There was an enormous, collective exhalation at the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix, and it was brought about by two things. Firstly, the race had been a nail-biter right up to the final corner, and second, there was relief that everything we’d gleaned from pre-season testing appears to be proving true.
This column might not age well depending on how each car reacts to different circuits, but the evidence has only been growing that we are in for a proper fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the championship this season. At a time when so much has had to remain the same due to COVID-19-induced freezes of regulations and protocols, just enough has changed to set up a genuine battle.
Three of the last four Formula 1 races have been held at the Bahrain International Circuit, and they’ve all been spectacular in different ways. I absolutely love Melbourne, but without rain or divine intervention, it’s never going to provide a season opener like the one we just had. And Sunday’s race is exactly what F1 needed.
In Australia, the nature of the circuit is such that track position is absolutely crucial. It is a street circuit in terms of width, types of corners and surface, so you’re going to get largely processional afternoons when the conditions are stable. It’s still a great venue to go racing at, and some of the changes being implemented at the circuit this year could increase the possibilities for more on-track battles. But in a way, the type of race we typically get there hurts F1. Even with a highly competitive field, you just get trains forming and need to rely in mistakes and reliability issues. A race like that doesn’t stoke the imagination of anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.
When we’ve had a pre-season such as the one we just had, and then we go to a first race where the track is going to provide a very different competitive picture, it’s troublesome. That’s not Melbourne’s fault, but first impressions are important and you need to get off to an exciting start.
The first race sets the tone for the season. The atmosphere at Albert Park is amazing, the setting is beautiful, and the whole event is awesome. But that only applies to the 100,000 or so on-site getting to soak it up in person. The tens of millions around the world watching on television need a good race to capture their interest.
I don’t like it when any sport – not only Formula 1 – focuses its energy on attracting new fans at the expense of the existing ones. You’ve got to be sympathetic with changes you make, and remember your existing fanbase that has been loyal up to now. But in this case, an exciting season-opener is an exciting season-opener for all involved, not just those who are heavily invested in the sport. Everybody wins.
Too often I have to explain to friends or non-F1 fans that Hamilton doesn’t win just because he has the fastest car, or that a race was exciting even though all they’ve seen is another headline announcing a Mercedes victory. It’s kind of the same after Bahrain – the usual driver was on the top step – but you can’t escape the excitement that this race has created.
Plenty of people were understandably skeptical about whether we were going to see a much-improved Mercedes at the opening race; one that had been sandbagging in testing and was going to claim pole yet again. But for the first time in the hybrid era, that didn’t happen.
Until last weekend, Mercedes had been on pole for every season-opener since 2014, but Verstappen emphatically ended that run by beating Hamilton by 0.4s on Saturday. That’s a big gap in raw pace terms. In turn, that helped generate interest, simply because it might be a sign that a dominant era is coming to an end.
But for Bahrain to then deliver a really exciting race – controversy and all – that came down to a fight between two of the finest drivers ever to sit in an F1 car, right up to the final corner? That’s what keeps people coming back for the next round.
I should put this further into context. Of course it wasn’t the greatest grand prix of all time. I was just a really good race, and my point is that’s even more important when it’s the season-opener that is providing the baseline for the whole year.
Controversy is sometimes needed, and we got that with the track limits debate. In the case of Verstappen’s attempted pass, it’s very clear that it was illegal to complete the move off track, and the only real question that needs raising is why the drivers were allowed to go out there on their own for half of the race before Hamilton was sent the message to stop doing it?
Either way, it provided a talking point. It’s like a borderline scoring review late in the fourth quarter, or third strike that was just outside the zone.
You can’t guarantee it will play out that way, but maybe Formula 1 needs to think hard about where it goes testing and starts its season in future. There has to be a balance between the fee that somewhere will pay to host the race and the sporting spectacle it can provide, because one can deliver an instant hit of cash but the other might actually result in a greater return longer-term if you hook more people into the championship with a quality opening race.
In most years, we leave Australia our hopes on unknowns. Where 2021 sets the example is that we’ve had one race that leaves us wanting more of the same, and wanting it right now.
I can’t wait.