Tuesday, September 28News That Matters

F1: Max Verstappen’s battle with Lewis Hamilton is one for the ages – EIGHT things we learned

If this is a sign of Formula One this season, where do we sign for more?

Lewis Hamilton produced a herculean effort to keep Max Verstappen off his tale in an instalment of cat and mouse on track in Bahrain. It was the first of what will be many tussles as the year goes on.

Further down the grid there was a fallen champion in Sebastian Vettel, a rookie debut to forget for Nikita Mazepin but reasons to smile in the Ferrari garage. 

Sportsmail picks out eight things we learned from the season-opening race. 

Lewis Hamilton (middle) edged out Max Verstappen (left) to claim the Bahrain Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton (middle) edged out Max Verstappen (left) to claim the Bahrain Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton (middle) edged out Max Verstappen (left) to claim the Bahrain Grand Prix

There was mutual respect on the podium but both know their rivalry is box office for the sport

There was mutual respect on the podium but both know their rivalry is box office for the sport

There was mutual respect on the podium but both know their rivalry is box office for the sport

Verstappen-Hamilton is a battle for the ages 

A battle that has been years in the making.

Verstappen has had the ambition and the talent to challenge from his rookie season but rarely has he had the tools to allow both of those elements to flourish.

At Bahrian, a track many in the F1 cognoscenti would say suits Mercedes more than it does Red Bull, Verstappen put in a display that suggests he may finally have those necessary tools at his disposal to lock horns with Hamilton and the Silver Arrows. 

Verstappen took the fourth pole position of his burgeoning F1 career in Saturday’s qualifying session and was the dominant driver over the course of the weekend, only to come within a whisker of winning the race. 

Hamilton landed an early psychological blow in a rivalry that will go on to shape the season

Hamilton landed an early psychological blow in a rivalry that will go on to shape the season

Hamilton landed an early psychological blow in a rivalry that will go on to shape the season

‘It is what it is,’ a philosophical Verstappen later said.

It spoke volumes that he wanted to cross the line first and take a penalty for exceeding track limits, rather than give way to Hamilton and let him pass the chequered flag first.

Some felt that was selfish and not in the spirit of racing, others felt it was the words of a winner who is well and truly tired of losing.

‘Last year we would have been super-happy with this result but now we are super-disappointed so we definitely really made a good step forward!’ the Dutchman added.

‘Now we just have to get on with it and try and be better.’ 

Verstappen felt the fact the team were disappointed at 2nd spoke volumes as to their progress

Verstappen felt the fact the team were disappointed at 2nd spoke volumes as to their progress

Verstappen felt the fact the team were disappointed at 2nd spoke volumes as to their progress

Not since the in-fighting of Nico Rosberg and Hamilton at Mercedes have F1 fans been blessed with a real title rivalry, a real threat to Hamilton’s crown. 

There’s a long way to go, and this is only one race, but while disappointed, Red Bull will have departed armed with the knowledge that they are right there.

Honda have put everything into this Red Bull power unit and it showed. 

The fight is on – and don’t expect Verstappen to back down.  

Hamilton’s Bahrain masterclass shows he’s ageing like a fine wine

Not that it happens often but even now and again Mercedes engineers can forget thee genius of Hamilton. 

‘Bono [Peter Bonnington, Hamilton’s race engineer] just kept telling me how many laps were left!’ Hamilton said after taking his first opening race win since 2015. 

‘He was like ‘three laps, two laps’ and I’m like ‘Bono, I can count! I’ve got it!’

And got it he had. Even with everything stacked against him, he delivered.

If this is to be the year there is a changing of the guard, it won’t come on a silver platter for Verstappen and Co. 

Hamilton is looking to surpass Michael Schumacher, stand out there alone as statistically the sport’s greatest ever champion.

That means he needs title No 8 and here was an early marker to suggest it is hard to bet against him doing so.

The two drivers were separated by the smallest of margins as they pushed to claim victory

The two drivers were separated by the smallest of margins as they pushed to claim victory

The two drivers were separated by the smallest of margins as they pushed to claim victory

Hamilton produced a marvellous drive as the odds were stacked against him on the final laps

Hamilton produced a marvellous drive as the odds were stacked against him on the final laps

Hamilton produced a marvellous drive as the odds were stacked against him on the final laps

Mercedes often don’t delve much into strategy or mind-games, so good has their car been in recent years compared to the field, but they needed all of it in Bahrain. 

Hamilton stayed out on track, his final run of tyres 11 laps longer than Verstappen’s equivalent.

The time separation continued to close, Hamilton anxious on team radio he was badly losing grip on his rear tyres. It made for sensational viewing.

And then Verstappen, illegally in the eyes of race control at Turn 4, and so the Dutchman immediately handed the position back.

From there Hamilton held his nerve. Here was a champion squeezing every last ounce out of a car that had so little left in the tank.

He held on to take a 96th career win in F1 but more than the trophy and the spray of champagne, it was a reminder. He may be 36, but he is still sat atop the throne.

Ferrari on the mend

It was fair to wonder how much life there was left in the Prancing Horse after a 2020 season that was befitting of a horror film.

Their worst season in 40 years, embarrassment almost at every turn, Ferrari needed Bahrain to show there are signs of life yet in F1’s greatest and most prestigious institution. 

Ferrari introduced a much-needed new power unit for this season and with a driver shake-up also freshening up the group, it offered a platform to hit the reset button.

What transpired was very promising indeed. 

Ferrari had both drivers finish in the top 10 in what was a very promising opening race for 2021

Ferrari had both drivers finish in the top 10 in what was a very promising opening race for 2021

Ferrari had both drivers finish in the top 10 in what was a very promising opening race for 2021

Charles Leclerc finished sixth while new team-mate Carlos Sainz ranked eighth.

Leclerc said after the race: ‘It’s a nice start and a good feeling and I am reasonably happy with the race. 

‘I cannot be extremely satisfied with P6, but at the end of the day, we need to look at where we were last year and it’s clear we have made good progress.’

Progress was the word of the day – fare progressi (to make progress) as they said throughout the Ferrari garage on Sunday. They are still a long way from title contention but learning to walk again takes time – this was a good start.  

Sebastian Vettel’s woes continue

Rarely were the words ‘four time world champion’ ever too far away when Vettel’s name was mentioned in Bahrain on Sunday. 

Nobody can take those Red Bull titles away from him, of course, but he hasn’t got his hands on one since 2013.

Those four consecutive titles were sublime, etched permanently into F1 folklore but he is a different driver now. 

Mistakes piled up in five years at Ferrari and it spoke volumes that they weren’t all that devastated to see him go. 

A crash into Esteban Ocon summed up a miserable Bahrain Grand Prix for Sebastian Vettel

A crash into Esteban Ocon summed up a miserable Bahrain Grand Prix for Sebastian Vettel

A crash into Esteban Ocon summed up a miserable Bahrain Grand Prix for Sebastian Vettel

The four-time world champion has had a tough start with Aston Martin after departing Ferrari

The four-time world champion has had a tough start with Aston Martin after departing Ferrari

The four-time world champion has had a tough start with Aston Martin after departing Ferrari

Aston Martin returned to F1 and wanted the German to spearhead their first season but if Bahrain is anything to go by, it doesn’t look to be a successful marriage quite yet.

He finished a miserable 15th while also collecting five penalty points for his licence for two instances of infringement. 

Vettel also had a miserable pre-season and while Aston Martin have said it’s ‘way too early’ to write the German off, it hasn’t stopped people from trying. If this is Vettel’s last chance saloon, it may be final orders sooner rather than later.  

Pre-race ‘We Race As One’ continued to make for awkward TV

Last season a messy campaign to tackle discrimination and racism, while also increasing diversity, saw some drivers take a knee while others stood tall by their side.

It made for awkward pre-race TV. By no stretch of the imagination did it make those who chose not to kneel as racist or discriminatory but it looked awkward and so it proved again for the opening race of the 2021 season.

Organisers opted prior to going to Bahrain that drivers could make their own gestures in support of the ‘We Race As One’ effort and there was no pressure to kneel.

What transpired was half of the grid – 10 drivers – taking a knee, led by Hamilton, and the other half electing to stand. 

The F1 season kicked-off on Sunday in Bahrain with the first anti-racism message of the year

The F1 season kicked-off on Sunday in Bahrain with the first anti-racism message of the year

The F1 season kicked-off on Sunday in Bahrain with the first anti-racism message of the year

Half the drivers took the knee, with the likes of Hamilton continuing to make the gesture

Half the drivers took the knee, with the likes of Hamilton continuing to make the gesture

Half the drivers took the knee, with the likes of Hamilton continuing to make the gesture

The racers who did kneel were Sebastian Vettel, Lance Stroll, Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo, Nicholas Latifi, George Russell, Pierre Gasly, Mick Schumacher, Sergio Perez and Hamilton. 

‘I don’t think it’s the most important thing for everyone to kneel,’ Hamilton said.

‘It’s what we do in the background that counts, making a positive change. We will see how we can work together so the sport takes more of a lead.’

Even so, it didn’t look great. It was more organised but it’s difficult to sell ‘We Race as One’ when the drivers are split in two as to what the core gesture will be.  

Nikita Mazepin is a liability for Haas

No doubt Mazepin had navigated the Bahrain GP circuit many times in his head the night before lights out on Sunday. 

He may have fantasised about a dramatic race in which he defied all the odds to claim victory in his first F1 race.

There was drama – but of all the wrong kind. 

Mazepin managed just three laps and he had no one to blame but himself for getting too trigger happy on the throttle barrelling into Turn Three.

‘I’m a human, unfortunately I make mistakes,’ he told reporters in the paddock afterwards.

Nikita Mazepin crashed after three turns in his Formula One debut race for the Haas team

Nikita Mazepin crashed after three turns in his Formula One debut race for the Haas team

Nikita Mazepin crashed after three turns in his Formula One debut race for the Haas team

Mazepin, 22, started 18th on the grid after a torrid qualification and crashed out in seconds

Mazepin, 22, started 18th on the grid after a torrid qualification and crashed out in seconds

Mazepin, 22, started 18th on the grid after a torrid qualification and crashed out in seconds

‘Right now, standing here, other than having one of my worst days of my life probably, [there’s] not much else I can say.’

There was, unsurprisingly, little sympathy extended to Mazepin, son of billionaire Dmitry, who is a major investor in the Haas team and a key reason why he landed the coveted race seat for 2021. 

The rookie was also slammed for recent video footage of him groping a woman’s breast in the back of a car, for which he has since apologised. 

Making mistakes on and off track, this could be a long season for the Russian. 

Yuki Tsunoda is the real deal

From one rookie to another, only this time there is reason to cheer. 

Tsunoda, 20, became the first Japanese driver to race in F1 in seven years when he put foot to the throttle in Bahrain. 

Small in stature, standing at just 5’2′, it would be easy to miss the rookie on the grid but there was no taking eyes off a drive that saw him overtake icon Fernando Alonso en route to a ninth-placed finish. 

Points on an F1 debut, many would have no complaints. Not Tsunoda.

‘I’m glad to get points, but I lost quite a lot of positions on the first lap,’ he said, a sign of his ambitions to challenge the top order this year.

‘That was my big mistake and I had to recover from that, so I’m happy 50%, but still 50% my big mistakes and it was possible to go more forward in the points positions. The first points feel okay, but I think there is a lot of space to improve.’

Based on the evidence in Bahrain, Tsunoda’s future is even brighter than Bahrain’s luminous circuit lights. 

Yuki Tsunoda is just 20 but produced a performance well beyond his rookie years to come 9th

Yuki Tsunoda is just 20 but produced a performance well beyond his rookie years to come 9th

Yuki Tsunoda is just 20 but produced a performance well beyond his rookie years to come 9th

Fascinating fight for McLaren supremacy 

Daniel Ricciardo described it as a ‘nice little tick’ when he qualified ahead of team-mate Lando Norris for Sunday’s race.

He suddenly became much quieter when it was Norris who got the better of their head-to-head come the chequered flag. 

Norris was partnered with Carlos Sainz in his first two seasons with McLaren and has now shaken off any potential rookie status. The Brit firmly believes he is the team’s No 1 option – and he drove like it in Bahrain. 

McLaren is a defining move for Ricciardo having had such little success since he left Red Bull in 2018. 

Norris overtook Ricciardo on the opening lap and comprehensively schooled the Australian in how to maximise the MCL35M. 

It might give Team Principal Zak Brown some more grey hairs in keeping both cars on the track at all times but this battle for internal supremacy has all the hallmarks of a cracker.  

McLaren's supremacy battle with Lando Norris (left) and Daniel Ricciardo (right) is fascinating

McLaren's supremacy battle with Lando Norris (left) and Daniel Ricciardo (right) is fascinating

McLaren’s supremacy battle with Lando Norris (left) and Daniel Ricciardo (right) is fascinating