By Shwetha Surendran
Boston University News Service
“Leave it to me, Bono,” was the radio message from Lewis Hamilton to his race engineer, Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington, on lap 49 of the 56-lap Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday.
Seconds behind Hamilton was a rapidly approaching Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman in his menacing Red Bull Racing machinery. His own race engineer was just as direct.
“I’m going to just leave you to it,” Gianpiero Lambiase said.
The message was met with silence as Verstappen focused on the rear of the Mercedes in front of him.
Miles ahead of the rest of the field, the duo swapped the lead between themselves in the 2021 season-opening Grand Prix at the Bahrain International circuit. With only a few laps left to go, all that separated the two cars was a second.
It was the first race in a championship title fight many had been waiting for — Hamilton versus Verstappen. The old guard versus the new. Mercedes power against Honda power. A race-craft polished by years of experience, up against the bold, brash confidence of youth.
On lap 53, Verstappen was poised to attack, making a move on the Mercedes in front. He was able to get past him, but not for long. Given a warning from race control for gaining the position off-track, he moved aside to give the place back.
The swap puts Hamilton in the lead — one he would hold onto for the rest of the Grand Prix. This lead gently coaxed his black and silver machine and its worn-out tires to cross the line 0.745 seconds ahead of Verstappen.
There is always the usual litany of questions that follow a Hamilton victory: Is it Hamilton’s skill? Or is it the car and the dominance of Mercedes’ mechanical perfection? However, there would be none on Sunday, given the masterclass in driving from Hamilton.
Behind the race leaders, Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, finished third through no fault of his own.
Ordered by Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport Formula, one team principal Torger Christian “Toto” Wolff wanted to “hunt [Verstappen] down,” a botched 10.9 second pit-stop from his Mercedes crew cost him a chance to fight at the front.
He wasn’t the only one with bad luck. Red Bull Racing’s Sergio Perez’s machine stalled on the formation lap, wrecking his debut for the Milton Keynes-based outfit. Despite the pit-lane start, Perez staged a scintillating comeback drive, finishing fifth behind McLaren’s Lando Norris after a late overtake on Scuderia Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc, one of the stars of Saturday’s qualifying session, came home in sixth place. The Monegasque and his scarlet-red Ferrari showed bursts of pace, compared to the nightmare 2020 season. His new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. finished eighth in his debut for the Italian team.
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel continued his miserable run from last season, finishing outside the points for Aston Martin Racing, racking up five penalty points instead. It wasn’t a day to remember for the newly re-branded Alpine F1 team either, as two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso had a Did Not Finish due to brake problems.
“It was one of the hardest races I’ve had [in] a while,” Hamilton said in a post-race interview.
And if Sunday’s racing in Bahrain was any indication of what’s to come in 2021, it showed this Formula One season has the potential to be one of the best championship battles since Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s title fight in 2016 when Rosberg left the victor.
The title has long been Hamilton’s crown, but Verstappen is coming for it. It is sure to be intense, as the action picks up next month in Scuderia Ferrari’s backyard at the Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio Del Made In Italy e Dell’Emilia Romagna 2021.