To the casual observer, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes claiming the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix would sound like nothing has changed in 2021.
This was anything but the case, as the reigning champions – dating back to 2014 – were pushed to the edge by Red Bull, led by an increasingly mature Max Verstappen.
A contentious late race pass on Hamilton – judged to be illegal – was the only impediment to the Dutchman’s charge, as Formula One set up a tantalising season that promises to deliver based on Sakhir.
Following an aborted start caused by teammate Sergio Perez, whose car lost power on the formation lap, Verstappen – having claimed pole position by three tenths of a second from Hamilton – assumed a convincing early lead off the line.
It wasn’t long before the safety car was deployed, as debutant Nikita Mazepin spun his Haas into retirement of his own volition on the exit of turn three. Pierre Gaslý’s strong qualifying performance to claim fifth went to waste as the Frenchman suffered front wing damage from a collision with Daniel Ricciardo, necessitating a visit to pit lane.
Meanwhile, Perez – after managing to restart his car to join the race from the end of the pit lane, commenced his recovery drive.
This was all too familiar for the Mexican, who staged a remarkable comeback from an opening lap spin which relegated him to the rear of the field at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix – under four months earlier, to claim an immensely popular maiden victory for Racing Point.
Once the action resumed, Verstappen maintained a comfortable margin to Hamilton, though Mercedes placed the ball in Red Bull’s court when the Briton made his first stop on lap 13.
Instead of covering off the undercut threat at first opportunity, Red Bull held Verstappen out for several more laps, by which time Hamilton had ensured he’d assume the lead once the former stopped.
The socials didn’t take long to light up, predictably bemoaning Red Bull handing the race to Mercedes on a platter. But fitted with mediums, the Dutchman rapidly set about eating into Hamilton’s seven second post stop advantage and the race was very much alive.
Rather than allowing Verstappen to sail past and bank time on the faster compound, it wasn’t long before Hamilton was called in for a second time. Whether a third would be required was now up to the 36-year-old’s infamously miserly tyre management.
Once Verstappen eventually made his second and final stop, he emerged facing a similar deficit to Hamilton as his first, and now on hard yet considerably fresher rubber.
Race control’s pre-race directive that track limits wouldn’t be enforced at turn four came into the spotlight once it became apparent that Mercedes – and more explicitly Hamilton, were routinely exploiting this.
He was duly advised to discontinue taking the more sweeping arc encouraged by the corner’s camber in order to avoid a potential penalty.
The irony of what followed was an interesting prelude to commence a season which beckons to be tit for tat between the likely title protagonists.
Max Verstappen (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Verstappen had patiently reeled Hamilton in to the point that he was ready to pounce on his prey in the closing laps.
Turn four’s role in the defining the race was confirmed, when Verstappen – navigating a lapped Antonio Giovinazzi, swept around Hamilton on the exit from the turn and into the lead with four laps remaining. Only, the Dutchman had placed all four tyres off the racing line in completing the move.
Cognisant of the fate awaiting their man, Red Bull instructed Verstappen to redress the move and regroup to make a legitimate pass.
The opportunity never arose as Hamilton maintained his composure on tyres which he had managed for half the race, to claim a victory which seemed highly unlikely several hours earlier.
Adamant that he could have covered the ground in the remaining laps to cover a five second penalty, Verstappen was circumspect in disappointment.
He and Red Bull will have taken huge belief from running Mercedes so closely from the outset, in the knowledge that the pressure will be on the world champions to execute perfectly, lest the team which dominated the sport immediately prior to them reclaims their mantle.
They’d also have been extremely encouraged by Perez’s recovery to claim fifth, and will be looking at him to pressure his Mercedes counterpart in Valtteri Bottas in coming races, the Finn enduring a forgettable drive to third, punctuated by a slow pit stop.
We’ve been teased by the twilight theatre at Bahrain and now face an agonising three week break until the circus reconvenes at Imola on April 18.
Even though they emerged in a familiar position and reinforced why they’ve reigned supreme for such an extended period at Sakhir, Mercedes now know they absolutely cannot afford to rest on their laurels in what most assumed would be a transitional season ahead of wholesale change in 2022.