Lewis Hamilton ran second in the first stint but stayed close enough to Verstappen to launch an undercut by stopping on lap 13 of 56.
That gave him track position and a beautifully measured final stint – as well as intelligent defence when he needed it – allowed him to take victory against the run of play.
If Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen’s epic battle at the Bahrain Grand Prix was anything to go by, we could be in for a classic Formula 1 season in 2021.
In a pulsating climax at the Sakhir season-opener that left fans on the edge of their seats, Hamilton and Verstappen engaged in a straight fight to draw first blood in the 2021 world championship and start the campaign on a winning note.
Hamilton withstood immense pressure from Verstappen’s relentless pursuit in the closing stages and had to lean on all of his vast experience and skillset to keep the Dutchman driver at bay.
Having survived an attack when Verstappen was forced to give back the lead after making an illegal overtake at Turn 4 – the pivotal moment of the race – Hamilton never looked back as he delivered his first season-opening win since 2015 by a margin of just 0.745s.
It marked his 96th career win and one that surely will go down as one of his best.
After Verstappen beat Hamilton to pole position by a comfortable margin of almost 0.4s on Saturday, a win for Mercedes looked unlikely given it was trailing Red Bull on outright pace over both one-lap and on the race runs conducted during Friday practice.
But the combination of Hamilton’s supreme talent and a Red Bull-style aggressive roll of the dice strategy from Mercedes gave the seven-time world champion crucial track position and the opportunity to snatch victory from under their main rival’s nose.
It was a result which left Mercedes boss Toto Wolff in disbelief after Red Bull appeared to have a clear edge over his side throughout pre-season and the Bahrain weekend.
“Still to give you 100% honesty we are still lacking pace in qualifying and quite a bit. Today, I think we were competitive. We were definitely competitive. The strategy made all the difference. We took a bold move beginning, gained track position. And then at the end, the racing god was on our side.”
Bahrain’s season premiere leaves 2021 perfectly poised with a real sense that this year could produce the blockbuster showdown between F1’s two heavyweight drivers we have been craving.
With Red Bull finally able to hit the ground running at the start of a season, the team looks to have produced a car good enough to take the fight to the ultra-dominant Mercedes squad that has whitewashed the hybrid era.
Wolff acknowledged after the race that Red Bull’s performance showed they will be “extremely difficult to beat” during 2021, setting up the prospect of finally getting a box office fight between Hamilton and Verstappen for the title.
Hamilton, who has largely only had his Mercedes teammates to beat for much of the last seven years, now faces a new threat in the shape of Red Bull’s emerging superstar. The 36-year-old looks to have a serious fight on his hands if he is going to win a record-breaking eighth world title this year, but Hamilton is relishing the competition.
“Every minute of the weekend I’ve loved,” he said. “And [more so] knowing, I think for us as a team, we knew we were behind in performance. These guys [Red Bull] have done a better job so far.
“And so, for us to come away with this result given the fact that we weren’t the fastest this weekend is a real result.
“This has got to have started off as one of the toughest, if not the toughest,” he added. “I think Red Bull’s pace is incredibly strong, as you could see. We can’t match them in qualifying right now.”
The Dutchman has matured incredibly and appears at ease with the knowledge that the combination of Red Bull’s strengthened package and his raw talent will see him win races sooner rather than later.
“It’s, of course, a shame, but you also have to see the positives,” Verstappen said. “We were really putting the fight onto them and I think that’s great to start the year like that.
“Of course I’m disappointed, but in a way, it’s a long season. We’ll have 22 more opportunities to do better.”
What made Hamilton’s victory all the more impressive was the fact he managed to defeat Verstappen with a slower car on the day. But this is by no means a new trait in the Briton’s career.
Hamilton won his first and fifth world titles against a faster Ferrari in 2008 and 2018, while a number of pole positions and victories against Sebastian Vettel at the height of Red Bull’s dominance in the early 2010s were good examples of when Hamilton’s spectacular pace and phenomenal race craft has shined through.
There were shades of Bahrain 2014 on his way to his latest triumph as Hamilton fended off Verstappen’s attacks despite being on worn hard tyres that were 11 laps older than his rival’s. It was vintage Hamilton – give him a sniff of a victory and he will take it.
Hamilton’s victory on Sunday maintained his record as the only driver in F1 history to have won a race in every year he has contested. Yet there are still the naysayers who claim his success is only down to driving superior equipment.
“I think there’s always a chance, opportunities to prove people wrong, and I like to think that today is definitely one of them,” he explained.
“But I think there have been several in the past – there have been many in the past, obviously, I’ve been around a long time – but I hope there are many opportunities in the future to be able to show what I was able to do today also.
“We were fortunate today with Max going wide in Turn 4. But that won’t happen again, I’m sure. So we have to do better and be smarter, with the fact we don’t have the fastest car at the moment.
“But that’s all good for me – I don’t mind having to pull out extra in order to make the difference.”
It has been nearly a decade since the last time F1 witnessed a genuine two-team championship battle that went down to the wire when Vettel narrowly pipped Fernando Alonso to become a three-time world champion in a dramatic finale in Brazil in 2012.
But the Bahrain Grand Prix has teased the potential for the most exciting title battle in years and there are still 22 more races to come as F1 embarks on its longest-ever season.
“I’m super excited and super happy for the fans, that they are excited,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s something that all the fans have wanted for a long time.
“Of course, this is only one race, so we don’t know what the future holds. With the pace they have, they could be ahead a lot more, but we’re going to work as hard as we can to try and stay close in this battle and I hope for many more of these sorts of races with Max and Valtteri.
“There’s a long way to go, 22 races. Holy crap! I’ll be grey by the end of this!”
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