Formula One’s new era could surely not have asked for a more compelling curtain raiser than the drama, triumph and disaster of the season-opener in Bahrain. While Charles Leclerc led a Ferrari one-two with teammate Carlos Sainz, the prancing horse once more at a mighty gallop, their Red Bull rivals were left reeling from the brutal body blow of a double failure for both their cars. Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez both retired at the very death, allowing Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes to capitalise with an unlikely place on the podium.
The 24-year-old Leclerc ultimately won with a dominant drive from pole at the Bahrain International Circuit but only after a dramatic fight with Verstappen that had looked to be going to the wire only for both Red Bulls to suffer what the team called a “fuel system problem” that put them out. Their late retirements allowed Hamilton and George Russell to grab an against-the-odds third and fourth place for Mercedes, who had been firmly fifth and sixth through the race on pace. Kevin Magnussen was an impressive fifth for Haas on his first race back in F1.
Leclerc took the flag after a consummate display, marked by his calm command at the front and his staunch refusal to be cowed when Verstappen came at him. Passed twice in two laps, Leclerc fought back both times to regain the lead and then hold it for a deserved victory. Ferrari, who in effect wrote off the 2021 season in putting all their resources into developing this year’s car, have reaped the benefits. Their engine has made a clear step forward, amply demonstrated by the improvements in other Ferrari-powered teams Haas and Alfa Romeo.
“The last two years have been incredibly difficult for the team,” said Leclerc. “Now, starting in the best way possible. Pole position, victory, fastest lap, one-two with Carlos, we couldn’t have hoped for any better.” His teammate Sainz perhaps best summed up how the feeling will be at their base in Maranello on Sunday evening. “Ferrari are properly back with a one-two, where the team should be,” he said.
Mercedes, who had expected to be off the pace, toiled in their uncompetitive car, but did everything required to be in position to take advantage when their chance came at the end. Hamilton acknowledged that they had been fortunate to score so well. “This is the best result we could have got, we did the best we could and are grateful for these points,” he said.
In pace terms Ferrari and Red Bull were the class of the field under F1’s new regulations but, where Ferrari had the perfect start, Red Bull were left pointless and facing a difficult inquiry into what happened. Verstappen’s duel with Leclerc had been an enthralling, joyous affair but his car’s demise was a moment of bitter disappointment for driver and team, when he retired having lost power with three laps to go.
The team principal, Christian Horner, said he believed the same fault had affected both cars after Pérez’s Red Bull also spun to a halt on the final lap. They were notably the only team not to have run a full race distance in testing this year after they took over building the engines, previously made by Honda, who had left F1 at the end of last season. Finding a solution to their problem before the next meeting in Saudi Arabia next week is now vital.
For Ferrari, their car is, on the form of this opening weekend, one of the best they have produced since they last won the drivers’ title with Kimi Räikkönen in 2007. This is the first win for the team since Sebastian Vettel claimed victory at Singapore in 2019 – an age in the storied history of the Scuderia – and their first one-two at the opening meeting since Bahrain in 2010.
Leclerc had narrowly held his lead from pole through the opening corners as the race swiftly turned into a straight fight between him and Verstappen. There was little to choose between them and, after F1 had changed its regulations to encourage closer racing, there will be optimism within the sport that the pair were able to vie with one another with abandon.
After the first stops the pair went nose to tail and Verstappen flung himself up the inside with DRS on the straight. He edged ahead though turn one but Leclerc was having none of it. He attacked back as they went wheel-to-wheel and Leclerc regained the front round the outside of turn four with captivating bravado. The pair repeated the duel immediately afterwards on the next lap, Verstappen nicking the lead and Leclerc counterattacking to take it back. It was a spectacular contest, the lead exchanged four times in the space of two laps, but clean and absolutely gripping.
The fight remained close to the final stages as the teams searched for an edge through the stops. A final showdown was likely, albeit one where Leclerc looked in no danger of surrendering his iron grip on the lead, only for Verstappen to pull into the pits as his power fell away. Pérez, hounded by Hamilton to the last, fell several laps later. Red Bull must pick themselves up, Mercedes know they have work to do and were flattered by the points, while Ferrari leave with a swagger Hamilton’s team will recognise all too well after F1 hosted quite the opening night under the lights in Bahrain.
Valtteri Bottas was sixth for Alfa Romeo, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso in seventh and ninth for Alpine and Yuki Tsunoda in eighth for AlphaTauri. Guanyu Zhou scored a point for Alfa Romeo in 10th on his F1 debut as the first Chinese driver in the sport.