Track limits ended up dominating the post-race chatter after they played a pivotal role in determining a highly-entertaining opener to the 2021 Formula 1 season at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remarkably fended off a late charge from polesitter Max Verstappen on significantly older tyres, but only after the Red Bull driver was forced to relinquish the lead to Hamilton following an illegal overtake at Turn 4.

Red Bull was instructed by F1’s race director Michael Masi to ask Verstappen to let Hamilton back through after he had pulled off an ambitious overtake around the outside of Turn 4 by running all four wheels off the track.

That proved crucial to Hamilton’s victory and ended up becoming a matter of controversy after the race.

Hamilton ran wide beyond the extremities of the track boundary at the same corner 29 times throughout the 56-lap race before he was warned by his race engineer Pete Bonnington that he was in danger of receiving a time penalty at mid-distance if he continued to abuse the exit.

The seven-time world champion admitted he was left confused by this instruction and correctly pointed out that before the race it was communicated that track limits would not be policed at Turn 4, unlike in FP2, FP3 and qualifying when such an offence resulted in lap times being deleted.

“Halfway through the race they basically changed their minds and all of a sudden you’re not allowed to go outside that white line,” he said. “Which is fine for me, it’s actually I think faster in the end for me, and helped me look after my tyres, actually. So I’m grateful for the call.”

Hamilton was among a number of drivers who regularly ran wide while exiting Turn 4 during the race and at one stage Red Bull even informed Verstappen to do the same.

Red Bull F1 team principal Christian Horner was left frustrated by what he described as being the “shade of grey” nature of the track limits rules, though he did accept that the decision to penalise Verstappen was technically correct.

Moving to address the confusion after the race, Masi explained that Verstappen’s Turn 4 excursion was ruled to be illegal due to a key distinction in what is deemed as ‘gaining an advantage’.

Masi stressed it was made “very clear” in the pre-event notes and also in the drivers’ briefing on Friday evening that “if an overtake takes place with a car off track and gains a lasting advantage, I will go on the radio and suggest to the team that they immediately relinquish that position.

“With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race, that was mentioned very clearly in the meeting and the notes that it would not be monitored with regard to setting the lap time, so to speak, but it will always be monitored in according with the Sporting Regulations that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.”

Responding to both Hamilton and Verstappen’s suggestion that the rules were changed during the race, Masi claimed that “nothing changed at all” regarding the FIA’s stance on track limits.

“We had two people that were looking in that area at every car at every lap and pretty much every car bar one was doing the right thing within what we expected in a general sequence,” Masi added.

“There was the occasional car that had a bit of a moment or went out there but it wasn’t a constant thing.”