Closer racing – that was the hope. On paper at least, the new design regulations were introduced in the hope the cars could race in closer proximity to each other without losing the effects of downforce in turbulent air.
The indications, though limited, were reasonably positive during practice and qualifying in Bahrain, so the start of the first Grand Prix of the season was as eagerly awaited as ever.
Leclerc’s Ferrari on pole, Verstappen’s Red Bull second, Sainz third for Ferrari, and the supporting Red Bull of Sergio Perez fourth.
Lewis Hamilton, qualified fifth on the grid in a Mercedes that wasn’t performing as well as the team had hoped, George Russell’s Silver arrow was further back in 9th, three places behind the driver he replaced, Valtteri Bottas who did a superb job placing his Alfa Romeo on the third row of the grid, alongside Hamilton.
There were many reasons to enjoy Kevin Magnussen’s return to Formula One. He instantly justified his position by qualifying his Haas on the fourth row of the grid in the seventh spot. So, all set at the front for a few intense battles over the 57 laps of the Sakhir Circuit.
Visors down, foot to the floor, lights out and the 2022 Formula One world championship roared into life.
A clean start, Leclerc heading straight for the inside line to defend his position into turn one. Hamilton showed all his race craft by snatching fourth place from Perez, who also got gobbled up by a fast-starting Kevin Magnussen in the Ferrari-powered Haas. So plenty of good clean racing fun on the first lap.
As early as lap 4 Verstappen reported a mid-corner issue with his power unit…but it didn’t appear to be affecting his pace too much as he settled into second behind Leclerc’s Ferrari.
On lap 10 Perez was back within striking distance of Hamilton Mercedes which was struggling for grip. Perez swept by without too much difficulty, two laps later Hamilton was in for tyres, Mercedes opting for the harder compound, which initially at least provided limited traction. For the moment Hamilton was outside the top 10.
The most intense period of racing at the front began at the start of lap 17, Leclerc’s leading Ferrari hurtling down the straight, now closely pursued by Verstappen’s Red Bull, which was in a position to use its DRS. Verstappen made his move, pulled out of the slipstream and went in front through turn one. LeClerc showed his battling qualities though when he immediately retook the lead around turn 4.
Both moves were replicated on the following lap. Exciting stuff and the question about whether the cars could race in close proximity was answered in the affirmative.
Never one to give up the fight, Verstappen went for it again at the start of lap 19, but while getting past, the World Champion left his braking too late and Leclerc reclaimed the racing line and the lead instantly. Great racing, but with that late-braking move Verstappen flat-spotted his front right tyre, and his pace over the following laps was compromised, but he stayed in contention.
Behind the front two, Carlos Sainz was consistently fast and holding off Perez for third position. Hamilton and Russell were 5th and 6th as they approached halfway, satisfactory considering both Mercedes at that stage were running on the harder compound Pirelli’s.
The complexion of the race changed on lap 46 though when Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri ground to a halt, flames spewing from the rear of his car. The first safety car of the season was deployed and the field concertinaed together. For the record, the lapped traffic was allowed to overtake the safety car to get back on the same lap and clear the track for the leaders to race unhindered come the restart.
The safety car finally departed at the end of lap 50 and a seven-lap dash to the finish began with Leclerc getting the jump on Verstappen and Sainz challenging the Dutch driver for second. Perez was fourth, Hamilton and Russell were running fifth and sixth.
Verstappen had been complaining of heavy steering after his final pit stop. There was nothing the team could do but hope the problem wouldn’t become terminal. But with just three laps to go, the Red Bull visibly slowed and Verstappen limped into the pits his goose well and truly cooked.
Ferrari now ran first and second, Perez was third in the remaining Red Bull. But as they embarked on the 57th and final lap he reported a loss of power and as they entered turn one for the last time the second red bull locked it’s rear wheels and ground to a halt.
And who was there to benefit most from Red Bull’s misfortune? Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. That was the one, two, three in the first race of the season.
Initial reports suggest fuel pump problems led to both Red Bull retirements. If that is the case, it should be a relatively easy fix and Verstappen and Perez will be towards the front throughout the season.
Whatever their problems, Mercedes too still have a very fast race car, even though it’s not quite at Ferrari or Red Bull levels yet. In Bahrain though, it was still best of the rest.
Once those handling issues are ironed out and a few more horses are extracted from the M10 EQ Power+ engine, we’ll have at least a six-way battle for race honours. The first race also suggests there may be a few interlopers along the way, like Magnussen, Bottas, Gasly and Ocon.