stop. The German rejoined in 17th ( lap 25 ). Perez overtook Sainz and then Stroll for P7 while Tsunoda got past Alonso for P11. Further down the field, Gasly got past Schumacher for a lowly P18, the Frenchman having a wretched race after the Safety Car restart.
The pit window for the second pit stop was open, and Hamilton and Stroll pitted for hard tyres on lap 29, rejoining the race in 3rd and 15th, respectively. A lap later, Raikkonen and Alonso pitted for the mediums and the hard tyres. Mercedes initially decided to split the strategies with its drivers, opting for Bottas to go longer. However, it wasn't going to plan, and Bottas got called in on lap 31 for a fresh set of hard tyres. Disaster struck as the right front tyre got stuck, and Bottas was stationary for 10 seconds! The Finn rejoined the race in 5th, ruling him out of contention for victory. Giovinazzi also pitted on lap 31 for a fresh set of medium tyres, followed by Ocon ( lap 32 ), Leclerc and Ricciardo ( lap 33 ), who all switched to the hard tyres.
Alonso's race came to a premature end after he suffered rear brake failure on lap 34. Latifi pitted for the mediums, while Norris and Tsunoda pitted for the hard tyres, rejoining in 6th and 13th, respectively. Tsunoda, after his stop, got past Vettel and Russell and moved up into P11 while Russell lost three places in one lap to Raikkonen, Tsunoda and Vettel. The Briton pitted immediately after ( lap 38 ) for a set of medium tyres, rejoining in 16th. Sainz also pitted, emerging in 9th with a fresh set of hard tyres, while Tsunoda got back into the points with a move on Raikkonen for P10.
The midfield battle was intense as ever, with drivers opting for different strategies to gain an advantage. Perez pitted for medium tyres on lap 39 but got overtaken by Stroll at the pit exit, relegating him to P8. While Mercedes had opted to pit Hamilton earlier, Red Bull decided to extend Verstappen's middle stint, giving him a tyre advantage towards the end. Verstappen finally pitted for the hard tyres on lap 40, rejoining the race 8.5 seconds behind Hamilton with 16 laps remaining. Meanwhile, on track, Perez overtook Stroll to take P7.
Mercedes, on lap 41, informed Hamilton that Verstappen would catch up to him in 10 laps. Verstappen began his chase in earnest by setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 42.
The top 10 at the end of lap 43 - Hamilton, Verstappen, Bottas, Norris, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Perez, Stroll, Sainz and Tsunoda.
Perez overtook Ricciardo for P6 on lap 45, while Ocon and Vettel sparred for P12, going into turn one. Vettel missed his braking point and rear-ended Ocon's Alpine, sending the duo into a spin. Giovinazzi was able to jump them both for P12. Vettel suffered from front wing damage, and the incident got flagged for investigation by the stewards. Subsequently, Vettel got a ten-second time penalty and two more penalty points added to his licence, taking his total tally to 5 in one weekend.
Meanwhile, at the front, Hamilton's lead got cut down to 3.7 seconds as Verstappen kept pushing his tyres with minimal management. The gap was further down to 1.4 seconds four laps later ( lap 50 ), and Hamilton informed his team that he couldn't go any faster. A rare mistake at turn 10 caused Hamilton to run wide, bringing Verstappen within DRS Range. The race for victory was well and truly on. There were overtakes at the back of the field, with Schumacher getting past Latifi for P17 and Russell overtaking Vettel for P14. Perez continued with his recovery drive with a move on Leclerc for P5, having overtaken Ricciardo a few laps earlier.
All eyes were now on the battle at the front, with Verstappen making full use of the DRS to close up on Hamilton. The duo was side-by-side going into turn 4 ( lap 53 ), and it seemed Verstappen had made a successful overtake. However, replays showed that he had all four wheels off the racing track, and Red Bull got asked to instruct Verstappen to hand the position back, else face the possibility of a time penalty. Verstappen relented ( at turn 10 ), pulling off the racing line to hand the lead back to Hamilton and try once again. Verstappen then suffered from a slide at the penultimate turn, ruining his chances of an overtake on the next lap.
Verstappen was pushing hard, but Hamilton was using his battery power at the right places to stay just out of reach of the Red Bull. The tyres on Verstappen's car were slowly losing performance, and he fell out of DRS range. Meanwhile, Mercedes decided to pit Bottas, putting on a new set of medium tyres, allowing him to gain the point for "the fastest lap of the race". It was a free stop, and Bottas kept his P3 on exiting the pits.
The final lap got underway, and Verstappen was back in DRS Range, getting two opportunities of closing up and trying an overtake ( turns one and four ). The Dutchman tried hard but couldn't close up enough, and it was Hamilton who took the chequered flag and victory at the season opener in Bahrain! Verstappen came home in 2nd, only seven-tenths behind Hamilton. Bottas was 3rd, getting the point for the fastest lap of the race on the final lap. Norris drove a strong race for McLaren, crossing the finish line in 4th, followed by Perez in the other Red Bull. 6th was the best that Leclerc could achieve in his Ferrari, followed by Ricciardo and team-mate Sainz. A see-saw battle for 9th saw Tsunoda emerge victorious, the rookie scoring two points on his F1 debut, followed by Stroll, who was 10th in his Aston Martin.
The Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi finished just outside the points. Ocon was 13th in his Alpine, followed by Russell and Vettel. Mick Schumacher finished his debut race, coming home in 16th, and Gasly had a forgettable Sunday in 17th and last.
Hamilton also set a new record in F1 for "the most number of race laps led", earlier held by Michael Schumacher.
Mercedes had struggled throughout the pre-season tests, suffering from limited running in the process. They lacked the pace shown by the Red Bulls on Friday. However, Mercedes managed to tip the scales, thanks to its race strategy and good tyre management by Hamilton. There was a lot of controversy surrounding track limits at turn four since Red Bull found the Mercedes cars flouting it during the race and not receiving a penalty. The FIA did notify Mercedes about the infringement later in the race, much to Hamilton's displeasure. The question remains as to why Verstappen handed the lead back to Hamilton, having overtaken him at the turn where track limits became a grey area, inviting intense discussions between both experts and fans. Only the FIA can clarify the concerns surrounding the track limits regulation. If Verstappen hadn't, could he have built a gap of five seconds to escape the time penalty associated with that infringement? We shall never know.
Bottas could have been in contention had it not been for his slow stop while Red Bull rued "what could have been" had Perez not suffered from an electronics failure and started 11th instead of last at the start of the race. Nevertheless, the Mexican drove a stellar race, winning the "Driver of the Day Award" from the fans.
McLaren had another strong showing while Ferrari would be encouraged to see both its cars in the top 10. Alpha Tauri could have had a strong weekend, but for the unfortunate incident with Gasly at the Safety Car restart. Nonetheless, they would be pleased with the showing that Tsunoda had on his debut.
The Alfa Romeo drivers struggled with tyre management issues in their final stint, which denied them the chance of pushing harder and possibly grabbing a point. It is back to the drawing board for Aston Martin and Alpine, who failed to inspire on Sunday - Alonso's brake failure and Vettel's mistakes costing them dearly. Williams and Haas had a bitter-sweet race, with Russell and Schumacher doing well but Latifi and Mazepin coming up short.
Verstappen and Red Bull were the favourites and yet got pipped to victory by Hamilton and Mercedes.
The Race is Not Always to the Swift, Nor the Battle to the Strong.
The season is long, and Red Bull will come back hard. This title fight is not going to be a "walk in the park".
Bring on Imola!