Lewis Hamilton on Sunday produced another stunning demonstration of his racing talent, resisting a charging Max Verstappen to win a thrilling season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The seven-time champion defended with great skill over the closing laps in his Mercedes to hold off the Red Bull driver and claim a 96th Formula One victory.
Hamilton made it home seven-10ths of a second ahead of the Verstappen, who was forced to hand back the race lead in the closing laps after passing him with a move that had taken him off the track.
As expected, the champion and his heir apparent delivered an exhilarating exhibition of racing as they raced to the flag — the pair leaving Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas to finish adrift by 37 seconds in third place.
It was Hamilton’s first season-opening triumph since 2015 and surprised many observers after Red Bull had dominated the pre-season testing, and two days of practice and qualifying ahead of the race.
“Firstly, can I just say it’s the first time I’ve seen fans in a long time,” Hamilton said, delighted.
“What a difficult race that was — stopping early, we knew it was going to be tough, but we had to cover Max and it was always going to take something pretty special to do it,” Hamilton added.
A disappointed Verstappen said: “Of course, it’s a shame, but you also have to see the positives.”
“We’re putting the fight on to them, so it’s great to start the year like that,” Verstappen added.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was fourth, ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Carlos Sainz was eighth for Ferrari, ahead of Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda of AlphaTauri and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
Starting from his fourth pole position, Verstappen advanced smoothly and held the lead ahead of Hamilton as the lights went out, but the opening lap was soon halted when Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin of Haas speared into the barriers on turn 3.
Hamilton stayed within two seconds of Verstappen until lap 14, when he pitted as Mercedes went for an “undercut” to switch him from medium tires to a new set of hard tires.
Verstappen, complaining about differential problems, came in and took medium tires, as Hamilton swept into the lead for the first time.
By lap 23, Hamilton’s lead was 3.8 seconds on the Red Bull man, but it was soon reduced to one second.
Sensing Verstappen closing in, Hamilton pitted again for more hards on lap 29, rejoining 20 seconds adrift of the Dutchman.
Verstappen pitted again on lap 40. He rejoined second, eight seconds behind the champion to set up a chase for a grandstand finish.
An immediate fastest lap trimmed the gap to six seconds.
“Make sure you’ve got enough tires to challenge him at the end,” said his engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase.
By lap 49, the lead was two seconds.
“Leave me to it, Bono,” Hamilton said, when his engineer advised him that Verstappen was on his tail.
The tension was palpable.
With five laps to go, the champion ran wide at turn 10, enabling Verstappen to close up.
He squeezed by at turn 4, on lap 53, but having gone off the circuit had to hand the position back.
Hamilton continued to resist. Verstappen began sliding for grip and the champion hung on.
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