Hamilton holds off Verstappen to win thrilling Bahrain Grand Prix

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton produced one of the great defensive drives of his career to hold off a charging Max Verstappen and win a classic season opening 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix.

With only laps remaining and Hamilton on delapidated hard compound tyres, the Englishman needed to dig deep to keep his biggest rival at bay. And, despite Verstappen getting past on the penultimate lap, the Dutchman had to give the place back after exceeding lap limits by running wide to gain position.

It meant that Hamilton regained the lead, and despite the Red Bull driver’s best efforts, it was the seven-time champion who was able to cling on to take his 96th F1 race victory. Valtteri Bottas was third in the second Mercedes, ahead of Lando Norris and the mightily impressive Sergio Perez, who battled his way from a pit lane start finish fifth.

“Wow, what a difficult race that was,” commented Hamilton afterward. “Definitely stopping early, we knew it was going to be difficult, but we had to cover Max. They have had amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special, and we suffered that last stint in trying to find the right balance between not pushing too much and having tyres at the end of the race which was difficult. Max was all over me at the end but I just about managed to hold him off.

“It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while, so I’m really grateful and massively thankful to the men and women back at the factory and here also for continuingly pushing the boundaries and never giving up even though we do feel like we’re behind.”

All the pre-race talk had been about the impending duel between the two drivers, Red Bull Racing seemingly having the better of pre-season testing and the start of the race weekend. And so it transpired, the pair in a class of their own ahead of the rest of the field, making it a two-horse race for the victory only a few laps into the race.

It was a dramatic start to the race, the Haas of Nikita Mazepin spearing off at the second corner, but the Russian climbing out unscathed. It led to an immediate Safety Car, and upon resumption it was Verstappen who continued to lead from Hamilton, despite reporting problems with his differential settings – an issue that led teammate Perez to start from the pit lane.

It was even worse for the sister team Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly, who lost his front wing on the back of Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren, forcing the Frenchman to pit. No problem for the McLarens, Norris enjoying an early battle royale with the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, the pair exchanging overtakes before the Englishman gained position.

Hamilton was the first to roll the dice, pitting on lap 14 for a set of hard tyres in a gamble to undercut the Red Bull driver.  It was ‘Hammer Time’ for Hamilton, the Englishman doing what he knows best in dialling in fast laps to force their rivals’ hand.

Surprisingly, it was Red Bull who stayed out, examining the data and realising they would lose position if Verstappen pitted. It mattered not regardless, Verstappen losing track position to Hamilton after his pit stop on lap 18. The second Mercedes of Bottas was also faring well, a good stop putting him hot on the heels of the lead Red Bull as Norris led Leclerc and Ricciardo some ten seconds off the pace as best of the rest behind.

Then came the expected Verstappen charge, his second set of yellow banded medium tyres working far better than Hamilton’s set of hards. It forced the champion’s hand, the leader pitting for a brand-new set of hard tyres on lap 29 to go all the way to the end of the race.

Still Verstappen had a final stop to make, a fabulous 2.8s change on lap 40 putting him out just seven seconds behind Hamilton and a straight fight to the flag with 15 laps remaining and gaining all the time.

It led to a dramatic finish, and with Hamilton’s tyres losing grip, it was Verstappen who made the decisive move, sweeping past under DRS on lap 53. But with Verstappen taking position off the race track, he was forced to again concede position. The fight for victory was still on, but Hamilton would not be denied, mustering that inner defensive spirit that has served him true so many times in the past.

“Each year they are talking about when have you hit your peak, and I think timing is everything,” added the race winner. “I think I’m at that, and Max is really doing well at the moment too, so 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. I still love what I do.

“It was so hard in the car today, but what a great event, and this is a really good start for us. Through testing we thought that we would be six, eight tenths behind, so the work that has gone on the last week has been spectacular.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.