Formula 1: Bahrain Grand Prix
Circuit: Sakhir International
Duncraig Dan 2021, Chapter 1: Anything can happen in Formula 1, and it usually does
After a much shorter offseason of just over 3 months, the 2021 Formula One season was ready to roar again at Sakhir, the third time Bahrain has hosted the season opener after 2006 and 2010 – Funnily enough, Fernando Alonso won both those races.
This year, testing season was halved to a single 3-day test (In Sakhir) with teams running updated versions of their 2020 cars, which made it even more intriguing than usual trying to find out which teams had made genuine gains over the winter, with the consensus being that Honda’s farewell present of a power unit for 2021 had brought Red Bull as close as they’ve ever been to Mercedes in the Turbo-Hybrid era, which is a genuinely exciting prospect for F1 fans after 7 long years of silver & black domination.
On the team fronts, Renault are now Alpine after a merger between Renault Sport and the Alpine business arm, the Pink Panthers of Racing Point are now Aston Martin (Both being owned by Lawrence Stroll), who return as a constructor for the first time since 1960, and the only engine supplier change was that after 18 months of waiting, McLaren have reunited with Mercedes-Benz, reviving the successful partnership that ran from 1995-2014 and netted 78 Grand Prix wins.
On the driver change front, we’ve known for close to a year that Daniel Ricciardo would join McLaren from Renault, 2-time World Champion Fernando Alonso returned to Renault/Alpine for his third stint with the Enstone team after 2 years racing around the world, Sebastian Vettel moved to Aston Martin, Carlos Sainz filled his spot at Ferrari, and the biggest change was that former Racing Point talisman Sergio Perez, who was half a chance of watching 2021 from his couch, replaced Alex Albon to partner Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing the first time Red Bull have hired a driver outside of their own junior ranks since Mark Webber in 2007.
There are also 3 rookies on the grid for 2021 – Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda, who was in Formula 3 just two years ago, replaced Daniil Kvyat at AlphaTauri, also becoming the first F1 driver born in the 2000s and the only driver from Asia on the grid, the human controversy reel Nikita Mazepin was signed by Haas, primarily due to the serious sponsorship his family brings in keeping the team afloat, and the highest profile new rookie, especially amongst the Tifosi, is reigning Formula 2 World Champion MICK SCHUMACHER, restoring the M.Schumacher name to Formula One.
It’s also frightening to think that Fernando Alonso is now racing against Michael Schumacher’s son…. Amazingly enough, 2021 also marks 20 years since Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen made their Formula 1 debuts!
Nikita Mazepin wasted no time reminding new fans to the sport why he’s ‘somewhat disliked’ for his on-track antics, firstly by spinning and bringing out yellow flags that forced multiple drivers to back off on hot laps, then breaking the unwritten gentleman’s agreement between the drivers not pass each other on a qualifying out-lap, and promptly spinning again at Turn 1 at the end of Q1, which ruined Sebastian Vettel’s qualifying after being caught out by the yellow flags for Mazespin and Carlos Sainz at Turn 8, leaving Seb to start 18th, and Mazepin to start last alongside teammate Schumacher, having earned the nickname Nikita Mazespin.
Mazespin could also go down in F1 as one of the derisive driver nicknames that stick, like Crashtor Maldonado, and the late Andrea de Crasheris, the man who Murray Walker described as having won more Grand Prix than anyone else without actually winning one.
The next shock was that Perez, attempting to start the race on Medium tyres and reach Q3 like his teammate Verstappen and the Mercedes drivers, could only qualify in 11th, continuing the dodgy qualifying performances of Red Bull’s second drivers that the Milton Keynes team had hoped would end with replacing Albon..
Conversely, Ferrari were 1-2 in Q2 on the Soft tyres, with Sainz and Charles LeClerc split by just 1-thousandth of a second, both McLarens safely reached Q3, while Fernando Alonso would start in the Top 10 on his return, the first time he’d started in the Top 10 in 16 races.
Q3 would prove to be what people had hoped for, as Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton engaged in a straight fight for pole, with Verstappen fastest after the first runs, and on their final runs, Hamilton would eek ahead with a classic Lewis Hamilton qualifying lap, but with the lap of the weekend, Verstappen produced 3 nigh-on perfect purple sectors to dip into the 1m28s and take pole position ahead of the 7-time champion by 0.388s!
Bottas was 0.2 behind Hamilton to start from his familiar 3rd place, Charles LeClerc punched above his weight to start 4th, Pierre Gasly showed AlphaTauri’s strides with Honda by qualifying 5th, the McLarens of Riccardo and Norris filled 6th and 7th, in what was the first time all weekend Ricciardo had out-paced Norris, albeit by 0.047s, Sainz was 8th on his Ferrari debut, Alonso 9th for Alpine, and Lance Stroll was 10th for Aston Martin.
Max Verstappen claimed consecutive pole positions for the first time in his career.
In the 2020 edition of the Bahrain GP, just 2 cars were within a second of Lewis Hamilton’s pole time – In 2021, with the FIA enacting aerodynamic rule changes to the floor and brake duct winglets in order to reduce downforce, 6 cars qualified within a second of pole.
Race (57 Laps, reduced to 56)
As previously noted, Fernando Alonso had won both previous season openers at Bahrain, but unless hell opened and swallowed the Top 8 cars, he wasn’t going to be able to keep up his perfect record.
As the sun went down and the warm-up lap commenced, the first piece of drama of the night was when Sergio Perez, who had his electrical store and control electronics changed overnight, suffered a total loss of power and pulled off to the side of the road, reducing the race by a lap due to the extra formation lap, although the Mexican got the Red Bull restarted and began the race from the pit lane.
Good thing Sergio has some valuable experience coming back from last place after Lap 1 at Sakhir.
Thankfully, the race/season got underway at the second time around, and Verstappen led Hamilton and Bottas into Turn 1 as the field squabbled, and right up the back, Mazepin lit up the throttle out of Turn 3 and fired off into the barriers opposite to where Romain Grosjean’s Lap 1 accident occurred last season, bringing out the Safety Car, right as LeClerc passed Bottas and Norris passed Ricciardo.
It was the shortest F1 debut since Allan McNish and Felipe Massa were wiped out in the Turn 1 carnage of Australia 2002, although in fairness to Mazepin, he did make it through 3 corners before he spun.
The best starter on the opening lap was Vettel, who made up 6 places, while Red Bull pitted Perez for another pair of Medium tyres, given he wouldn’t lose any time under the SC.
The race restarted on Lap 4, and Verstappen waited until the start line to launch what was a chaotic first proper lap of 2021, as Pierre Gasly lost his front wing at Turn 5 after running wide and clipping Duncraig Dan’s left rear (Somehow Daniel didn’t suffer a puncture), Mick Schumacher was the second Haas driver to spin on his lonesome, although he was able to skate out the other side, and the VSC was briefly enforced due to the debris on the track.
That relatively light incident wrecked Gasly’s race, a major shame after such a fantastic Saturday.
The race resumed again at the end of the lap, and Bottas wasted no time getting ahead of LeClerc, Perez was picking his way through the backmarkers, and Norris started to size up LeClerc on Lap 8, with the young Brit being brave enough to have a go around the outside at Turn 4, but the Ferrari had the corner and stayed ahead, before Norris got by with DRS to begin Lap 9.
It should be noted that Turn 4 was a contentious part of the track, as drivers were having lap times deleted for putting all four wheels off the track in practice and qualifying due to apparently gaining an advantage, but come the race, Michael Masi’s race directors notes to the teams gave the drivers more leeway to run all four wheels off the track unless they were attempting to overtake or defend, which most drivers decided to do on just about every single lap, until the FIA had to intervene after seeing just how far the envelope had been pushed, which became crucial come the end of the race.
Verstappen and Hamilton had broken clear from Bottas 10 laps into the race, despite Mercedes telling the Finn that Verstappen had an apparent diff issue with his car, and a few laps later, Alonso was the first of the drivers to perform a regular stop on Lap 12, McLaren called Norris in on Lap 13 at the same time as LeClerc and Stroll, with Alonso’s undercut putting him back ahead of the Aston Martin in their scrap for 7th.
Mercedes pitted Hamilton on Lap 14 to try the undercut on Verstappen, but Red Bull kept Verstappen out and effectively ceded the lead to No.44 with the immediate speed Hamilton showed on the new set of Pirelli Hard tyres (Some 2.8s a lap faster than Verstappen), while McLaren finally pitted Ricciardo, who lost time and track position by staying out longer, dropping back in behind Alonso, but he stayed ahead of Stroll.
That was really the point where the West Aussie’s race descended into boredom, because he just didn’t have the pace to match Norris and LeClerc in the second and third stints, and he struggled with Hard tyre wear… as did pretty much every other driver.
Bottas pitted on Lap 17 and emerged behind the out of sequence Perez, Verstappen pitted on Lap 18 for another set of Medium tyres, with Hamilton taking the lead by 6 seconds, although Verstappen was in clear air ahead of his teammate, and by now, the only driver yet to pit was Sebastian Vettel in 8th, who was being hunted down by Ricciardo, Alonso and Stroll.
With Bottas back into 3rd, Perez pitted again for Hard tyres on Lap 20 and dropped down to 12th, and a lap later, there was another high point of the race – The entertaining 3-car stoush between Alonso, Vettel and Sainz.
It started when Alonso lined up Vettel with DRS down the pit straight, but Alonso locked up into Turn 1, which blocked Vettel and allowed the Ferrari through on the Aston Martin, and in the second DRS zone, Sainz lined up his compatriot & hero Alonso and passed him at Turn 4, which also allowed Vettel to get back ahead of the Alpine.
The high point of Sainz’s Ferrari debut, as Vettel later locked up and gave back the place to Alonso, and later started falling out of the points when the drivers on fresh tyres picked him off, before Aston Martin pitted the German on Lap 25.
Another good story was that of the quietest of the 3 rookies in the field, Yuki Tsunoda, who was on the verge of moving into the points thanks to a slick pass on Alonso for 11th into Turn 1 on Lap 26, and Perez was reunited with his old Racing Point teammate Stroll on the same lap, and the power of the Honda engine saw the Mexican whistle by.
With Verstappen cutting the race lead down to just 2 seconds, Mercedes called Hamilton in for another set of Hard tyres on Lap 29, which seemed to give the ascendancy back to Red Bull, with the World Champion getting only 16 laps out of his set of Hards.
Bottas pitted next on Lap 31, but in what seems to be a recurring theme for Mercedes in Bahrain, the pit crew performed a botched change on the right front after it wouldn’t detach, costing the Finn at least 8 extra seconds of stationary time, dropping him behind Norris and LeClerc on track, and just ahead of Ricciardo, which didn’t seem to help Daniel at all with Perez closing up and passing him the next lap for 6th place, although Sergio would’ve passed the McLaren eventually.
It also welded Bottas on for a 3rd place finish, assuming it was green flag conditions through to the end.
LeClerc and Ricciardo stopped for the final time on Lap 32, Alonso was the second car to retire, due to overheating rear brakes on Lap 33, which had been caused by debris being caught in the brake ducts, putting paid to Alpine’s hopes of scoring a point on debut, with Ocon too far back in the mid-pack.
Alonso’s retirement meant Tsunoda and Raikkonen, the youngest and oldest drivers on the grid, found themselves fighting for the final point on Lap 39 – Tsunoda won the day and passed the Finn.
It was also around this point in the race where the Mercedes pit wall informed Hamilton about a warning they’d received from the FIA regarding his exploitation of the Turn 4 track limits, and the flip-flopping from the stewards about the track limits makes you question why they didn’t just maintain a consistent approach through the entire weekend, which was probably the most annoying facet of it.
Perez pitted for the 3rd on final time on Lap 39, leaving him free to mow down 4th through 7th after dispensing of a pesky Stroll, and Verstappen pitted for the final time on Lap 40 with a trademark 1.9 second Red Bull pit stop, setting up the great chase for the final 16 laps, with Hamilton leading by 8.7 seconds on an older set of tyres.
It should also be mentioned that Lewis broke Michael Schumacher’s old record of 5112 career laps led, having required to lead 12 laps, which he ticked off by Lap 42.
Down the field, Ocon and Vettel had a tangle at Turn 1 on Lap 44, with Vettel locking up after losing front end downforce under the turbulent air of the Alpine, sending Ocon around, and later earning Vettel a time penalty.
It’s exactly like the kind of incidents that blotted Vettel’s tenure at Ferrari.
The Mercedes was generally better through Sectors 1 & 3, but the Red Bull’s superior cornering through the middle sector allowed Verstappen to take half a second per lap out of the lead and cut it down to below 2 seconds to start Lap 50, and in a rare mistake from the 7-time champion, Hamilton locked up and went wide at Turn 10 on Lap 51, bringing the gap to within a second, and for the first time all night, Verstappen was within DRS range!
In a dramatic moment, Verstappen got ahead of Hamilton around the outside at Turn 4 on Lap 53, but the alarm bells were ringing when Verstappen put all 4 wheels off the track making the pass, forcing him to give the place back out of Turn 10!
It was a critical moment, because sizing up for another pass down the pit straight, Verstappen slid the rears at Turn 13, and that was pretty much it, because the Red Bull lost rhythm, fell out of DRS range beginning the penultimate lap, and there just wasn’t enough laps to peg Hamilton back.
So in an engrossing finish, Hamilton won by 7-tenths to Verstappen, with Bottas completing the podium with the fastest lap bonus point (From Verstappen) on the last lap after changing tyres, Norris was 4th on a drive that was barely noticed, Perez recovering from a dead car on the warm-up to finish 5th after overtaking LeClerc late in the race, Ricciardo held off Sainz to finish 7th and 8th, and a fantastic debut by Tsunoda saw him run down Stroll in the final laps to finish 9th, with the Canadian completing the points in 10th after fading badly at the end of the race.
It was career win No.96 for Hamilton, although I lost count after the first 95.
Bahrain After Dark provided us with a good night’s entertainment, and while Sergio Perez got driver of the day for his comeback, I reckon a huge shout out should go to Yuki Tsunoda, who became the first Japanese driver to score points on his F1 debut, and the first driver in general to score points on debut since Stoffel Vandoorne for McLaren at the same track in 2016, when he was the replacement for a concussed Alonso following his barrel roll in Australia.
Speaking of Yuki, this was the pass on Stroll for 9th we never saw:
Based on Tokyo Drift, the Japanese do love their drifting, and Tsunoda is going to entertain a crapload of people pulling it off on racedays.
As for Duncraig Daniel, his debut in papaya never lived up to any great heights, getting passed by the lively Norris on Lap 1, who pretty thoroughly beat him all ends up, as reflected in the 20 second margin between the McLaren drivers in 4th and 7th.
Still, the big positive is Danny Ric finished in the points on his McLaren debut, and 7th is the best finish that Dan’s had on debut for any of his five teams to date; He was 18th for HRT, a previous best of 9th for Toro Rosso, he got Disqualified on debut for Red Bull, and he retired for Renault.
Up next: Imola in 3 weeks!