The 2021 Formula 1 season began with a bang at the Bahrain Grand Prix and teased the prospect of an epic, season-long title scrap.

In one of the most exciting season openers in recent times, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went head-to-head to kickstart 2021 with victory in a thrilling duel in the Sakhir desert. 

Hamilton ultimately came out on top in a spectacular end to the race to draw first blood in what promises to be a close championship fight, leaving a real sense that this year could go down as a classic. 

Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix. 

1. Mercedes has a real fight on its hands 

Based on the Bahrain Grand Prix, Mercedes looks to have a gigantic battle on its hands if it is going to successfully maintain its 100% title-winning record in the V6 era this season. 

Off the back of a tricky pre-season test, Mercedes was genuinely the second-fastest team in Bahrain, despite Hamilton’s eventual and unlikely victory. 

Hamilton admitted he had got everything out of his W12 car in qualifying yet he still ended up almost 0.4s adrift of Verstappen’s pole effort, while Red Bull continued to boast a slight pace advantage in the race. 

Only a combination of Hamilton’s sheer brilliance and a bold strategy from Mercedes helped it just overcome Red Bull on Sunday, with the reigning world champion squad left concluding it currently has no strengths over its chief F1 rival this year. 


 

2. Red Bull finally hits the ground running

While Red Bull leaves Bahrain with a sense of disappointment and regret over its missed opportunity to start an F1 season on a winning note for the first time since 2011, there are plenty of positives to take away as Verstappen narrowly missed out on a win in a race he had to drive around a differential issue.

Most encouraging is the fact that its promising pre-season form rang true and translated into the opening race weekend of the season, with the Milton Keynes-based outfit appearing to have the fastest car - at least for the time being.

Boosted by an all-new, upgraded Honda power unit and having seemingly been less affected by new floor rules for 2021, Red Bull has capitalised by producing a car that looks genuinely capable of mounting a sustained title challenge to Mercedes for the first time in the current era of F1. 

Red Bull must carry its strong performance into the upcoming races if it is to truly realise its potential, but with a motivated and strengthened driver line-up, there is now real optimism that 2021 could be the year Red Bull ends its wait for a world championship. 


3. Hamilton brings his ‘A-Game’

Hamilton often refers to needing to bring his ‘A-Game’ to races to ensure he remains ahead of his rivals and going off the evidence of the Bahrain GP, it looks as though he will be calling upon all of his best skills more frequently in 2021. 

Sunday’s race was an example of Hamilton at his phenomenal best. While Mercedes’ aggressive strategy played a key factor in setting up his route to victory, the seven-time world champion had to resist some immense pressure from a relentless Verstappen in the closing stages of the race.

Hamilton delivered another masterclass in tyre management and demonstrated some great defensive driving on worn hard tyres that were 11 laps older than Verstappen’s in order to keep the Dutchman at bay by just 0.745s as they crossed the line. 

When Hamilton is on top form, he can make the difference to find those extra few tenths and navigate his way to victory despite not necessarily having the quickest car. The Briton said after the 96th win of his career that he hoped it would help prove the critics who claim he only comes out on top in the fastest machinery wrong


 

4. Track limits needs clarity and consistency

The pivotal moment of the race - which ultimately overshadowed a titanic scrap for victory - was Verstappen’s illegal pass for the lead around the outside of Hamilton at Turn 4. 

The Red Bull driver was instructed to hand the place back to Hamilton after running all four wheels outside of the extremities of the track to make the move stick. 

But with drivers including Hamilton repeatedly taking liberties with track limits throughout the race, there was confusion and controversy surrounding the race-defining incident.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was left frustrated by what he called a ‘grey area’ in the rules, while Mercedes boss Toto Wolff also called for the regulations to be clearer and not a “Shakespeare novel”

With the debate likely to rumble on heading to Imola, it has become apparent that greater consistency and clarity is needed. 

5. Bottas has work to do 

While Hamilton and Verstappen were vying for the lead, Valtteri Bottas was nowhere to be seen. 

The Finn finished a distant third behind the leading duo after making a third pitstop towards the end of the race to bag the extra fastest lap point on offer. 

Granted, Bottas’ race was effectively ruined by another botched Bahrain pit stop, but in truth, he was never really on the pace to realistically put himself in contention for the win. His progress was hampered after he was passed for third by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc at the start, forcing him to recover ground that left him further adrift of the lead battle. 

Bottas was slower than Hamilton all weekend and only just pipped Leclerc by 0.1s in qualifying. He will head to Imola knowing he has improvements to make if he is going to be a factor in the title race. 

6. McLaren is the third-quickest team 

McLaren converted P6 and P7 in qualifying into fourth and seventh at the chequered flag in the Bahrain GP, as the Woking outfit capped off a strong start to the season in its bid to hold onto third place in the constructors’ championship. 

Lando Norris shined on his way to an impressive fourth in his Mercedes-powered MCL35M after getting past his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo on Lap 1, with the latter finishing seventh on his debut after seeing his performance hurt by floor damage picked up at the start of the race. 

Norris even thought a podium could be on at one stage when Bottas ran into his pit stop issue but it wasn’t to be. It was an overwhelmingly positive opening weekend for McLaren as it confirmed its pre-season hope of being the third-fastest team. 


 

7. But Ferrari isn’t too far behind 

Bahrain marked a solid start to the season for Ferrari as the Scuderia looks to bounce back from its abysmal 2020 campaign in which it recorded its worst F1 result in four decades. 

Charles Leclerc qualified an impressive fourth, just a tenth shy of Bottas in his Mercedes, though he didn’t have the ultimate race pace to stay ahead of Norris and the recovering Red Bull of Sergio Perez as he claimed sixth at the flag. 

New signing Carlos Sainz took P8 and was catching Ricciardo towards the end, leaving both drivers encouraged by how close they were able to race McLaren. After its woefully uncompetitive 2020, there are promising early signs that 2021 could prove much more fruitful for the team. 

8. Tsunoda is a star in the making 

Yuki Tsunoda quickly made himself a fan favourite over his debut grand prix weekend with his infectious personality and humour off track and his entertaining, gung-ho approach on it. 

The 20-year-old has enjoyed a rapid ascension to F1 after completing a sole season in Formula 2, but he looked well at home in his first race for AlphaTauri.

Having been frustrated to have failed to put a good lap together in Q2, Tsunoda rose from 13th on the grid and battled his way into ninth place with some daring overtakes, including a last-lap lunge of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll to snatch P9 and become the first Japanese driver to score points on debut.

His performance across the weekend caught the eye of F1 managing director Ross Brawn, who hailed Tsunoda as the “best rookie F1 has had for years.” 


9. Vettel struggling to shake off ghosts of 2020 

If Sebastian Vettel was hoping to end his recent F1 nightmare at his new surroundings at Aston Martin, then the Bahrain GP couldn’t have gone much worse for the German. 

Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll has banked on Vettel as a statement signing to lead the team into its exciting new era, and the team is convinced the four-time world champion will rediscover his mojo after suffering a major form dip during his final years at Ferrari. 

But life in green started horribly for Vettel, who suffered an awful debut. He qualified eighth and was demoted to the back of the grid after failing to respect yellow flag rules in Q1, before clashing with Esteban Ocon in the race and finishing an underwhelming 15th. 

Vettel also racked up a total of five penalty points across the weekend to further compound the disappointment. 

10. Haas faces a long, hard season 

Another driver to suffer a disaster debut was Nikita Mazepin, whose first F1 race lasted a mere handful of seconds before he spun off into the barriers on the opening lap. 

It followed a handful of spins throughout practice and qualifying - the result of the Russian rookie pushing too hard in a bid to impress out of the blocks in F1. His teammate, reigning Formula 2 champion Mick Schumacher, also spun in the race but managed to get to the finish in 16th. 

The Bahrain GP confirmed what we suspected; Haas faces a difficult 2021 with an underdeveloped car that also appears tricky to drive as it focuses its development efforts on sweeping regulations coming into play next season.

 

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