Lewis Hamilton produced another stunning demonstration of his supreme racing talent on Sunday to resist a charging Max Verstappen and win a thrilling ‘cliff-hanger’ season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The defending seven-time champion defended with great skill over the closing laps in his Mercedes to hold off the Red Bull driver and claim a record-increasing 96th Formula One victory.
Hamilton came home seven-tenths of a second ahead of the Dutchman, who was forced to hand back the race lead in the closing laps after passing him with a move that had taken him off the track.
As expected, the champion and his heir apparent delivered an exhilarating exhibition of racing as they raced to the flag – the pair leaving third-placed Valtteri Bottas, in the second Mercedes, to finish adrift by 37 seconds.
It was Hamilton’s first season-opening triumph since 2015 and surprised many observers after Red Bull had dominated pre-season testing and two days of practice and qualifying ahead of the race.
“Firstly, can I just say it’s the first time I’ve seen fans in a long time!” said a delighted Hamilton.
“What a difficult race that was – stopping early we knew it was going to be tough, but we had to cover Max and it was always going to take something pretty special to do it.”
A disappointed Verstappen said: “Of course, it’s s shame, but you also have to see the positives. We’re putting the fight on to them so it’s great to start the year like that.”
Lando Norris was fourth for McLaren ahead of Sergio Perez, who had started from the pit lane in the second Red Bull, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo, of McLaren.
Carlos Sainz was eighth for Ferrari ahead of Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda of AlphaTauri and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
Starting from his fourth pole position, Verstappen advanced smoothly and held the lead ahead of Hamilton as the lights went out, but the opening lap was soon halted when Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin of Haas speared into the barriers at Turn Three.
– ‘Leave me to it’ –
The crash revived memories of a similar first lap accident at the same corner last season, when his predecessor Frenchman Romain Grosjean escaped from his blazing car after going into the barriers.
Mazepin escaped unhurt, but the race was paused for a Safety Car intervention for two laps.
On the re-start, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly lost his front wing after a clash with McLaren new boy Daniel Ricciardo while rookie Mick Schumacher spun off in his Haas at Turn Four – and a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was deployed briefly.
Hamilton stayed within two seconds of Verstappen until lap 14 when he pitted as Mercedes went for an ‘undercut’ to switch him from mediums to a new set of hards.
Verstappen, complaining about differential problems, came in and took mediums as Hamilton swept into the lead for the first time.
By lap 23, Hamilton’s lead was 3.8 seconds on the Red Bull man, but it was soon reduced to one.
Sensing Verstappen closing in, Hamilton pitted again for more hards on lap 29, rejoining 20 seconds adrift of the Dutchman.
Verstappen pitted again on lap 40. He rejoined second, eight seconds behind the champion to set up a chase for a grandstand finish. An immediate fastest lap trimmed the gap to six seconds.
“Make sure you’ve got enough tyres to challenge him at the end,” warned his engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.
By lap 49, the lead was two seconds. “Leave me to it, Bono,” snapped Hamilton when his engineer advised him Verstappen was on his tail. The tension was palpable.
With five laps to go, the champion ran wide at Turn 10, enabling Verstappen to close up. He squeezed by at Turn Four, on lap 53, but having gone off circuit had to hand the position back.
Hamilton continued to resist, Verstappen began sliding for grip and the champion hung on.