FORMULA 1 is up and running again, but the result was robbery, says PETER COSTER:
STEWARDS driving computer screens won the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, forcing hard charging Max Verstappen to surrender the lead to seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton with three laps to go.
The Red Bull driver passed Hamilton’s Mercedes on turn four of the Bahrain track but did so with all four wheels off the track.
It turned what had been a so-called “epic” battle between the best drivers in F1 into a farce. Hamilton had crossed the same line 29 times in the race but had not been penalised. Not only that but he pushed Verstappen wide as he passed the Mercedes.
The stewards demanded the Dutch driver give back the lead to Hamilton after first monitoring the off-track line on turn four during qualifying but not during the race.
They then decided to revert to off-track monitoring, causing widespread confusion as to why Verstappen was penalised while Hamilton was not.
Verstappen was understandably stunned and wanted to drive on after he had passed Hamilton, confident he could draw away by at least five seconds, which he thought would have been the likely penalty.
In the event, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner seemed to be in no doubt that the penalty for doing so would have been much more.
Verstappen is a racer and his words bore that out when he said over team radio:
“Why couldn’t you just let me go? I could have easily pulled the five seconds. I prefer we lose a win like that than be second like this.”
Put bluntly, the stewards robbed Verstappen of the race. Telling drivers they will be penalised if they allow all four wheels to cross over the track limit line is one thing, but failing to be clear and consistent about it is another.
If the contest between Red Bull and Mercedes and the richest sport in the world’s two premier drivers continues over the 2021 series, the result of the Bahrain race might be the difference.
Verstappen could have been forgiven for reacting furiously but he held his tongue, not that it was in danger of suddenly flapping when guest interviewer Jensen Button didn’t bother asking about the farcical and frustrating end to the race.
No one can be happy about what happened in Bahrain, a tiny island in the Persian Gulf, unless you are Hamilton, the newly knighted Sir Lewis Hamilton, as emblazoned across his garage, or team boss Toto Wolff, who was a wolf grinning more like the Cheshire cat.
Honda, which has announced this is its last season before departing F1, has produced an engine to rival the all-conquering Mercedes power unit, which has driven the German team to seven successive constructor and driver world championships.
Verstappen was on pole in Bahrain and only Hamilton’s overarching skill on worn tyres and the assistance of the stewards prevented him winning.
Honda’s departure at the end of the year only emphasises what will be the Silver Arrows (painted black in recognition that Black Lives Matter) further domination of F1.
A resurgent McLaren, with Daniel Ricciardo joining Lando Norris, is running Mercedes engines and only Ricciardo’s former team of Renault, now known as Alpine (pronounced Al-peen) is a threat with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel.
The former double world champion has to erase himself back into F1 after turning to world endurance racing and the Indianapolis 500 after leaving McLaren when Honda and then Renault could not provide a competitive engine.
Ricciardo, who finished seventh at Bahrain behind fourth placed Norris, is also getting used to the car.
You can’t drive at the screaming edge until everything you do in the car is done without having to think it through; not for the Australian known as the last of the late brakers. It must happen by pure instinct.
The Honey Badger will likely line up at his most ferocious in Melbourne when F1 returns to Australia for round 21 of the 22 races remaining this season.Embed from Getty Images
Red Bull’s newly-signed second driver Sergio Perez lived to drive another day when he finished fifth after being forced to start from the pit lane when he lost power on the formation lap.
Ferrari regained some of its reputation, which was largely shredded last year, with Charles Leclerc finishing sixth behind Perez and Carlos Sainz eighth behind Ricciardo.
American team Haas is worth mentioning only because they sacked both their drivers at the end of the 2020 season.
Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were given their marching orders, a cruel call in the case of Grosjean who escaped from what looked like certain death from a fireball when his car hit the barriers at Bahrain last year.
They were replaced by Michael Schumacher’s son and current F2 champion, Mick, and Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.
The Russian was named Maze-SPIN at Bahrain after going off twice, the second time in qualifying and in front of Sebastian Vettel who had his hot lap ruined.
In the race, Mazepin found himself in the barriers on turn three in the first lap after hitting the throttle too hard on cold tyres. Former F1 driver and F1 commentator Jolyon Palmer said he was keeping a closer count and it was five spins for the weekend.
The Russian was already dealing with the fallout from an incident in another car. Mazepin had to apologise after a video posted on Instagram appeared to show him inappropriately touching a woman he was in a car with.
Schumacher was lapped and finished last in an inauspicious debut with inevitable and obviously unfair comparisons with his seven-times world champion father.