Bahrain 2021: the Grand Prix that set up F1's greatest title battle


It was Sakhir's greatest F1 race to date: the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. James Elson recalls the duel that sparked an intense and unforgettable championship rivalry

Verstappen Hamilton Bahrain 2021

Max Verstappen (left) and Lewis Hamilton (right) lead the field in Bahrain, 2021

Getty Images

When the Bahrain GP made its debut 20 years ago, the Sakhir venue was derided as the archetypal boring modern F1 track, a glitzy demonstration by the world championship of all of its money but none of its soul.

Now one of four UAE races on the calendar, it began as an outlier: its gleaming facilities, surrounded by desert, a world away from the likes of Imola, Spa and Silverstone. Gradually though, Bahrain has justified its place on the F1 tour, not least by dint of being witness to some of grand prix racing’s most historic moments – and a spot of good racing too.

Michael Schumacher made his 2010 F1 comeback with Mercedes at Sakhir, while Fernando Alonso took his first Ferrari win there in the same race. Early events at the desert circuit were dreary at best, but grand prix cars gradually began to suit it, demonstrated by Lewis Hamilton‘s titanic 2014 battle with Silver Arrows team-mate Nico Rosberg, and Sergio Perez claiming his first win the week after Romain Grosjean‘s death-defying fireball crash in his Haas at the same circuit.

However, Bahrain’s most significant race came three years ago, in a classic heavyweight showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Its brilliant, thrilling finale would become the template for the season to come – Mercedes and Red Bull almost equal, Verstappen the merciless challenger to a formidable champion who could still flex his racing muscle when required.

Champion and the challenger

The champion (right) and the challenger (left)

Getty Images

The 2021 Sakhir race was framed as confirmation of the new technical regulations for that year, which had sought to reduce downforce and therefore speed on safety grounds. However the changes, largely centred around limiting aerodynamic grip generated by each car’s floor, affected ‘low-rake’ efforts like Mercedes’ and not the ‘high-rake’ machines run by the likes of Red Bull.

This brought a parity between the two rivals: opposing design philosophies arriving at relatively the same point of speed. Hamilton, who had enjoyed a car advantage often during his Mercedes career, wasn’t happy.

Related article

“The rear doesn’t feel particularly great with this new regulation change and we’re trying to find the sweet spot,” he said in the build-up to the race, while engineering director Andrew Shovlin called it a “poor start”.

Merc’s worst fears were confirmed when Verstappen swept all practice sessions at Bahrain as well as taking pole from Hamilton – Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff admitted his team was now in a “dog fight” with Red Bull.

The Dutchman managed to keep the lead at a race start under the floodlights, while mild chaos unfolded behind – new Haas recruit Nikita Mazepin, under much scrutiny after appearing to sexually harass a woman live on Instagram months before, binned his VF-21 into the barriers at the second corner all by himself.

On the safety car restart Hamilton tried to overtake Verstappen while simultaneously fending off Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, the cars almost three-abreast into Turn 1.

Turn 1 Bahrain

A tense restart: Verstappen leads Hamilton and then Leclerc

Grand Prix Photo

In the same exchanges Haas’s Mick Schumacher then spun off by himself while Pierre Gasly tripped over McLaren‘s Daniel Ricciardo, liberating his AlphaTauri‘s front wing.

Hamilton, who had already used his weekend’s allocation of medium compound tyres, pitted for hard Pirellis on lap 14 – Verstappen, who had a 1.7sec advantage over the Mercedes before it pitted, put on the afterburners over the next few laps in a bid to avoid the undercut.

It was all in vain though – Hamilton zoomed into the lead when the Red Bull pitted on lap 18, as Verstappen then hoped his fresher tyres would pay dividends later in the race.

As the leaders fought an intense battle at the front, Fernando Alonso squabbled in his Alpine with Aston Martin‘s Sebastian Vettel and Leclerc as an entertaining race unfolded.

Verstappen had emerged seven seconds behind Hamilton after the first stops, but had got it down to 2sec when the Brit decided to trade in his Pirellis on lap 28. Next, the Red Bull came in on lap 40, leaving him 9sec behind.

All the while, there was a track limits debate raging.

Hamilton 2021

Hamilton leads, pursued by Verstappen

Getty Images

Race director Michael Masi, in one of several key cameos throughout the season, had said before the GP anyone gaining a “lasting advantage” from going off at Turn 4 would be punished –  this was clarified as being in relation to overtakes, but that no one would be penalised for improving their lap times by going off the circuit at that point. However the rule had been different in practice and qualifying. No one was allowed off at all in these sessions.

By mid-race Hamilton had regularly put all four wheels over the white line at Turn 4 (29 times to be exact, worth roughly 0.1sec per lap), so on lap 32 Red Bull told its driver he could do the same.

Related article

Then the FIA appeared to change its mind – instructing Mercedes to warn Hamilton about going off track in a bid for a faster lap time. The team told its driver to be wary in case of a penalty, and he replied: “I thought there was no track limits”.

Meanwhile Verstappen was fast closing, the race reaching its crescendo when with three laps to go, he prepared to dive down the outside of Hamilton at Turn 4. The Brit had covered him off at Turn 1, but this set Verstappen up for a run down to the fourth corner – aided by the slow Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi on the inside.

Verstappen got past, but oversteered wildly ‘off-track’ in the process of doing so do so. Hamilton hadn’t forgotten his radio conversation and was straight on the blower to complain.

Red Bull was told to cede the position by the FIA, and Verstappen grudgingly let the Mercedes back past at Turn 10, in the hope of getting another run down the start/finish straight.

It never happened. Verstappen’s rear tyres were beginning to complain on the highly abrasive Bahrain surface – one of F1’s least forgiving – and he never again got close enough to get past as Hamilton drew first blood.


Hamilton clinches key first victory of 2021 over second-placed Verstappen

Getty Images

Afterwards Red Bull team boss Christian Horner and its star driver raged.

“It’s frustrating,” said the principal. “With these track limit things, they’re always going to be contentious. But we do need to just have a consistent situation. You can’t say it’s okay to use it in the race, but you can’t overtake out there; it should be black or white, it shouldn’t be shaded grey.”

"I was struggling the rear end of my car; my rear tyres. It was horrifying

However, not for the first time that year, Masi pushed back, saying “nothing changed at all during the race [on track limits]”.

“It was horrifying,” exclaimed Hamilton of the fight to hang on. “I was struggling obviously at the end with the rear end of my car; my rear tyres… had gone off and they were maybe eight laps older, maybe more, to Max’s tyres. I knew he was going to catch me with 10 laps to go and I was thinking it was going to be pretty much impossible to hold him behind, which in fact it was, up until the Turn 4 incident.

“I couldn’t believe I was just able to just keep him behind. I managed to keep him in my wake… and then it was difficult for him in certain places to get close. And he ended up wide in some places, which just gave me an edge.”

It was controversial, but also exhilarating – the two greatest drivers in the world fighting it out hammer and tongs.

The year would be set for a tranche of epic battles and huge controversy. Hamilton had said before the race that 2021 could be “the most exciting season yet”. He wasn’t wrong.