With his victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton delivered an emphatic and salutary reminder that if Max Verstappen is to wrest the title from the champion’s grasp he will be fought every inch of the way.
Formula One moreover could not have asked for a more spectacular, gripping finale to the season-opening race than the deciding laps at the Sakhir circuit. Hamilton’s win for Mercedes over Red Bull’s Verstappen was as unexpected as it was enthralling and it was the fight the sport had been waiting for.
The new season had promised a potential contest between the 23-year-old Verstappen, for the first time in his career in machinery that can challenge for the title, and the 36-year-old Hamilton, attempting to take his eighth championship.
It was a mouthwatering prospect and the pair duly delivered in a climax that was impossible to predict until the chequered flag flew. When ultimately Hamilton and Mercedes had taken one of their most unlikely wins given the form book going into the race, the scale of the achievement was clear as the team celebrated almost as if they had won the title.
The pair vied for the lead right across the final six laps, Hamilton in front and Verstappen charging. For brief seconds the Dutchman took the lead only for the highest drama to play out at high speed.
The Red Bull driver had the place but had to allow Hamilton to take it back as he had gone off the track to make the move, against the rules which are hard and fast in this scenario. Verstappen was left to rue not quite calling it to perfection after a race he had, until that point, executed with inch-perfect precision.
“The pressure was immense.” Hamilton said. “He is a fantastic driver and they have the quicker car. That was one of the hardest races I have had for a while. We had such a great fight here and they are going to come back with a vengeance in the next race.”
The victory was clearly of immense satisfaction to the world champion, coming as it did with Mercedes under the cosh against Red Bull who had been faster all weekend, quickest across practice and with a clear pace advantage in qualifying. Yet when it mattered – as they have done so many times in the past – Mercedes and Hamilton were able to find another level. The team has been superlative operationally in winning the past seven drivers’ and constructors’ championships and they once again delivered at the Sakhir circuit. They could not match the Red Bull for pace but pulled off a coup.
Mercedes had done all they could with an alternate tyre strategy to give Hamilton a shot at Verstappen while Red Bull held their nerve and stuck to their own plan.
The two drivers were in a race of their own out front and a cat-and-mouse series of pit stops ensued but after both had stopped twice Verstappen emerged eight seconds behind Hamilton, the world champion leading with 16 laps remaining but with tyres that he had already run for 10 laps.
Red Bull had brought Verstappen in on lap 40 for his final stop and it was a straight fight for the win. He set about the task and duly flew, catching the champion on lap 50. Two laps later he was on his gearbox as Hamilton’s worn tyres told, and the hard but fair racing was unmissable. The British driver defended stoutly but Verstappen passed him on lap 53 at the outside of turn four only to edge just wide putting all four wheels off the track. A tiny margin but enough to ultimately cost him the race. A reminder also that with passing in these cars so hard, the track position Mercedes had opted for proved the better option.
Verstappen had three laps to try again but his tyres had passed their best, he could not get close enough and Hamilton showed all his experience to hold the lead and take the victory by only seven-tenths of a second.
It is now 30 years since his father first raced and Mick Schumacher of the Haas team, the 22 year-old son of seven-time world champion Michael, had a spin early in the race on his F1 debut but recovered to finish in 16th. The double world champion Fernando Alonso, in his return to F1 after a two-year absence, had to retire with brake problems on lap 34.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was in third and Lando Norris was an excellent fourth for McLaren. Sergio Pérez did well to recover his Red Bull to finish fifth having started at the back after a mechanical problem on the formation lap.
The seven-times world champion Hamilton knows he is up against it this season and securing every point may prove vital in a title fight that could go to the wire. There are 22 more races between now and December and if this is what the season holds in store Formula One has the makings of classic championship fight on its hands.