Lewis Hamilton has won a thrilling Bahrain Grand Prix, surviving a late onslaught by Max Verstappen in a strategic tussle.
The two traded the lead on no less than four occasions as strategy dictated the flow of the grand prix.
A late pitstop to fit the hard tyres was the critical moment for Verstappen as the Red Bull reeled in Hamilton over the race’s final stint.
A lock-up at turn eight on lap 51 of 56 by Hamilton brought Verstappen within one second and into DRS range of Mercedes.
However, Hamilton did enough to keep Verstappen at bay, leading his rival over the line by 0.745s, setting the tone for the season ahead.
“It is a shame,” Verstappen said. “But you have to see the positives. We are really putting fight to [Mercedes] and I think it is great to start the year like that.”
Hamilton said after the race that it “took something special” to beat Verstappen.
“What a difficult race that was,” he said.
“Stopping early, we knew it was going to be difficult. But we had to cover Max. [Red Bull] were strong all weekend.”
Verstappen commanded the opening half-a-lap before the safety car was deployed. Nikita Mazepin’s rookie Grand Prix had ended abruptly at turn three when he spun into the barrier, ripping the front wing off the car.
Up front, Verstappen was willing to back up the field on the restart, and the Red Bull expertly fended off the challenge of Hamilton.
Chares Leclerc had driven around the outside of Bottas before the safety car was deployed. But the Ferrari quickly slipped back behind the Mercedes and Lando Norris.
Victory would come down to whoever played their strategic card correctly, and Mercedes blinked first with an early stop for Hamilton.
That gave the defending world champion the undercut on Verstappen, and when Red Bull replied two laps later, Hamilton was in front by four seconds.
However, Verstappen had been fitted the medium tyres, whereas Hamilton ran with the hard compound of rubber.
The Red Bull was cutting into the lead, and Mercedes brought Hamilton in once again on lap 29.
Surprisingly, Bottas was whistled in for his second pitstop moments later. In doing so, Mercedes had relinquished any pressure from Verstappen, handing the advantage back to the Dutchman.
A neat stop by Verstappen on lap 40 had him re-join the race with an eight-second deficit to Hamilton. Yet the 10-lap difference in tyre life meant Verstappen was still considered in the box seat.
The margin had been sliced to less than two seconds with five laps remaining.
Verstappen was briefly held up by a duel between Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Ocon. However, Hamilton ran wide at turn eight on lap 51, bringing Verstappen into DRS range.
The first attack came at turn four on lap 53 as both lapped Mick Schumacher. Verstappen was forced wide but still came out ahead of Hamilton.
He was told to hand back the place after it was deemed he had re-claimed the lead outside track limits.
Hamilton was cunning in his defence and withheld the pressure of Verstappen over the next few laps, maintaining a slender advantage each time en route to victory.
Bottas was third and set the fastest lap of the race on the last tour.
Norris ran a robust race to claim fourth, ahead of Sergio Perez, who had started in the pitlane following a power failure on the formation lap.
Leclerc fell back to sixth at the line, with Daniel Ricciardo and Carlos Sainz in tow.
Yuki Tsunoda claimed points on his F1 debut with Alpha Tauri, while Lance Stroll rounded out the top ten.
Until today, Hamilton had not won the opening race of a season since 2015.
He now leads the championship ahead of the second round in Imola on April 16-18.
|8||Carlos Sainz Jr||67.100s|
|12||Antonio Giovinazzi||1 Lap|
|13||Esteban Ocon||1 Lap|
|14||George Russell||1 Lap|
|15||Sebastian Vettel||1 Lap|
|16||Mick Schumacher||1 Lap|