What a race that was! The first round of the 2021 F1 season was a fitting season opener. A race that went down to the last lap, some controversy mixed in there, brilliant driving, different strategies. I loved it. If that is what the rest of this season is going to be like, bring it on!
Throughout the weekend, it was clear that Red Bull had the faster car. Verstappen topped all three practice sessions and qualifying as well. But qualifying is different than a race. Qualifying just shows how out and out fast the car over one lap. But this Grand Prix was 56 laps long. And Hamilton and Mercedes used all 56 of those laps to maximum effect. They managed the strategy to stay within two seconds of Verstappen in Hamilton’s first stint and took track position as Verstappen pitted. From then on, Red Bull were chasing the game, and they did catch up. But for a little off-track excursion, Verstappen would have overtaken Hamilton, that is not in question. He had the pace and he had the grip in his tyres to pull the move off. However, as always, Hamilton’s race-craft was impeccable as he kept his pace up just enough to see his tyres through to the end. Hamilton won this race on merit. He and Mercedes ran a better strategy than Red Bull, and he used his considerable talents, which his naysayers always seem to ignore, to manage the race situation and come across the line first.
The controversy came when Verstappen made his move around the outside of Hamilton at Turn 4. No doubt there was some wiggle room in both the Sporting Regulations and what the drivers were told at their briefing. At the driver’s briefing, they were told that track limits at Turn 4 would not be monitored during the race, but that teams and drivers should keep in mind Article 27.3 of the Sporting Regulations which state that drivers must make every reasonable attempt to use the track and may only leave the track for a justifiable reason. Hamilton was allowed to extend the limits of Turn 4 because he had a justifiable reason, although he was told to stop after 30 laps to his audible confusion. Red Bull had already flagged this to the FIA, but when Verstappen ran over the white lines to overtake Hamilton, he ran afoul of the regulations. He did not have justifiable reason for extending the track. Hamilton was setting a lap time; Verstappen was trying to overtake while driving off the track. Valterri Bottas was once again unfortunately relegated to a sideshow, as a slow pit stop left him far behind Vertstappen and completely unable to catch the Dutchman.
Other than the front runners, McLaren had a decent double points finish, while Sergio Perez yet again put in a superb performance after being forced to start from the pit lane after his Honda engine ran into trouble on the formation lap, eventually finishing 5th. But Red Bull will be concerned as both cars had their problems; Verstappen was having problems with his differential during the race. That will be a big concern for Red Bull; their car may be quick over one lap but might turn out to be too unreliable and not far enough ahead of the Mercedes on race pace to take the titles. Ferrari looked like they have regained some power in the engine, as Leclerc came home in sixth and was running as high as third in the race. Carlos Sainz Jnr also came home in the points but will still be getting used to a car built around his teammate. Yuki Tsunoda put a very respectable first appearance, proving he is not here to simply make up the numbers; he’s here to race. There was some good racing in the midfield throughout the race as well. Haas look to be in for another difficult year as both drivers spun and one failed to finish, that being Nikita Mazepin. It was not a triumphant return to F1 for Fernando Alonso either, as a stray sandwich bag caught in the brake ducts caused them to fail.
This race had everything that racing fans want to see. Close racing that went down to the wire, two separate teams fighting for the win, two drivers from those separate teams fighting for the win and a dash of controversy. In the end, Mercedes won this race through clever strategy and an exceptional driver showing why he has been at the top of the game for so long. If the rest of the season is like this race, we could be in for a cracking season of F1.