Red Bull’s season-opener performance indicates potential title contention
Regardless of misfortune in Bahrain, Red Bull proved they have the pace and talent to take the fight to Mercedes.
The Bahrain Grand Prix truly delivered as a season opener, providing close battles and plenty of drama-- particularly between reigning champions at Mercedes and their nearest rival, Red Bull. Aside from being a thoroughly entertaining weekend, the race has sparked hope in many fans that a championship battle may be at hand in 2021.
Red Bull had come out of pre-season testing having already proven themselves to many as real competition, with Mercedes facing reliability troubles and further misfortune on the track. This lead extended to free practice where Verstappen took P1 for all three sessions and teammate Sergio Perez put in solid times as he acclimated to the new car.
Mercedes, however, made vast improvement between pre-season testing and the weekend, which accumulated into far better results in free practice-- both drivers finished in the top five for all the sessions. Overall, things looked close between the teams, and the commentators relished in the thought.
“I don’t think either team is going to be dominant. I think both teams are in the fight-- that's my take away from everything we’ve seen so far, it’s not going to be one sided like we’ve seen in the last couple of years,” Karun Chandhok said in the FP2 session commentary, “We’re gonna have four cars in the fight.”
Verstappen’s consistent performance carried into qualifying-- he would start the race on pole. Teammate Perez would start in P11, while the two Mercedes cars would follow Verstappen in P2 and P3.
Verstappen took an early lead and looked to have the race under his control, however, it was a game of strategy that brought Mercedes back into the running for first with Hamilton performing a well-calculated undercut going into the first round of pit-stops.
The battle for first between Mercedes and Red Bull came to a head near the end of the race, and fans got to see some great wheel to wheel action as the two fought for the win. By lap 53, Hamilton was leading, but by a small margin. The Dutch driver was within range to overtake, and ended up making his move at turn 4-- and went beyond the track limits in the process. Verstappen gave the position back to Hamilton as per orders. Hamilton remained in P1 until the chequered flag, taking the first win of the season.
“It was fair racing, it was tough racing,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said in a post-race interview with Sky Sports F1, “This has been such a strong circuit for [Mercedes], the fact that we’ve been so competitive this weekend, I hope it’s a good signal for the championship. Toto’s had it far too easy the past seven years, somebody needs to give him a hard time.”
Verstappen, dominating nearly the entire weekend, put the pressure on the 7-time world champion, who said in the post-race interview that “it was one of the hardest races [he] had in a while”.
“It’s going to take everything and more for us to put in performances like this, but we love the challenge-- I love the challenge,” Hamilton said.
Perez-- Red Bull’s new recruit-- had some tough luck before the race even started, stopping on the side of the track on the formation lap due to a technical issue. Fortunately, he was able to get the car started again and he ended up still being able to start the race from the pit lane.
Despite starting right at the back, Perez was still able to show what he’s made of-- charging through the grid all the way up to fifth by the end of the race.
“A lot of work ahead of us, but we can see that things are coming-- everything is clicking better,” Perez said in an interview during the F1 post-race show.
In the end, we witnessed a familiar podium consisting of Hamilton followed by Verstappen and Valterri Bottas-- But the implications of this race gives this season the potential to be all but business as usual.
As the three week gap between the first race weekend and the second come to a close, many are left wondering where the battle will go from here. Was Red Bull’s success a fluke, or was it truly a signal of next-level performance that will allow them to compete with Mercedes? It’s probably too soon to tell. Red Bull has, however, come out of the gate neck and neck with the silver bullets-- something they have strived to achieve the past few years but never quite attained. And that may just be enough to put the pressure on this season.