SAKHIR, Bahrain – Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen’s title defense turned into a nightmare when the Red Bull star retired towards the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, allowing Ferrari to take a 1-2 finish with Charles Leclerc who won ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.
Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton took an unexpected third place after Sergio Perez’s Red Bull also retired with the finish line in sight as the race ended under a yellow flag.
Hamilton was way behind in fifth when a late drama on lap 46 turned the race around.
Leclerc was comfortably leading from Verstappen when the rear of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri car caught fire as he parked it on the side of the track. It was quickly extinguished and the Frenchman walked away unharmed.
From the restart, Leclerc got away and Verstappen started complaining about steering problems.
Minutes later, both Red Bulls were out of the race and George Russell’s Mercedes moved up to fourth to give Mercedes an unexpected bonus.
In a 57-lap race, Verstappen stopped on lap 54 and Perez in 56.
An exciting race to start the season and a race laced with a good dose of irony.
Verstappen won the F1 title last year with a pass on the last lap of Hamilton after a controversial restart under a safety car, just as Hamilton was en route to what would have been a record eighth title.
Red Bull celebrated lavishly in Abu Dhabi that evening, after which Mercedes lost both trades and Red Bull started in dynamic form as Verstappen led pre-season testing. He finished second behind Leclerc for Sunday’s race with trusted Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez from fourth and the team expected a healthy amount of points.
Red Bull ran away with no one.
Sweet revenge for Mercedes perhaps if team boss Toto Wolff smiled from the side and probably not just because of Hamilton’s unexpected podium.
But also unbridled joy for Ferrari.
“That’s exactly how we should start the season,” Leclerc shouted on the radio. “Mama Mia.”
It was the team’s first win and the first 1-2 since former driver Sebastian Vettel won the Singapore GP for Leclerc in 2019, and Leclerc’s first win since winning the Italian GP at Monza two weeks earlier.
“Congratulations to Ferrari, so happy to see them doing well again. They are such a historic, epic team,” said Hamilton. “It was such a difficult race for me. This is the best result we could have achieved.”
As Leclerc celebrates his third win of his career, the Scuderia’s Tifosi fans have something to crow about, while his old karting rival Verstappen will be furious at his bad luck.
Hamilton kind of knows what that feels like.
So is Kevin Magnussen, who was fired by Haas at the end of 2020 because of a restructuring that involved a Russian lender and a Russian driver. But when Nikita Mazepin was eliminated, Haas rehired Magnussen and the determined Dane took the car to fifth.
Haas did not score any points last year.