RACE DEBRIEF

    Battle has recommenced for 2021, the new Formula 1 season kicking off with a belter of a contest at the Bahrain Grand Prix. But which drivers impressed our judges most under the Bahraini floodlights? The season opener scores are in…

    HOW IT WORKS

    • Our six-judge panel assesses each driver after every Grand Prix and scores them out of 10 according to their performance across the weekend – taking machinery out of the equation

    • Our experts’ scores are then averaged out across the season to create an overall Power Rankings Leaderboard (at the bottom of the page)

    THE SCORES FOR BAHRAIN

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    Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes found themselves in the unusual position of being the hunters coming into this weekend. But hunt they did, Hamilton executing the Silver Arrows’ aggressive strategy to perfection and defending like… well, like a seven-time champion, to take an unlikely 96th win – the first time he’s won a season opener since 2015. A perfect score from the judges ensued…

    READ MORE: Hamilton vs Verstappen – The data that shows what was really happening in the cockpit during their Bahrain battle

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    It was hard to pick faults in Max Verstappen’s commanding performance across the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, the Dutchman leading every practice session, outqualifying Hamilton by 0.388s and controlling the pace in the early part of the race.

    Strategy ultimately played a part in his undoing, while there were also question marks about whether a soupcon more patience would have afforded Verstappen an easier chance to pass Hamilton than his exhilarating, but ultimately fruitless, Lap 53 dive around the outside at Turn 4. Verstappen duly admitted he was disappointed after the race – but he’ll know that, if he plays his cards right this season, this is his best chance yet of being a true title contender.

    READ MORE: 'It is what it is' – Verstappen philosophical about surrendering lead to Hamilton following off-track pass

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    Lando Norris loves the Bahrain International Circuit’s Grand Prix layout, having never finished lower than sixth here – and the Briton was on cracking form across the weekend. He claimed a shock P2 in Free Practice 2 – while although he was pipped to P6 on the grid by 0.047s by new team mate Daniel Ricciardo, Norris was by far the stronger of the two McLarens in the race, as he eventually came home P4. On the evidence of that performance, McLaren look the team to beat in the midfield this year.

    READ MORE: Norris had ‘flashbacks’ to maiden podium as he charged to P4 in Bahrain

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    The relief in Charles Leclerc’s face was visible at the end of a Bahrain Grand Prix in which he’d qualified an excellent fourth and finished a respectable sixth – Leclerc having endured a rough 2020 at the hands of an uncooperative, uncompetitive Ferrari SF1000. Doubtless Leclerc would have liked to have had the race pace to fight with Norris – but this was at least a strong start from the Scuderia as the rebuilding year commences.

    READ MORE: Sainz and Leclerc already looking forward to Imola after Ferrari seal double-points finish in Bahrain

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    Believe the hype. There were three rookies on the grid at the Bahrain Grand Prix, and by far the most accomplished performance came from AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who looked totally at ease in his first F1 encounter. AlphaTauri set the Japanese a big task by asking him to try and get through Q2 on medium tyres – the one hurdle Tsunoda failed to clear this weekend. But he fought back well, even overtaking his dad’s favourite F1 driver (maybe second favourite now) Fernando Alonso en route to P9 – the first ever Japanese driver to score on debut.

    READ MORE: Tsunoda describes ‘emotional’ pass on hero Alonso – and what he learned from shadowing him

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    Considering how uncomfortable Carlos Sainz looked at times in the Ferrari SF21 during pre-season testing, the Spaniard’s assured performance at the first race of the season showed both his class and his work ethic. That he was never quite on the pace of his illustrious, bedded-in team mate Leclerc is understandable – while a conscious decision from Sainz to take it easy on Lap 1 on his Ferrari debut potentially prevented him finishing higher than his eventual eighth place.

    WATCH: Carlos Sainz took 'conscious approach' to first race with Ferrari

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    Russell called the conditions at the Bahrain International Circuit the “worst-case scenario” for him and Williams in 2021. And with that being the case, the Briton was encouraged by his team’s performance, as ‘Mr Saturday’ dragged the FW43B into Q2 – while although his first points for the team continued to elude him as he finished P14, Russell was at least pleased with some “quite strong” race pace, as the judges rewarded him with joint-sixth place.

    READ MORE: Williams race pace is 'actually pretty strong', says Russell

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    There was a slight irony that Sergio Perez was fighting for podiums and wins when he twice raced at this venue with Racing Point last year – while appearing to struggle more this season in his first outing with the front-running Red Bull team. Failing to get through Q2 was a definite no-no, but Perez put in a mature recovery drive from his formation lap near-disaster to take P5 on his team debut – albeit his performance wasn’t quite as spectacular as the recovery that won him the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. More to come, both Perez, and Red Bull, will hope.

    READ MORE: 'I thought that was it' – Perez shocked to recover to P5 after car failure on formation lap

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    You’d have forgiven Fernando Alonso for being a little rusty, what with his two years out of the sport racing Dakar trucks and sportscars – and having been knocked off his bike just a month before the season get-go. Not a bit of it. Although the titanium-jawed Alonso admitted he still didn’t feel particularly in tune with his new Alpine A521, the Spaniard put the car into Q3, ultimately qualifying P9 and enjoying a few tussles in the race before a sandwich wrapper (hopefully not a Lidl one) in his rear brake duct forced him into retirement.

    READ MORE: Alonso says debris caused brake failure that curtailed ‘fun’ Formula 1 return

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    We’ve become used to seeing Valtteri Bottas come out of the blocks strongly at the start of a new F1 season, with no one but the Finn having won a season opener since 2018. That made his performance at the Bahrain Grand Prix a mite disappointing, Bottas never looking like being the fastest Mercedes driver – while despite showing strong pace mid-race, a 10.9s pit stop would fully extinguish any chances he had of competing with the leading pair of Hamilton and Verstappen. At least Bottas limited the damage to just a third place, to help Mercedes move to the top of the constructors’ after race one.

    READ MORE: 'We were more passive than aggressive' – Bottas not happy with Mercedes’ strategy call in Bahrain

    MISSING OUT

    The Alfa Romeo pairing of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen find themselves just on the cusp of our ranking after the Bahrain Grand Prix, following an encouraging performance from the Swiss team – who look a step faster than the Haas and Williams squads they were battling last year.

    Those two finished just ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, who discovered after the race that his race pace woes on his team debut had been exacerbated by floor damage from his Lap 4 contact with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly.

    READ MORE: How Alfa Romeo made the biggest relative gains in 2021 with the distinctive C41

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    Giovinazzi and Raikkonen had an encouraging first race of the season for Alfa Romeo

    THE OVERALL STANDINGS

    We’ll be running a season-long average score for the drivers this year for our overall leaderboard – important, we felt, with coronavirus and the associated threat of a driver being side-lined still hanging over the paddock.

    Obviously, it’s Lewis Hamilton who heads it this week – but let’s see how the scores change after the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on April 16-18.

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