Lewis Hamilton held off Max Verstappen for victory by just 0.745s after a titanic duel at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Hamilton and Verstappen ran different strategies that saw the lead change three times in the pit lane, but brought the pair together for a wheel-to-wheel battle for the final six laps.
The Red Bull Racing car was sporting tires 10 laps fresher than the Mercedes, and Verstappen seemed sure to turn that pace advantage into the win that had seemed certain when he took pole by 0.4s on Saturday night.
The battle came to a head on Lap 53, the gap having shrunk rapidly after Hamilton locked up and run wide at Turn 10 two laps earlier. Verstappen slipstreamed the reigning champion out of the first corner and all the way up to Turn 4, where he swept around the outside and into the lead, but in doing so he left the track.
With four laps to go, Max takes almost certain victory from Lewis
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 28, 2021
His Red Bull team instructed him to hand back the place to avoid a penalty, which Verstappen did so along the back straight to resume the battle up the hill, but the incident cost him momentum. He slipped out of DRS range for the penultimate lap and started the final tour with 0.976s to make up, but Hamilton was inch-perfect with his positioning and deft on the brakes despite waning grip to cross the line three-quarters of a second ahead.
“What a difficult race that was!” Hamilton said. “They’ve had amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special.
“Max was all over me right at the end, but I just about managed to hold him off. It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while.”
Verstappen was understandably disappointed for having let the race slip from his grasp and questioned his team’s instruction to give the position back rather than build a gap over Hamilton to negate the penalty risk.
He had been faultless through the race, but Hamilton’s strong pace in the opening stint when both were on medium tires forced him into running a counterstrategy that lost him track position in exchange for a fast finish.
Hamilton undercut him on Lap 13, and a rapid out-lap guaranteed the Briton the place, so with the loss of the lead assured Red Bull Racing responded by leaving Verstappen out until Lap 17. He emerged from the pits 7.2s in arrears but was soon back with Hamilton in undercut range.
Mercedes responded aggressively, bringing in the Briton for a new set of hard tires on Lap 29 to protect the lead. Red Bull Racing again left Verstappen out, this time for another 10 laps, until taking his new set of hard tires.
It put him 8.5 seconds short of Hamilton with 16 laps remaining, closing to less than two seconds in the final six laps — but ultimately not enough to seal the deal.
“It’s of course a shame, but you also have to see the positive,” Verstappen said. “We are really putting the fight onto them, and I think it’s great to start the year like that. Overall we managed to finish the race and score good points.”
Valtteri Bottas collected the final podium place after an ineffectual race. The Finn spent most of the evening more than five seconds adrift of the lead battle and had his race undone by a slow second stop thanks to a struck right-front tire, costing him more than 10s in his box and putting him out of touch of victory. A late extra stop for medium tires earned him a consolation point for fastest lap.
Lando Norris was a superb fourth for McLaren after picking up places from Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc early in the race.
Sergio Perez toiled spectacularly in first weekend for Red Bull Racing to return a strong fifth place. The Mexican started from the pit lane after his car shut itself down on the formation lap — he was able to restart it without assistance just as the grid was forming, forcing a second formation lap — but rose to 12th by Lap 10 and fourth by Lap 38 when he made his final stop.
He dropped to eighth when he took new medium tires but was decisive on his way back up to fifth, falling five seconds short of Norris.
Pit lane start to P5 finish for @SChecoPerez 🚀
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 28, 2021
Charles Leclerc was able to cling to fifth for Ferrari through stern defense against overtures from Daniel Ricciardo in the opening stint. The Australian lost out having to wait until teammate Norris and Leclerc made their first stops before he could have his own tires changed, losing him two places and cutting him adrift by the time he recovered them.
Carlos Sainz turned in a quiet first race for Ferrari to eighth, finishing where he started after retrieving the two places he lost on the first lap.
Yuki Tsunoda scored a superb two points for ninth on debut for AlphaTauri despite falling to 16th after the safety car restart on Lap 4, his race of controlled aggression culminating in a last-lap pass of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll, who completed the top 10.
Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi finished outside the points in 11th and 12th.
Esteban Ocon slipped down to 13th after being rear-ended by Sebastian Vettel, having passed the German for 12th — an error for which Vettel was penalized 10s and demoted to 15th behind George Russell in a lackluster first race for Aston Martin.
Mick Schumacher finished 16th and last in his F1 debut for Haas.
Pierre Gasly retired late in the race after taking damage in the opening stint, while Nicholas Latifi retired with a boost pressure problem.
Returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso pulled into his garage after 33 laps with brake problems, while Nikita Mazepin’s race lasted only three corners after the Russian spun his wheels on the curbs and careened into the barriers.