AFTER a nail-biting final five laps, Lewis Hamilton won the season-opening Formula One Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix last night – just 0.745 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen, taking the fizz out of Red Bull’s charge.
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas set the fastest lap of one minute 32.090 seconds, while taking third place, 9.083 seconds ahead of Bahrain-owned McLaren’s Lando Norris.
“That race was a bit too close, for my liking,” Hamilton said during the post-race Press conference at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) in Sakhir.
“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.
“Can I just say it’s the first time I have seen fans in a long time, it’s so good to see people out here and everyone keeping their distance and staying safe.
“I’m so proud of what Formula One has been able to do, to start on a normal schedule this year.”
Sergio Perez (Red Bull) took fifth place, followed, by Charles Leclerc (Ferrari), Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren), Carlos Sainz (Ferrari), Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) and Lance Stroll (Aston Martin).
Bahrain upheld its reputation for hosting exciting races right from the beginning, when an extra formation lap was required because Perez’s dash display was malfunctioning.
Around 4,500 Covid-vaccinated and recovered fans waited with baited breath for the action to start, and as soon as it did, Haas driver Nikita Mazepin beached himself in the sand in the first lap, bringing out the Aston Martin safety car.
Once racing resumed sans Mazepin, Verstappen held his lead for 17 laps before pitting and losing his spot to Hamilton.
After 10 laps in second, the Red Bull charged again, and took the lead for another 12 laps before Hamilton took the lead again.
The dogfight between the two intensified in Lap 50 as corner over corner was contested, with Hamilton struggling to stay ahead on his worn-out hard tyres.
Verstappen was able to power ahead with two laps to go but had to give the advantage back to his rival after going off the track on his overtaking move.
Meanwhile, Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel managed to earn two more penalty points over the season-opening weekend, after crashing into Alpine’s Esteban Ocon at Turn 1.
Before the race had even started, the FIA announced that Vettel had received five-place grid penalty and three penalty points for ignoring the yellow flags in the first leg of Saturday’s qualifying session.
In total, in just one weekend, the German accrued five penalty points on his licence. If a driver hits 12 points in a 12 month-period, they face a one-race ban.
Alpine’s bad luck continued as two-time world champion Fernando Alonso was forced to retire in his 33rd lap after braking problems.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly faced a specially unfortunate bout of bad luck as an early broken front wing left him trailing, dropping from P5 to end up unclassified, along with Nicholas Latifi (Williams), Alonso and Mazepin.
Verstappen was able to make it through with two laps to go, but did so while going off the track, and he immediately chose to allow Hamilton to pass in order to avoid a possible penalty.
When Hamilton finally crossed the checkered flag waved by Paolo Campinoti, MotoGP Ducati team boss, the look of elation on Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff’s face told a story of happiness, relief and incredulity as the team has been struggling to balance the performance of their W12 car in time for the race.
Hamilton, on the other hand, looked delighted to be forced to work hard for the title.
“What a difficult race that was,” he added. “Pitting early, we knew would be difficult, it was going to take something really special. I just managed to hold him off – it was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while.”
Following the race, Bahrain Motor Federation President Shaikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa presented the top three with their respective trophies in the podium ceremony.
With his fifth Bahrain Grand Prix win, Hamilton now holds the record for the greatest number of victories at the BIC.