Leclerc and Sainz complete Ferari 1-2 as Verstappen retires in Bahrain

Mercedes struggle but Hamilton pounces on Red Bull problems to snatch unlikely podium

Charles Leclerc won the opening race of the new Formula One season with a dominant win at the Bahrain Grand Prix. He took a Ferrari one-two with his teammate Carlos Sainz after a dramatic race where Red Bull's challenge fell to pieces in the final laps, with the reigning champion, Max Verstappen, and his teammate Sergio Pérez going out with engine problems.

This allowed Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to grab an unlikely third and fourth place for Mercedes, with Kevin Magnussen taking an impressive fifth for Haas.

Leclerc and Verstappen had grappled in a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle in the mid part of the race, a fight which had looked to be going the distance until both Red Bulls went out with power unit failures. 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 very last.

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 just what happened.

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 by putting all their resources into developing this year’s car, have reaped the benefits. Their engine has made a clear step forward as amply demonstrated by the improvements in other Ferrari powered teams Haas and Alfa Romeo.

Equally their car is, on the form of this opening weekend, one of perhaps the best they have produced since they last won the drivers’ title with Kimi Räikkönen in 2007. This is Leclerc’s third win and the first for Ferrari since Sebastian Vettel claimed victory for the Scuderia at Singapore in 2019.

Leclerc narrowly held his lead from pole through the opening corners, but held his nerve to cover the inside line from Verstappen in second as Hamilton moved up from fifth to fourth with a smart opportunistic move round the outside of Pérez.

Hamilton, however, was not able to hold the place for long as the Mercedes race pace was found wanting. He was caught by Pérez in fourth on lap 10 and lacked rear grip, allowing the Mexican to breeze past with DRS.

Hamilton duly pitted on lap 12 to take the hard tyres and emerged in 12th as Leclerc maintained his lead by a full three and a half seconds from Verstappen, who pitted on lap 15 to take the soft rubber, as did Sainz. Ferrari covered off the stop with Leclerc pitting a lap later and taking the soft tyres. He emerged with his nose in front of Verstappen and just clung on to his lead.

The pair went nose to tail and Verstappen flung himself up the inside with DRS on the straight on lap 17. He edged ahead through 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 in a glorious battle.

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.

Some semblance of calm resumed as Leclerc finally moved just out of DRS range to Verstappen, who was doubtless cooling his tyres after their frenetic pounding. Hamilton and Russell, meanwhile, were in fifth and sixth and in a race of their own, on slower tyres.

Leclerc once more opened a gap of three-plus seconds by lap 28 as Verstappen noted his rubber was gone and Red Bull pitted him on lap 31 to take the medium tyres as Leclerc enjoyed a four-second lead. He pitted a lap later. Enoying a clean stop also for the mediums, he emerged once more in front with a one-and–a-half-second lead.

Red Bull and Ferrari were by a distance the class of the field, all four cars enjoying almost 15 seconds on the two Mercedes cars. Verstappen then took a chance stopping again for new soft tyres to try to attack the leader to the flag with 13 laps to go.

It was a gamble but one swiftly negated. Ferrari had kept Leclerc out but with the safety car deployed as Pierre Gasly ground to a halt on track, they took advantage for a free pit stop to come out still holding the lead.

On lap 51 Leclerc held his lead on the restart, while Verstappen barely held his place from Sainz. Worse was to come as the Dutchman, who had been complaining of difficulties with the car, suffered a power problem and had to retire three laps from the end.

Pérez too suffered a power drain and as Hamilton closed, the Mexican spun as his engine died at turn one on the final lap, letting the British driver through to steal a podium. For Leclerc his control had been decisive as he sealed a deserved win and Ferrari their first one-two at the opening race of a season since 2010.

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.

- Guardian

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