In the night sky of Sakhir on Sunday evening, two drivers shone brightly above the rest. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen fought out a titanic battle with intrigue through both on-track action and strategy - whetting the appetite of F1 fans around the globe.
Here’s a few things that the race in Bahrain taught us to expect for the rest of the mammoth 23 race season.
Red Bull Finally have their Number 2 Driver
Lets not get too far ahead of ourselves here - Perez’s weekend was far from perfect. Qualifying P11 in the fastest car of the weekend was not the way to inspire confidence in his abilities - especially when your team mate sticks the car on pole by over 3 tenths.
Checo had his first attempt in Q2 deleted for exceeding track limits, which certainly can’t have helped the pressure on his final run. But Red Bull should have played the percentage game and stuck a pair of softs of Perez, allowing him to reach Q3 and likely qualify 4th at worst. Attempting to qualify on the mediums was simply a risk not worth taking.
Ultimately, Perez’s qualifying efforts proved irrelevant as his car shut down on the formation lap before miraculously rebooting, forcing him to start from the pit lane. But his mature drive through the field to 5th was impressive - earning him Driver of the Day - and his race pace matched Verstappen at points during the race.
All the signs point to Red Bull finally lifting the curse of their number 2 driver after three years of struggle. Perez will only improve as the season goes on, and if he can find the one-lap pace to qualify in the top 4 consistently, then he will be the strategic lynchpin that the team will need more than ever if they are to challenge Mercedes for drivers and constructors championships alike.
Game of Catch-up for the New Drivers
Six of the ten teams changed one of their drivers for 2021, whilst retaining another. Of the six team debutants, only Yuki Tsunoda finished ahead of their team-mate, and if Pierre Gasly had avoided the back of Daniel Ricciardo then he would surely have finished much higher than his Tsunoda anyway.
This is certainly no surprise - drivers have only had 1.5 days of testing before the first race, and with most of the 2020 car carried over into 2021, those drivers that have remained with their teams have even more of an advantage over the team-mates than usual.
Ricciardo may have shown up stronger in comparison to McLaren team-mate Lando Norris had he not suffered floor damage from the collision with Gasly, whilst Fernando Alonso was unfortunate to retire with brake problems on his return with Alpine - and may already have the edge over Esteban Ocon. But there’s no doubting that the drivers will have a steep learning curve over the next few races if they want to extract their maximum potential from the car.
Debate over Track Limits Must be Sorted Immediately
Did the track limits controversy affect the result? Possibly - and Formula 1 can’t afford for this to happen again.
Hamilton exceeded the white line at turn 4 almost 30 times during the 56 lap race, and whilst this was deemed legal by the FIA, Verstappen’s overtake on Hamilton with 4 laps to go, whilst gong wide at the same spot, was not. In the rulebook, this comes down to a ‘lasting advantage’ - with the stewards rightly deciding that Verstappen would benefit from his off-track overtake.
But if the turn 4 track limit extension benefits a driver at around a tenth a lap, that means that Hamilton gained around 3 seconds over the course of the race. And in a fight of such tight margins - the gap between the two was under 0.8 seconds - this could prove pivotal.
Track limits should quite simply be THE grey area on the track and within the white lines - preventing any space for exploitation or confusion in the future. It would be travesty if an issue with such an easy fix were to have a major impact on another race - or even the world championship.
Both World Titles are Well and Truly on the Line
Yes, we’re only one race down. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is any sort of fluke performance from Red Bull - they’re here for the long term.
It may be that Honda, despite leaving F1 at the end of the year, have the strongest engine on the grid. Red Bull have failed to mount a challenge at Bahrain during the turbo-hybrid era that began in 2014, but their raw pace of both the team and fellow Honda engined Alpha Tauri suggests that the Japanese manufacturer have jumped beyond the Mercedes power unit’s peak performance.
Having addressed their traditional achilles heel in the power unit, there’s no reason to believe that Red Bull will end up struggling behind Mercedes at many races at all this year. And if Perez delivers on the promise of his race showing in Bahrain, Mercedes will be forced to gamble on strategy on a regular basis for the first time in years.
F1 is Reaching a More Mainstream Audience
Sky Sports reported that the Bahrain GP was the most watched race since it started covering F1 in 2011. For a first race of the season at a track that, whilst exciting, certainly doesn’t boast the draw of the classic circuits such as Silverstone, Monza and Spa.
Netlix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ is not everyone’s cup of tea but has undoubtedly played a huge part in helping the sport tap into a much wider and younger fanbase. Liberty Media also deserve credit for overseeing a rebrand of the sport since taking over F1 in 2016.
With the prospect of fans returning en masse to circuits in the future and a tantalising season ahead of us, there’s reason to believe that F1 will continue to expand and capture the imagining of millions of fans for years to come.