Max Verstappen was on top in every single session at Formula 1’s (F1) 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix except for one: the race itself.
The Dutch Red Bull driver finished P1 in all practices and earned pole position (starting position), but it wasn’t enough to topple reigning World Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton, who crossed the finish line first on Sunday. Verstappen followed closely behind in second place and Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas filled the last spot on the podium.
“It’s of course a shame but you also have to see the positive,” Verstappen told Motorsport.com. “We’re really putting the fight on to them and I think that’s great to start the year like that.”
While Verstappen and Hamilton traded first place during their respective pit stops, it didn’t appear to be a close battle until the final quarter of the race. The growling Honda-powered Red Bull was gaining on the fleeing Mercedes, the gap narrowing lap by lap. On lap 41, Verstappen was 8.6 seconds away from Hamilton, but in just 12 laps, he was only half a second behind Hamilton’s rear wing.
The Red Bull’s rear wing was wide open on the start/finish straight to reduce drag as the two dashed towards the arresting first corner. The Mercedes was barely ahead but, on the second straight of the track, Verstappen broke through, passing Hamilton on his left side with three laps to go.
Yet “Super Max” made a crucial error. He went completely off the track at turn four as Hamilton forced him to the outside. Going off the track warrants a five-second time penalty handed out by race control, commonly known as the “stewards.” Alternatively, the driver who committed the infraction is given the chance to avoid the penalty by allowing the driver who was illegally passed through, known as “giving the position” back.
Red Bull forced Verstappen to give the position back, negating the time penalty but crucially giving Hamilton the lead with just three laps to go.
“Why didn’t you just let me go, man?” Verstappen told his race engineer after he let Hamilton through. “I could have easily pulled those five seconds. I prefer to lose a win like that than be second like this.”
Hamilton narrowly retained his lead as the gap between him and Verstappen slowly increased, eventually resulting in the Brit crossing the line first.
Red Bull has played catch up to Mercedes since 2014, when the “Silver Arrows” began the turbo-hybrid era on top, dominating in every season since. Red Bull was the sport’s previous dynasty, with current Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel winning four consecutive championships with the energy drink branded team. They wanted their crown back, and Verstappen was the chosen one to reclaim it.
When Red Bull switched from Renault to Honda power in 2019, the expectations for the Milton Keynes, UK-based team to be a true championship contender rose. In their first season with Honda engines, Red Bull finished third amongst the constructors, moving to second in 2020. Verstappen finished third in both 2019 and 2020 behind the two Mercedes drivers.
When Red Bull caught Mercedes on their back foot during preseason, showing their downforce, speed and reliability advantage over the established champions, even Hamilton was showing praise for his rivals.
“They’re going to be a different machine or animal this year with a really good strong line-up with the two drivers and a really good car,” Hamilton told therace.com before the season started. “Having seen them win the last race, you can only assume they are going to be right there, if not at the front, at the first race and it’s going to be a great long battle with them throughout the year.”
Will the king of the castle finally meet his match and be knocked off of his throne? It’s Honda’s last year in F1. They have to make it count.