The Bahrain Grand Prix was episode one of what most hope will be a 23-part Formula 1 title battle extravaganza between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. It’s just one race, but if the championship battle is as close as it has the potential to be, it was a significant early victory for the Mercedes driver.
Battles between Hamilton and Verstappen have flared up over the years, but never within the context of a world championship fight. You can go all the way back to the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix for the first fight for victory between the pair, when Verstappen chased Hamilton down and dived past him into the first corner.
Then, Verstappen had a pace advantage but Hamilton had a world championship to close out. Hamilton had a 28-point lead over Sebastian Vettel, so it was logical for him to let Verstappen go – especially given the race-pace advantage of the Red Bull that allowed it to disappear into the distance.
Prior to Bahrain 2021, this has always been the context in which Hamilton and Verstappen have crossed swords. There have been times when Hamilton indicated displeasure with the room given to him by Verstappen, such as in Bahrain 2018, when Verstappen picked up a puncture after contact. A race later, Hamilton hung Verstappen out to dry when the Red Bull driver made a rash move in China at Turn 7 in a race he should have won.
There were other cases where Verstappen prevailed, for example at Austin later that season, but Hamilton has often had the edge. Take Monaco 2019, when Hamilton was struggling to the finish on aged medium rubber and Verstappen’s late dive resulted in contact but no change to the race order.
At the time, these battles appeared to hint at the titanic fight to come. That’s a contest that might have arrived this year, with Hamilton taking first blood. It’s not the first time he’s had a disadvantage and turned it into victory with the help of a strategic play: the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix, where Verstappen was on course to win before Hamilton took an extra pitstop and chased him down, stands out on that front.
So what did we learn? Verstappen and Red Bull had the advantage in terms of performance and early track position, but Mercedes forced the issue by taking the undercut and stopping on lap 13. That was the kind of move Red Bull has attempted time and time again in recent years, but this time Mercedes was cast as the outsider. The extra grip of fresh rubber was such that Verstappen was always going to lose the lead and Red Bull ultimately extended that stint to give him a pace advantage later in the race.
It all came down to that final chase. Verstappen had the laptime advantage, Hamilton track position, but with the assistance of DRS, the feeling was that the pass was inevitable. These are the kinds of pressure points that test drivers to the limit, and Hamilton was the one who prevailed.
“It was one of the most thrilling, nail-biting, sort of, chest-bursting experiences that I have ever had at a race track,” said Mercedes technical director James Allison. “We have all sorts of tools at the track that make predictions for us, that show us how the tires are wearing, what the likelihood is of holding a place, not holding a place and we have the timing screens like everyone else and we have the television like everyone else.
“But all those tools were of no help; they were making a prediction that was changing about every two or three seconds. It was saying Lewis was going to win, then it would change its mind and say that Max was going to win. But honestly, you didn’t need the software to know how tight it was, and all of us were holding our breath, crossing our fingers, crossing our toes and just hoping with everything we had that Lewis would be able to hang on to the end.
“That he did so in such style, that he did so with such inch-perfect positioning of his car at Turn 4 when Max had that one go at him, that he did so with that degree of class, just added to the thrill of it all and when he finally crossed the line there was an outbreak of mass hysteria in our garage with the utter, utter delight of it.”
This is telling. Not only was Hamilton’s final stint brilliantly measured on tires 11 laps older than Verstappen’s – save for a brief off at Turn 10 – but his defense was intelligently executed. When the attack came on the 53rd lap of 56, Hamilton positioned his car superbly and checked up after a brief move to the right to ensure Verstappen had no way round him into Turn 1.
Verstappen wouldn’t have been troubled much by this, as the second DRS zone on the run to Turn 4 gave him another chance. Hamilton took the logical positioning in the middle of the track into Turn 4, and Verstappen made his move. But while it’s relatively easy to get on the outside of a defending car at Turn 4, the profile of the corner makes it difficult to stay ahead and Verstappen was kicked wide by a squirm on the traction.
Rightly, he had to give up the corner, but by then he’d had the best of his tires, overheated the rears and that was it for his challenge. In the crunch moment, Hamilton had prevailed. That said, Verstappen deserves credit for not becoming too aggressive amid the frustration of losing the race. This was no China 2018, and it shows the 23-year-old’s maturity that, under pressure, he recognized that if you can’t win, you make sure you get second place.
The track limits debate after the race, which was contributed to by the failure to communicate publicly what the approach would be, was also significant, but not for the reasons many argued. It had been made clear to drivers that the track limits at Turn 4 were going to be policed only in cases of overtaking and significant, explicit advantages, so it was right Verstappen was instructed to cede the position.
But what of the multiple Hamilton track limits violations? One fan compiled a video with a total of 27 ‘offenses’ by Hamilton. Certainly, there was an advantage, not just in terms of pace but also in looking after the rear tires. But that’s not what matters – what matters is that Mercedes and Hamilton had understood the interpretation of the rule that was in effect and used it to their advantage. Verstappen and Red Bull did not. That’s proved by the radio communications during the race where Verstappen was ordered to start taking liberties with track limits.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the interpretation of the rules, that was how they were being applied. We venerate the great drivers for being at the limit of the regulations but not overstepping, and that’s exactly what Hamilton did. This contributed to Verstappen losing out.
As a result, Hamilton has one against-the-run-of-play victory in what might be a season-long battle. While Verstappen said the right things after the race about banking valuable points, he knows it was a missed opportunity. Hamilton, meanwhile, will be very happy to have got one over an opponent who he has hinted at finding unpredictable in battle. Often, Hamilton talks of how much he would relish a close fight, and so far he’s proved as good as his word.
This is the key dynamic of the season. Hamilton, the proven, grizzled veteran and statistically the greatest of all time, against the pretender to his throne. There will come a point where Verstappen eclipses Hamilton – the ravages of time makes it inevitable – but as is the nature of these generational battles, it’s a question of how long it will take. On the evidence of Bahrain, it could be some time. And for Hamilton, the chance to take an eighth title, in what might prove to not to be the best car over the season, will be an irresistible target.
And yet, Verstappen is a fast learner. He lacks nothing for pace, either over a qualifying lap or on a race stint, has an underrated mastery of tire management, and an intelligent approach to racing now he’s smoothed out some of the imperfections of earlier years. But this is the first time he and Hamilton have gone head to head for a title, and he has yet to be tested in this kind of battle.
Just because Hamilton prevailed in the Bahrain flashpoint doesn’t mean it will always be so. This is what’s so tantalizing about the season that is to come – and it will draw in the teams, too. Next time, will Red Bull feel obliged to cover a potential undercut attack by stopping early, perhaps even too early? And how will Verstappen react if put in a similar chasing position? These will be psychological tests as well as challenges of racing savvy.
While Hamilton has often been criticized as having it easy in recent times, when it’s come to these crunch moments in races he’s usually excelled. This means Verstappen has a high bar to clear if he’s to get the better of his rival more often than not. Such flashpoints won’t happen every race, but the occasions when they do could swing a championship one way or the other.
Since the race, Verstappen will doubtless have gone over every move he made. Should he have waited another lap? Could he have made the Turn 4 move stick had he been less aggressive on the throttle? How he digests what happened and implements the lessons will have an impact on how he approaches such a situation next time.
Bahrain was only the start and there are likely to be plenty of days when Verstappen prevails, as has Hamilton. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the battle between these two F1 heavyweights plays out over the season.
Hamilton has only won round one of their title fight so far and, with luck, both will be tested to their limits over the next eight months.