F1: Bahrain – Charles Leclerc Takes Commanding Victory in Thrilling Season Opener
Ferrari take their first 1-2 finish since 2019, as both Red Bulls retire late with fuel issues.
Charles Leclerc returned to the top step of the podium after enduring two difficult seasons with Ferrari, which saw the reds go winless throughout the two years. He showed a consistently strong pace throughout the race with reigning champion Max Verstappen following closely, as both drivers seemed to be on a league of their own and managed to pull well away from the rest of the field for most of the race. The pair were also involved in a hard but clean battle for several laps, a battle awaited for so long as both drivers have struggled with uncompetitive cars in different times.
Starting from pole, Leclerc launched flawlessly and immediately covered the inside line from Verstappen, keeping the lead and controlling the pace throughout the first stint. Kevin Magnussen also made a strong start from 7th on the grid in his F1 return, running 5th behind Lewis Hamilton for a while, before eventually losing the spots to Sergio Perez and George Russell, respectively from a lock-up and by outbraking himself. Meanwhile in the midfield, Bottas experienced a poor launch off the grid, dropping back as far as 15th on the opening lap, while his teammate Zhou Guanyu dropped back to last in the first turn before quickly recovering positions within several laps. Esteban Ocon tagged Mick Schumacher in turn 6 on the opening lap, where the latter spun but immediately regained control of the car, and the Frenchman was awarded a five-second time penalty for the incident. The McLarens also started poorly running 18th and 20th for most of the first stint, although both Norris and Ricciardo were the only drivers to start the race on medium compounds which is the likely reason they struggled for pace at the start.
Hamilton was the first driver to pit, switching to hard compounds in a bid to stretch the tyre life towards the end. Verstappen soon boxed for softs in an attempt to undercut Leclerc, who came in a lap later. Leclerc just about emerged in front of Verstappen on the pit exit, which was the start to a three lap duel between the two young stars. The Dutchman made three attempts to pass Leclerc for the lead, where in each occasion the latter shortly retook the lead within a few corners. On the last attempt, Verstappen locked up, promptly causing him to start fading little by little due to the tiny flat spot caused by the lockup. The second round of pitstops happened in similar fashion with Verstappen attempting another undercut, but a slightly longer stop from Red Bull’s pit crew allowed Leclerc to emerge from his stop a little more ahead this time, and he kept a far more comfortable lead.
On Lap 31, Verstappen made another pitstop to try and charge for the lead, but suddenly experienced a mysterious steering issue that the team was struggling to figure out. Two laps later, Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri flamed out and resulted in a safety car, which gave Leclerc the perfect opportunity to pit for fresh tyres without losing significant time. On the Lap 51 restart, Leclerc easily pulled away while Verstappen battled his steering issues, before it deteriorated and allowed Carlos Sainz to pass him for 2nd. His apparent problems took an even worse turn when his car broke down at the end of the lap, and he managed to pull into the pits to retire the car as Perez passed him to take 3rd. While defending his spot from Hamilton, however, Perez reported power issues within the lap and pushed the most he could to salvage a podium for the team. It eventually came down to the next and final lap, where Perez’s car stalled in the first turn, resulting in a spin and his powerless car stranded in the middle of the track.
As it happened in the last lap, the race went on to the end without interruption and Leclerc crossed the line first in a well-earned win, finding redemption after infamously losing the lead on the same venue three years ago with an engine issue. Sainz completed a Ferrari 1-2, and Lewis Hamilton salvaged the final podium place following Perez’s retirement.
George Russell ends his solid Mercedes debut in 4th, while Kevin Magnussen impresses in his comeback with a 5th place finish, his best since the 2018 Austrian GP as well as Haas’ first points since 2020. Bottas recovered 6th after the poor start which saw him lose nine spots, while Ocon overcame his time penalty and finished 7th. Yuki Tsunoda became the sole finisher from the Red Bull camp in 8th, while Fernando Alonso brings Alpine a double points finish. Rounding off the top ten is Zhou Guanyu, an impressive race by the Chinese driver who adds his name to the list of drivers to score points on their debut.
Mick Schumacher missed out on his maiden points as he did not have the opportunity to pit on time during the safety car period, dropping out of 10th shortly after the restart. Lance Stroll finished 12th after a nightmare of a qualifying session put him on the back row, and Alex Albon finished 13th on his Williams debut in his Formula 1 return. The McLarens of Ricciardo and Norris finished 14th and 15th respectively, a weekend to forget for the Woking squad as they struggled to find any pace all weekend. Nicholas Latifi ended 16th for Williams, and super-sub Nico Hulkenberg finished 17th and last for Aston Martin, replacing Sebastian Vettel who sat out the weekend after contracting COVID-19 on the eve of practice. The swift return of the multi-world champion is still in doubt as we move onto the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in a week’s time, where Hulkenberg will be on standby for Aston Martin once again.
Featured Image – Scuderia Ferrari, Formula One Management