The Bahrain Grand Prix was the race the sport had been waiting for as it put Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen head-to-head in what is expected to be a season-long battle. Throughout testing, practice and qualifying Red Bull topped the times and were expected to be the team to beat.
Hamilton v Verstappen
Throughout the race, the team were locked in one of the most interesting strategic battles between both Mercedes and Red Bull. Mercedes as we know are the seven-times champion and that experience doesn’t count for nothing. The closing stages of the race was one that put the two in direct competition and was one Verstappen could have won.
However, the Dutchman’s mistake came on lap fifty-three, when he ran wide. Red Bull then faced a difficult decision, hold on to the position and risk a time penalty or hand back the position? In a great act of sportsmanship, Verstappen chose the latter. Throughout the race, both Hamilton and Verstappen had been warned by the stewards to obey track limits.
Track limits are something that can become confusing, sometimes it is the white line, the inner edge of the kerb or anything. Following the race Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff has called for the rules to be cleaned up and says the rules need to be “sacred” and not a “Shakespeare novel”.
The sporting regulations Article 27.3 states
“Drivers must make every reasonable effort to use the track at all times and may not deliberately leave the track without a justifiable reason. Drivers will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with it and, for the avoidance of doubt, any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not.
“Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the race director, a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.”
This I think is not a new debate, but we don’t have clear rules this decision was made to allow more flexibility and so we don’t have race results decided hours after the race in the steward’s room, or in Covid times on Zoom, on most occasions. We need clear rules.
Before the defining moment in the race, the stewards changed the directive issuing warnings to both Hamilton and Verstappen. This was as confusing for us as it was for teams and drivers. The reading of the sporting regulations makes me, and others believe that Verstappen had gained “a lasting advantage.”
Toto Wolff summed it up “At the beginning of the race it was said track limits in Turn 4 wouldn’t be sanctioned and then in the race suddenly we heard that if you would continue to run wide it would be seen as an advantage and could cause a potential penalty.”
“Then at the end that decision actually made us win the race. Max ran wide in the definition of the race director, gaining an advantage, he had to give back the position and that saved our victory.” The thing which needs to be looked at is whether it is right to change the rules mid-race, have rules for every race or stick to the written sporting regulations defining it as ‘two wheels must remain within the white lines at all times.’
Wolff revealed that the note when clarified by race director Michael Masi said ‘only if you’re not gaining an advantage,’ I don’t remember reading that in the race directors notes. But, the fact of the matter remains the same, drivers would not be going there if there was no advantage to be gained. I think this is a debate we will be having forever and is one which we will see again and again this year.
Looking at the weekend as a whole, one thing I think we have learned is we are going to have an incredibly close battle this season between Red Bull and Mercedes. Hamilton will be incredibly tough for Verstappen to beat.
In the 2019 Hungary edition, I wrote ‘The battle between Hamilton and Verstappen is one we and both drivers have been waiting for. Throughout their careers, we have seen both drivers be the last of the breakers, strong usually in the wet and become the megastars of the sport.’
So, could 2021 finally give us the battle between Hamilton and Verstappen? If the development war remains equal and we don’t see a big swing at Verstappen’s home races at Spa and Zandvoort where Hamilton really starts to grow stronger I think this could be the story of 2021.
The other thing the race proved was Hamilton’s ability to close in, looking at the analysis put together by F1.com, throughout the last fifteen laps of the race Hamilton was steadily closing the gap. When the key overtake came on the last lap, the previous twelve laps proved key in the building up to the move at Turn Four on Lap Fifty-Three
Sebastian Vettel’s move to Aston Martin for many was seen to be a reset for the four-times champion, however, the first weekend for him was a disaster for him. We were all hoping the change of team would have seen a reset, however the weekend unravelled immediately.
Vettel was knocked out in Q1 having been caught out by Nikita Mazepin’s spin, to add insult to the incident he was awarded a five-place penalty thus dropping him to the back of the grid, as well as three points on his licence. I think some would have been hoping a change of team would be a reset.
Over the last few years there have been questions about his ability in a wheel to wheel racing. Again, we saw in the race that trait emerge, I do need to wonder if dropping out in Q1 can be seen as an example of him not fairing well in combat? We have seen this trait develop back to 2018 at Hockenheim, but I don’t know how he can bounce back before the root we have seen in recent years develop.
While on lap forty-five when battling Ocon, Vettel looked to misjudge his braking and crashed into the rear of the Alpine. The stewards gave Vettel a 10-second penalty and two penalty points – adding to the three penalty points he received for ignoring yellow flags. Vettel after one race has used half licence points for the next year.
On Tuesday he told Motorsport.com after watching the accident, he took responsibility. Explaining “I thought he would stay right and then when he came back left, he was right ahead of me and I locked, so it was probably my mistake. Obviously, I’m a bit sorry for such a bad weekend because I know how much prep goes in before the start of the season and the first race.”
“On the other hand, it can only go up from here. As I said, we learned a lot of things so it’s a lot of work ahead of us but it is what it is and we have to tackle it step-by-step.”
Vettel is hoping to rebuild his reputation it certainly hasn’t got off to the best start, but
Tsunoda wins the rookie battle
Yuki Tsunoda was the standout performer when it came to the rookies becoming the first driver to score points on his debut since Stoffel Vandoorne in 2016. The Alpha Tauri driver I think is likely to win the rookie battle this year because the Haas duo of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin don’t have the car.
Following the race, he said that the moment which stood out for him was overtaking his hero Fernando Alonso, early in his career you can already see the aggressive style which is similar to the Spaniard.
Mazepin’s hope of a reset following months of the negative press took a hit when he crashed out on the opening lap of the race. If he was hoping for the reset, this was not it, he didn’t do anything to improve his image. He has built a reparation in my view for being over-aggressive.
Eyes were of course on Schumacher, he finished the last of the runners that was to be expected because of his name. I think his result was OK and what to be expected given the fact we know Haas isn’t developing this car focusing on the regulation change. The German finished sixteenth.