Sakhir: World champion Max Verstappen claimed his maiden season-opening victory and first at the Sakhir circuit on Sunday when he led Sergio Perez home in a dominant Red Bull one-two at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The defending double world champion led from start to finish, bar the pit stops, to establish himself as a strong favourite for a third consecutive drivers’ crown this year.
It was his first win in the Gulf state at the 10th attempt.
Behind the two Red Bulls, two-time champion Fernando Alonso continued to make light of his 41 years by storming his way to a rousing third place for Aston Martin in his first appearance with the team since succeeding the retired four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.
It was his record-increasing 356th race in Formula One in a career that started 22 years earlier, to the weekend, in Melbourne at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix.
Fellow Spaniard Carlos Sainz, who he passed in a late scrap for a podium finish, finished fourth in the second Ferrari ahead of seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and Lance Stroll, racing in the second Aston Martin just weeks after cracking both wrists and breaking a toe in a pre-season cycling accident.
George Russell took seventh for Mercedes ahead of Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo, Pierre Gasly of Alpine, who had started last, and Alex Albon who claimed a point for Williams finishing 10th.
Charles Leclerc, who won the race in 2022, failed to finish after engine failure on his Ferrari on the 41st lap.
‘What we needed’
“Thank you, guys,” said 25-year-old Verstappen. “It’s exactly the start we needed. I had a good start and first stint and then had a gap and just looked after the tyres.”
Verstappen made a clean, quick start to pull clear as Leclerc passed Perez for second while, behind them, Stroll hit his Aston Martin team-mate Alonso, under braking at Turn Four.
Both Mercedes had good starts and passed Alonso, Hamilton climbing to fifth ahead of Russell in pursuit of Sainz as Verstappen opened up a commanding lead.
By lap five, he was four seconds clear as Leclerc kept Perez at bay.
Gasly began the pit stops on lap 10, switching his Alpine from softs to hards, followed quickly by Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda with tyre degradation taking early effect.
Hamilton pitted from fifth on lap 13, prompting a classic scrap as Alonso battled past Russell to regain his original grid slot and climb to third when both Ferraris pitted. Russell followed.
Verstappen came in a lap later, switching to more softs and handing the lead to Perez, while luckless Australian rookie Oscar Piastri’s McLaren debut ended early with electrical problems.
The champion re-joined in second place and regained his lead on lap 18 when Perez pitted, elevating Leclerc to second until the Mexican passed him into Turn One on lap 26.
Hamilton pitted again on lap 31, for more hards, followed by Sainz and Russell, as the leaders prepared for their final stint while, at the back, a beleaguered Esteban Ocon of Alpine, hit with three time penalties for minor infringements, stopped again.
Perez and Verstappen then completed their second stops, the Dutchman re-joining with a 12-second lead.
Leclerc’s Ferrari lost power on the straight. He parked it safely, prompting a brief virtual safety car intervention, with 15 laps remaining, handing Red Bull the prospect of a cosy one-two, 23 seconds clear of third-placed Sainz in the second Ferrari.
“No, no, no,” wailed Leclerc. “Come on! What happened, guys? No power.”
All this left the two Spaniards scrapping for third, the old master squeezing through on lap 45 after the pair appeared to touch in a frantic and dramatic tussle ahead of the watching fifth man Hamilton.
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