Lewis Hamilton won the opening race of the 2021 season after holding off Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The seven-time world champion measured his race to perfection, crossing the line 0.7s clear of Verstappen in a grand prix that appeared destined to result in a Red Bull victory.
The race-long battle culminated in a grandstand finish as Verstappen closed in on Hamilton with five laps remaining and passed the Mercedes on lap 53 of 56.
However, in overtaking Hamilton around the outside, Verstappen ran wide and off the track on the exit of Turn 4, meaning he had to give the position back later in the lap.
Verstappen fought back and nearly took the lead again, but Hamilton had enough in reserve to hold him off and take the victory for Mercedes.
The Red Bull driver questioned the decision to give the position back after the race, telling his pit wall that the smarter move would have been to take a five-second time penalty and try to extend the gap over Hamilton to compensate for it in the final two laps.
It is the first time Hamilton has won the opening race of the season since 2015, but could be a crucial victory as the 2021 season looks set to be closer than any other in the turbo-hybrid era, which kicked off Mercedes’ period of dominance in 2014.
Verstappen started the race from pole position, but initially lost the lead in the first round of pit stops when Mercedes called Hamilton in for new tyres before Red Bull.
That set up a thrilling strategic battle and put Verstappen in a position where he would have to make an overtaking move on track at the end of the race to take victory.
He emerged from his final pit stop 8.8s seconds behind Hamilton but had tyres that were 11 laps younger to chase down the Mercedes.
The performance was clearly there for Verstappen to win — as shown by his attempt on lap 53 — but Hamilton’s experience shone through to see the Mercedes finish ahead.
Valtteri Bottas finished third for Mercedes after dropping out of contention for victory on lap 30 with a slow final pit stop.
The Finn had been within a few seconds of the top two earlier in the race, but was disappointed with his strategy, which appeared to use him as a buffer to defend Hamilton’s lead from Verstappen in the final stint.
McLaren’s Lando Norris finished fourth at the head of the midfield after coming out on top in a race-long battle with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who started three positions ahead of him on the grid but finished two positions behind.
The second Red Bull of Sergio Perez split Norris and Leclerc after a recovery drive following an electrical issue on the formation lap that forced him to start from the pit lane.
The second McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth after struggling to match the pace of teammate Norris in the race.
Carlos Sainz took eighth on his debut for Ferrari ahead of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who scored two points on his F1 debut in ninth, and Lance Stroll who scored the final point on offer for Aston Martin.