Verstappen, starting P2, attempted to undercut Ferrari’s pole-sitter Leclerc on Lap 15, cutting down what was a 3.5s deficit to just 0.35s when Leclerc emerged in the lead on Lap 16. That triggered a three-lap box-office bout for the lead, Leclerc hanging on when Verstappen locked up into Turn 1 on Lap 19.
READ MORE: Leclerc hails ‘perfect start’ for Ferrari after ‘tricky’ fight with Verstappen in Bahrain
The second round of pit stops, again catalysed by Verstappen, took place on Lap 31 but this time Leclerc had a far more comfortable lead. Everything was straightforward until Verstappen pitted on Lap 44.
Two laps later, Pierre Gasly brought out the Safety Car when his AlphaTauri stopped in flames, and Leclerc took the opportunity to pit too. The Lap 51 restart saw Leclerc scamper off into the distance while Verstappen – nursing a steering issue and upset by what he suspected was a power unit glitch – just couldn’t keep up.
Sainz capitalised on Verstappen’s woes and took P2 off the champion on Lap 54, Perez and Hamilton following suit. Having challenged for the lead earlier on, it ended up being a terrible day for the world champion, who ended up retiring at the end of that tour.
Hamilton was right on Perez’s tail – and then the Mexican began to complain of a power unit issue, and it turned from bad to worse for the reigning drivers’ championship-winning team when Perez spun at Turn 1 when his engine gave way on the final lap, giving Hamilton the final podium place.
Russell, who started ninth, enjoyed superior race pace to the midfielders and took P4 after the Red Bulls retired, ahead of Kevin Magnussen – fifth for Haas on his return to F1.
Valtteri Bottas rescued P6 after a poor start for Alfa Romeo, while Esteban Ocon shrugged off a penalty early on for contact with Mick Schumacher to take a surprise seventh.
In P8 was AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, solid on his final stint and in the final restart, while Fernando Alonso shrugged off poor pace in his second stint to take ninth.
And on debut, Zhou Guanyu took points for Alfa Romeo – Mick Schumacher missing out in P11.
As it happened
New tyres, new drivers, new regulations, and new cars – hundreds of people have put in thousands of hours of work over the last few years to deliver the new era of F1. And the new era delivered in its very first outing as the lights went out for the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Ferrari took pole position through Charles Leclerc’s Saturday flyer, the Monegasque driver sharing the front row with Max Verstappen – while the other Scuderia of Carlos Sainz would share row two with the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
For Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton could only muster up P5 on the grid alongside former team mate Valtteri Bottas, now plying his trade for Alfa Romeo.
At the start, Leclerc covered off Verstappen’s attempted move down the inside of Turn 1, while Sainz retained P3, Hamilton moving up to fourth and Kevin Magnussen up two places to P5 for Haas. Meanwhile, Perez had lost two places to P6 – and Bottas, who started sixth, was 14th by the end of Lap 1 with a glacial getaway.
Magnussen’s Haas team mate Mick Schumacher fell one place to 13th after a solid start, having been tipped into a spin by Alpine’s Esteban Ocon early on – the Frenchman given a five-second penalty in the pits for that infringement.
On Lap 3, Magnussen and Perez went wheel-to-wheel through the first sector but the Haas driver suffered oversteer down the hill and fell to sixth, the Mexican making his way through at Turn 4. Soon afterwards, the Danish driver lost another place to Mercedes’ George Russell, who started ninth, on the run up to Turn 1.
Hamilton was chasing down Sainz early on but, on Lap 9, Perez pried P4 back off the Briton on the run up to Turn 4 – the seven-time champion then becoming the first to stop (from hard to soft tyres) and emerging 12th behind the Alfa Romeos on cold compounds – but he soon snatched P11 off Zhou Guanyu with the help of DRS.
After Hamilton opened the pit window, Leclerc was 3.5s ahead of Verstappen in the battle for the lead and the reigning champion entered the pits on Lap 15 – swapping to another set of softs – with Sainz pulled in to cover off the Red Bull. Leclerc chose to stop for softs a lap later with Perez jumping in from second (for mediums) and Russell (for hards) from third.
The pole-sitter emerged just three-tenths ahead of Verstappen, who almost made the undercut work. A shower of sparks coming off his RB18, he sliced past Leclerc with DRS at the start of Lap 17 but the Ferrari driver fought back on the run to Turn 4 and retained the lead.
Verstappen made the same move at the start of Lap 18, Leclerc hitting back down the inside of Turn 4 to edge round two of this box-office battle.
The champion came back on Lap 19, DRS helping him sweep past Leclerc with ease, but Verstappen had a huge lock-up down the inside of Turn 1 and Leclerc inherited the lead once again, stretching his legs again until Verstappen stopped again for medium compounds on Lap 31.
Leclerc reacted to that stop on Lap 32 with a swift switch to mediums and emerged with a slightly more comfortable lead this time around – team mate Sainz and Red Bull’s Perez in the lead. Verstappen was furious at his team for an instruction to “take it easy” on his out lap, though he was hampered just as much having had a slower pit stop than Leclerc’s.
Lap 34 saw leader Sainz come in for mediums, followed closely by Perez, to leave Leclerc and Verstappen up front again.
Perez was the fastest driver on track after his Lap 15 stop for mediums, keeping tabs on a soft-tyred Sainz – who pitched a three-stop strategy with the Mexican in his mirrors – before they both chose to pit again on Lap 34. It seemed to be a straightforward victory for the Monegasque driver.
That was, until Verstappen pitted a third time – nothing to lose now – on Lap 44. That triggered Sainz and Hamilton to box and left Leclerc with a choice to make. That choice was made much easier when Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri came to a halt in flames on Lap 46 to bring out the first and only Safety Car of the race.
The top five remained as they started the race, and for the restart every driver was on soft tyres – though not every driver had taken the opportunity to pit late on, jumbling up the rest of the order.
We were set up for a scintillating sprint to the chequered flag when the Safety Car entered the pits to start Lap 51 of 57. Verstappen warmed up his tyres but warned of a possible steering issue, the pit wall seemingly worried too.
Verstappen had a slow getaway out of the final corner as Leclerc nailed the restart, well into the lead, while Sainz almost pried P2 off the Red Bull. The Dutchman’s tone changed from irked to furious, a power unit issue now plaguing his RB18. Sainz and Hamilton swept past and then it was clear: the champion was crawling back into the pits on Lap 54.
Perez was favourite for P3 but Hamilton was right on his tail, and the Mexican began to worry about power unit issues too. Going into Turn 1 on the final lap, the second Red Bull spun and ended up retiring, giving Hamilton the final podium place.
Ferrari had waited nearly 50 races for a win. Now, in Bahrain, where Leclerc missed out on a 2019 victory in agonising circumstances, they had a one-two.
Mercedes, unsure about the gap to the frontrunners, managed to salvage a podium and P4 through Russell, having seemingly only had the pace for P5 and P6 throughout.
And in P5 was Magnussen, the Dane dubbing it a “win” for the squad that finished the last season without points – though 11th-placed team mate Mick Schumacher missed out, unable to make it count in the final restart.
At Haas’s expense, Alfa Romeo managed a double-points finish, Bottas having salvaged what was a shocking start to snatch sixth on debut for the team, while Zhou Guanyu – running as low as 14th at times – took points on debut in P10 after the late Safety Car.
Ocon, though penalised for that Schumacher contact early on, rescued P7 while Alpine team mate Fernando Alonso managed ninth, even though his race pace was lacking on his second and third stints.
Between the Alpines was AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, eighth after a rapid Safety Car restart.
Three Mercedes-powered teams lost out on points on Sunday: Aston Martin, McLaren, and Williams.
Lance Stroll finished 12th and his stand-in team mate Nico Hulkenberg 17th and last for Aston Martin. The German ran as high as P14 but suffered overheating issues early in the race, which prevented him from pitting earlier to begin his second stint.
Alex Albon took 13th on his debut for Williams, narrowly holding off the McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo in P14, while Lando Norris wasn’t far off in P15. McLaren began the race on mediums, unlike their rivals, but didn’t have the race pace to make their contrarian strategy pay off.
And in P16, two seconds ahead of Aston Martin’s Hulkenberg, was Williams’ Nicholas Latifi.
The season has begun with a bang for Ferrari and a sour note for Red Bull – while Mercedes salvaged a solid result despite lagging behind the frontrunners.