F1: Max Verstappen cruises to Bahrain Grand Prix victory for Red Bull one-two
Max Verstappen ripped up the record books with 15 grand prix victories last season. On the evidence of 57 laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix, his own record could be in danger in 2023.
Following practice, there had been talk of a Fernando Alonso fairytale win at the age of 41 while qualifying suggested Ferrari had been disguising their pace up until then.
But if they and the rest of the field were hoping to close the gap on Red Bull, that fell horribly flat, Verstappen more than half a second quicker than all the other teams on the grid for a team one-two.
A year ago, he and Charles Leclerc had an almighty battle for the lead before the Dutchman’s car failed him and forced his retirement.
This time it was the Ferrari man unable to take the chequered flag, a loss of power seeing him pull off the track on lap 41. At the time, Leclerc had been in a comfortable third place.
But from the moment the lights went out, there was only one winner as Verstappen pulled clear of the rest of the field and merely extended that gap lap after lap. No one else was ever in contention.
Leclerc briefly broke up the Red Bull hegemony after a good start sandwiched him between Verstappen and Sergio Perez. But come lap 26, the Mexican passed him with consummate ease at turn one having begun the straight some sixth tenths back.
It merely highlighted the advantage that Red Bull boasts, and their cars appeared to be the kindest on the Pirelli tyres of any on the grid.
Off the track, all is rosy with another series of Drive to Survive thriving and an F1 film being made starring Brad Pitt. On it, Formula 1 bosses must be worried that its regulation overhaul for last season has merely switched one dominant force for another at the front of the grid.
In their defence, there was no shortage of overtaking for the minor places but that seemed unimportant in light of what was going up ahead of them at Sakhir Circuit.
In fact, the only issue Verstappen had was complaining of rear locking as he downshifted but then he promptly clocked the fastest lap. What might be possible for a fully functioning car?
Afterwards, he said: “It was a very good first stint where I made my gap. After that, it was all about looking for the tyres. I was very happy to finally win here in Bahrain.”
There was at least a sideshow from Alonso on his racing debut for Aston Martin, recovering from a poor start to claw his way to only a second podium finish since 2014.
His first battle of note came with Lewis Hamilton and he made it past at turn 10 – something of a rarity in Bahrain – to take fourth on lap 39.
Seven laps later, he enjoyed a similarly tight tussle with Carlos Sainz, the pair coming mightily close to touching before the Spaniard found a way past. It remains to be seen if Alonso and Aston Martin replace Ferrari as best of the rest behind the Red Bulls but the two-time world champion believes they have just that.
He said: “Finishing on the podium for the first race of the year is just amazing. To have the second best car in race one is just unreal.”
Hamilton briefly threatened to get past Sainz for fourth late in the car, not bad for a car much maligned by Hamilton and Toto Wolff, and one which the team now plans to entirely change. Those changes will need to be particularly drastic to have an impact on the Red Bulls.
In the end, the seven-time world champion had to make do with fifth. Lance Stroll recovered from surgery on his broken wrists 12 days ago to take sixth, although caught the right-rear tyre of his teammate when trying to get past early in the race. He came away from it unscathed.