Mercedes start season on top again but Max Verstappen is a clear Championship challenger

If the Bahrain GP proved anything, it was that Lewis Hamilton will have to work as hard for this title as he has for a long time, as the Red Bull threat looms large.

Mercedes, and their winning formula of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, have monopolised the race calendar in recent years. Last year the dominant duo filled two spots on the podium in all but seven races, storming to a Constructers’ Championship victory by 254 points.

The last time someone other than Mercedes won the Drivers’ or Constructors’ Championship was Red Bull with Sebastian Vettel back in 2013. It has been Mercedes dominance ever since.

2021 should have been the year of change for Formula One. New regulations – with teams to be capped with budgets of $175 million and a whole raft of technical restrictions – should have increased competitiveness and shaken up the racing order. Along with many other parts of life, however, coronavirus had other things to say.

It means those long-awaited changes will be made to wait one more year; a tune likely to be golden music to the ears of Mercedes race director Toto Wolff.

But whilst the loved and loathed Hamilton crossed the line first at Bahrain last weekend, the close challenge of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen suggests it may not be quite as straight forward a surge for the German car manufacturers.

The lead changed three times between Hamilton and Verstappen as the Dutchman looked likely to deny Mercedes a season-opening victory. But, dramatically, the Red Bull driver was forced to hand back the lead position after breaching track limits to overtake the reigning champion.

It means Hamilton, who is fast approaching 100 race victories, successfully battled against his rival despite having older tyres to claim a Round One race victory for the first time since 2015.

“It was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while,” Hamilton told Sky Sports afterwards. “They have had an amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something really special.”

Qualifying ahead of Hamilton in Bahrain is just another signal threat from Christian Horner’s team that Red Bull are real contenders in the Championship push this season. It is not the first time that Verstappen and Hamilton have shared the front row; it is, however, the first time Hamilton has had to watch his opponent start from in front.

The 23-year-old Dutchman is still a relatively young racer in comparison to his competitors – only five are younger, including the three rookies of Nikita Mazepin, Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher. It is a great credit, therefore, that Verstappen – in his seventh season in Formula One – is being included as a likely challenger for the Championship.

Speaking after claiming pole position last weekend, Verstappen admitted it had been a “long time” since Red Bull has been so competitive on the first race weekend. If anything is to be taken from the outing in Bahrain, it is that Mercedes will not have quite as easy a season as they may have predicted. Red Bull are back on the scene and are realistic rivals once again.

By Matt Lee

Lead Image: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

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