This was not how the start of the season was supposed to pan out for Red Bull, who had the fastest car in Formula One testing.

Superstar Max Verstappen has finished second and first over the opening two weeks, yet he still trails Lewis Hamilton by a point. Mercedes are also on top again in the constructors' championship, seven points clear even after Valtteri Bottas crashed out of the epic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

"To come away leading both championships almost felt like a get out of jail free card, because our rivals didn't maximise the opportunity we gave them," Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff said.

Verstappen is certainly in a title race, but seven-time champion Hamilton will be the favourite as long as he has the lead.

There is pressure on Red Bull to change that this week when the season continues with the Portuguese Grand Prix.

LAST TIME OUT

It would perhaps be easier to start with what did not happen at Imola, such was the drama.

Verstappen was the victor, while Hamilton came in second, but that does not even start to tell the full story, with incident right from the outset in the pouring rain.

The Mercedes driver started from pole but was trailing and damaged by Turn One, pushed wide by a rapid Verstappen dash.

Worse was to come for Hamilton as he careered off into a gravel trap midway through the race and attempted to get his sparking Silver Arrow back to the pit lane as Verstappen streaked clear.

But an unexpected intervention gave Hamilton a reprieve, with a crash – not the only one – between Bottas and George Russell prompting a suspension of the race.

That meant Verstappen had to restore his advantage after a nervy restart, while Hamilton resumed from ninth and weaved through the field to finish a distant second, retaining his season lead with a late fastest lap.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT PORTIMAO

Now that Hamilton has proven the worth of the W12 car – previously dismissed by Bottas as "undriveable" – Mercedes might expect a more straightforward weekend.

Hamilton won at the Algarve International Circuit last year, after all.

But the tricky circuit, dubbed 'the rollercoaster', could encourage another eventful outing, particularly with Verstappen keen to ensure he has not missed his chance to pull clear over the past two grands prix.

The battle below the top two teams is similarly intriguing, with McLaren's Lando Norris as high as third in the standings after following up a fourth place in the opener by taking third last time out. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, meanwhile, is fourth in the standings.

Neither McLaren nor the Scuderia had the pace to stick with Hamilton when his crash gave them a rare opportunity to compete with the Mercedes superstar, but those two teams will be determined to prove they are the best of the rest.

Sebastian Vettel's challenge right now is simply to get a point on the board after coming 15th in back-to-back races.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Reaching the Max – Having either won (twice) or secured pole position (twice) in each of the past three races, Verstappen is enjoying the best run of his career.

Hundred up for Ham – Hamilton's pole position at Imola was his 99th in F1, meaning he could this week become the first driver to reach a century. This is the same circuit where the Briton passed Michael Schumacher's record for race wins last season.

Keep your friends close – While challenging Hamilton, Verstappen also finally has competition again from within his own garage. Sergio Perez qualified in second last time out, the first time Verstappen had been beaten in qualifying by a team-mate in 19 races.

Yet so far – Leclerc is fourth in the standings and all too often fourth on race day. The Ferrari man has gone 15 races without a podium but has finished fourth on four occasions during that span.

Fail to Finnish – Bottas will hope to avoid a career first following his retirement last time out. In his 158-race career, he has never failed to place at consecutive grands prix.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 44
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 43
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 27
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 20
5. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 16

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 60
2. Red Bull – 53
3. McLaren – 41
4. Ferrari – 34
5. Aston Martin – 7

Lewis Hamilton believes his remarkable recovery to finish second at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday will prove "very valuable" this season.

In the second race of the year, Hamilton seemed set for a lowly finish at best.

Having lost first place to Max Verstappen at Turn One on the first lap of an epic affair, the defending champion, chasing his rival, ran off into a gravel trap midway through the grand prix.

Hamilton was briefly stuck against the wall, struggling to reverse his car back onto the track, before the W12 limped towards the pit under a shower of sparks.

But a red flag prompted by an incident involving team-mate Valtteri Bottas then brought the race to a standstill.

Hamilton had been ninth and a lap down, yet the restart allowed him to weave through the field and claim P2, behind Verstappen but still ahead of the Red Bull man in the drivers' championship.

"I think, without doubt, getting back to second and getting these points will be very valuable through the season," said the Briton.

"If I'd lost 25 points, that would have been hard to recover based on the fact that [for] Red Bull it's the first time that they've had a championship-winning car.

"Their car is incredibly fast. They were faster than us this weekend, definitely in qualifying trim but it looks like a little bit also in race trim.

"I don't know if they made a couple of mistakes – I think they did, Max did in qualifying for example otherwise he would have been on pole.

"But we've got a real close battle. We love the fact that it's a close battle and it's great to see McLaren back up there after such a long time, it's great to see Ferrari looking strong.

"So, there's going to be a lot of exciting races up ahead and challenging for all of us in so many different ways."

Although Hamilton's resurgence prevented Verstappen from taking an early lead in the standings, the Dutchman was delighted to land a blow in the title tussle, having trailed the Mercedes man in the season opener.

But he was also not getting carried away after a first win of the year.

"It's a very long season. We just have to keep on working very hard," Verstappen said. "I'm very happy with the result today, of course, but that's today.

"I'm of course going to be happy about today, but tomorrow, we start again. We have to keep on improving because there's still a lot of work to be able to keep doing this the whole season.

"It's great to be fighting against Lewis, Mercedes who, I think, as a team, have been so dominant and they're very difficult to beat.

"To be able to sit here now, now two races in a row, we were very, very competitive – that's very promising but no guarantees."

With his nose pressed against the wall and rivals crashing elsewhere on the track in torrid Imola rain, Hamilton could easily have retired following his crash.

He was not to know then that the collision between Bottas and George Russell would provide a reprieve, but he was delighted to be able to continue and learn "an amazing lesson" regardless.

"I remember just sitting there, looking at the barrier, and I refused to think that the race was over," Hamilton said. "I refused to believe that the race was done.

"I could have obviously just turned the car off and got out but I'm grateful that I didn't.

"I'm grateful that I did do a reverse and then, after that, just kind of getting out the car and trying to switch the anger and turn it into positive energy so that I could get back in and race forwards.

"It's an amazing lesson to be sent and experience."

And Hamilton, so often starting from the front of the grid, actually relished the chance to blaze past the opposition from ninth place.

"I loved it," he added. "That's how my career actually started as a kid, coming through.

"We had a really dodgy, old go-kart, so I was always starting at the back. It just took me back to my roots."

Lewis Hamilton apologised for his error at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but was relieved to be able to secure an outstanding P2 on Sunday.

Defending Formula One champion Hamilton, who started from pole, looked to have blown his chances of a podium finish when he ran off into a gravel trap while chasing Max Verstappen midway through the race.

But as his Mercedes limped back to the pit lane a lap down, an incident involving Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton's one-time reserve George Russell brought out the red flag.

Neither man involved in the crash could continue, although both avoided injury, but the stoppage gave Hamilton time to regroup.

That he did and the Silver Arrows superstar climbed from ninth to second, behind only Verstappen in a stunning display of resolve.

"Awesome job, guys," the Briton told his team radio. "Apologies for that mistake earlier on."

After congratulating Verstappen and third-placed Lando Norris in the post-race presentation, Hamilton said: "On my side, it was not the greatest of days.

"It was the first time I've made a mistake in a long time, but I was grateful I was able to bring the car home still."

He added: "I was really, really grateful that we got to get going again and to get some points for the team. That was really important."

Having set the fastest lap time late in the race, too, Hamilton still leads the drivers' championship, a point ahead of Verstappen.

But he said such a scenario was not on his mind as he prepared to restart.

"I wasn't thinking about it," he said. "I was just trying to get over the gutting feeling it is when you make a mistake and just moving on from it, learning from it real quick.

"You don't have time to dwell on it. So, that's what I did, get back into racing spirit.

"I didn't know if we'd be able to overtake, because off-line was really wet, but I still had some really fun battles with all the guys."

Verstappen is not concerned by his placing in those standings, however, responding: "It's a long season. We'll stay calm."

The Dutchman was one of the few drivers to enjoy himself in difficult conditions, most notably in the approach to Turn One as he pushed past Hamilton.

"I surprised myself," Verstappen said. "Last week we were struggling a little bit off the line, but we worked really hard to make that better.

"In these tricky conditions, we did a great job."

Max Verstappen claimed victory at a remarkable Emilia Romagna Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton twice sustained damage and a crash involving Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas prompted a red flag.

An epic race encouraged optimism for a genuine title tussle in Formula One in 2021, with drama right from the outset and Hamilton fighting hard to rescue a superb second-placed finish.

The defending champion had started from pole, with Verstappen qualifying in third, behind Red Bull colleague Sergio Perez.

But Verstappen claimed the lead from Turn One in the rain at Imola, racing up alongside Hamilton and forcing his championship rival wide, where he sustained right wing damage.

While chaos ensued behind them, Hamilton held off Charles Leclerc to ensure he remained the biggest threat to Verstappen, with a tactical battle briefly allowed to develop.

Verstappen pitted first on lap 28, with Hamilton following a lap later and coming out behind the Dutchman following a slow stop.

But a manic spell then shook up the race again. First, Hamilton ran off into a gravel trap and desperately sought to reverse back onto the track.

The Briton was limping back to the pit lane a lap down under a shower of sparks, emitted by his Silver Arrow, when a further incident brought out the safety car.

Bottas collided with Mercedes prospect George Russell, driving for Williams, and both cars crashed in spectacular fashion, with the drivers emerging from the wreckage to angrily blame one another over the team radio.

The red flag soon followed, with wreckage spread across the track and a 30-minute suspension required, giving Hamilton time to regroup.

He resumed from ninth, able to unlap himself, with Verstappen forced to build a healthy lead again from Lando Norris after a slightly nervy restart.

Verstappen had retired at each of the three Italian races in 2020 but avoided a similar fate this time and the focus in the closing stages was instead on Hamilton's progress.

The Mercedes man picked off his opponents one by one, eventually streaking past Leclerc to move into position for a podium place once more.

Only Norris in the McLaren stood between Hamilton and a phenomenal P2 and he patiently chased down his compatriot to limit the damage and somehow emerge from this race a point ahead of Verstappen.

'AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT'

As the race got back underway following his crash, Russell posted on Twitter: "Thanks for all the messages. I'm fine, just disappointed.

"At the end of the day, it's an unfortunate incident. You're entitled to defend your position. But at 330kph, you have to respect the speed and the conditions when doing so. Gutted for the team. They deserved more today."

That was the second crash that ruled a driver out, with Nicholas Latifi earlier colliding with Nikita Mazepin to almost instantly exit the grand prix.

The subsequent safety car brought its own share of incident – Perez hit with a 10-second penalty after running wide and overtaking two cars to recover fourth.

Mick Schumacher went into a wall under the safety car, meanwhile, and lost his front wing.

TONE SET BEFORE THE START

The weather was always likely to cause havoc and the drivers took to the track to test their tyres ahead of the race. Even that did not go smoothly.

Fernando Alonso crashed into the wall, while the brakes on the Aston Martin cars caught fire.

That issue meant Sebastian Vettel had to start from the pitlane, and he was later given a 10-second stop/go penalty, too, for failing to have his wheels fitted in time.

Bottas sustained a puncture on his way to the grid and then Leclerc span on the formation lap. It was one of those days.

Lewis Hamilton acknowledged he will likely have his work cut out if he is to start the 2021 Formula One season with a second straight win.

Reigning F1 champion Hamilton qualified on pole for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but will not have the support of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was only good enough for eighth.

Instead, it is Sergio Perez who will start alongside him on the front row at Imola on Sunday, with the Mexican's Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in third.

Hamilton accepted Red Bull's pace and positioning means they will have a significant advantage in trying to stop him from winning the opening two races of a calendar year for the first time in 15 seasons.

"It's much different from obviously past experiences. I can't remember the last time I saw the Red Bulls so close, so I think tomorrow, of course … if we're able to get off in order then they obviously have a bit of a better set of cards in terms of strategy," said Hamilton.

"But that doesn't mean we can't pull out something unique and do something different.

"I'm not really sure what happened with Valtteri. It's very hard to overtake here so obviously we probably won't have the support of him early on.

"Maybe he will make it through but otherwise we've just got to focus on our job and try and do absolutely everything and more to keep these lads behind."

Unlike Hamilton and Verstappen, Perez will start the race on soft tyres.

Explaining the strategy decision, Perez said: "We felt as a team that the soft is nowhere near where it was last year, so it's a good race tyre. It's just different to the medium when it’s important… it was very important and crucial for me to get that learning, that consistency and that progression.

"Whether or not it is the right or wrong strategy I think there's not much between them so we are definitely in the game for tomorrow."

Verstappen added: "Of course, we have to wait and see what is going to happen tomorrow but yeah, it's going to be interesting what can be done.

"But not only with that but also what the weather is going to do, if there is a bit of rain or not. I guess we just have to wait and see what's going to happen but hopefully in the race it will be close again."

Lewis Hamilton was shocked to claim his first Formula One pole position in four races as both Red Bull drivers rued missing out by the narrowest of margins.

Mercedes driver Hamilton took pole in qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix by just 0.035 seconds over Sergio Perez, with Max Verstappen just 0.087s back in third.

Charles Leclerc was fourth for Ferrari at Imola, with Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas struggling to eighth place.

That may give Red Bull a strategic advantage for the race, especially with their cars on split strategies as Perez will start on soft tyres while Hamilton and Verstappen will be on mediums.

Still, Hamilton was thrilled to emerge on pole, which came as a surprise to him after Red Bull's pace this weekend and the fact he did not improve on his first flying lap on Q3.

"It has been great," said Hamilton, who impressively won the first race of 2021 in Bahrain despite Red Bull appearing to have a pace advantage.

"I definitely didn't expect us to be ahead of two Red Bulls.

"They have been so quick this weekend, six tenths ahead at times, but the car was already feeling better from the beginning this weekend.

"Respect to the team for their hard work to narrow down the window [to Red Bull].

"I'm so happy because the first lap was really nice, really clean. The second had some improvements but overall wasn't as good as the first.

"I came around the last corner and heard that I got the pole and was super grateful."

The first qualifying session was halted with a red flag after a crash for Yuki Tsunoda, a session Bottas topped as both Williams cars progressed.

Perez – on his soft tyres – emerged at the top of the timesheets in a Q2 session that saw Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso among the eliminated drivers.

A dramatic Q3 then saw Hamilton just hold on to his lead set after the first runs. 

Lando Norris thought he had put his McLaren on the front row, only to discover he had exceeded track limits, meaning he settled for seventh behind Pierre Gasly and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Perez thanked his team after claiming second but felt he should have had pole.

The Mexican said: "Well done to the team. I made a mistake on Friday and made them the team work hard so it is a good recovery.

"The most important thing is we showed progress. I never expected to be here after where we were on Friday but we have been improving.

"It is P2, but I should've been on pole – I made a mistake on the final corner.

"Everything is positive and we have to make sure we keep progressing and Sunday is when it matters.

"Anything can happen – a different [tyre] strategy to Lewis and Max. It will be interesting to see what we can do. The important thing is we get those points and that learning which is the priority."

Verstappen had claimed the last pole of 2020 and the first pole of this season, while Bottas had started at the front in the penultimate race of last year. 

World champion Hamilton ended his wait for pole here, but Verstappen is eager to make life difficult to him.

The Dutchman said: "Not so good in Q3. I went off at turn three, so a bit messy, just not a good lap.

"You can't be good every time, so we'll see what went wrong – but it was definitely not the easiest in Q3. 

"It's still P3, which is a good starting position. It's going to be interesting. We have the two cars on the different tyres and we will try to make it difficult for them."

A 99th career pole position for Hamilton saw him make Imola the 30th circuit where he has topped the qualifying timesheet.
 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:14.411
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.035s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.087s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.329s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.379s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.415s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.464s
8. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.487s
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.799s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) no time set

The pressure is on Red Bull to respond to a disappointing first race as the 2021 Formula One season continues at Imola.

The Austrian outfit, led by Max Verstappen, were expected to lay down a marker for defending champions Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in week one.

But Hamilton claimed a stunning triumph in Bahrain, described by the victor as "one of the hardest races I've had for a while".

The against-the-odds success might suggest a tricky year ahead for Red Bull, who had set the pace in pre-season testing.

They will be aiming to prove that was merely an early blip when Verstappen takes on Hamilton again at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this week.

A response would set the season up nicely, but Hamilton will be similarly determined to continue his pursuit of a record-breaking eighth title.
 

LAST TIME OUT

Bahrain looked to be set for a season-opening Verstappen victory. The Dutchman was fastest in pre-season, then in practice and again in qualifying.

After starting from pole, his pace was obvious again in a titanic tussle with Hamilton.

But what the Briton lacked in speed - still adjusting to his W12 car, which team-mate Valtteri Bottas claimed was "undriveable" - he more than made up for in experience.

And the strategy of Mercedes had Hamilton in front, although it still took a Verstappen error to giftwrap a Silver Arrows success.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton with four laps remaining but went beyond track limits and crucially had to give first place back to his rival.

Bottas completed the podium in third, also collecting a point for the fastest lap, while Charles Leclerc was the best-placed Ferrari finisher down in sixth.

Aston Martin new man Sebastian Vettel was a frustrating 15th, one place ahead of debutant Mick Schumacher, while the returning Fernando Alonso failed to finish.
 

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT IMOLA

Until the Mercedes drivers can properly get to grips with their cars - not relying on errors and chaos for wins - the Hamilton versus Verstappen theme is likely to continue.

The Silver Arrows have at least had time to work on their flaws, three weeks on from Sakhir, while Red Bull have been left to stew on their mishap.

Particular attention will be paid to practice and qualifying and any change in the significant pace gap between the teams last time out.

As long as Red Bull retain the faster car, Verstappen should be in a title race - even if he cannot afford further mistakes.

A two-way fight for the championship is an improvement on recent years in which Hamilton has been comfortably clear of the grid, and there is also intrigue elsewhere.

Ferrari's continued struggles combined with improvement in the McLaren ranks mean there is competition between the two again.

Both outfits will be bidding for third place in the standings this year, with McLaren boasting the edge heading in to race two, while a busy off-season means the pecking order further back is far from concrete.
 

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Back on pole? - After Verstappen qualified fastest in Bahrain, Mercedes are facing up to the possibility of failing to secure a pole position over the first two races of a season for the first time in the Hybrid Era (since 2014).

Setting the standard - This is one of only four tracks at which Hamilton has never achieved pole, but victory would make this the first time he has ever started a season with back-to-back wins. Only twice before this year had the F1 great triumphed in the season opener, going on to claim the title in both 2008 and 2015.

Man in form - Verstappen is certainly the driver to beat in qualifying after consecutive pole positions at the end of last season and start of this. He only had two poles in his prior 118 races in F1.

Streaking McLaren - Daniel Ricciardo has earned points in his past 12 races, while McLaren team-mate Lando Norris - fourth last time out - could set a new career best with a seventh straight points finish.

In his father's footsteps - Mick Schumacher will this year become used to turning out at events where his father has previously dominated. Michael Schumacher has seven Imola wins, more than any other driver, while Ferrari and Williams are tied on eight team triumphs.
 

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS 

Drivers 

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 25
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) - 18 
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 16 
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) - 12 
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) - 10 

Constructors 

1. Mercedes - 41 
2. Red Bull - 28 
3. McLaren - 18 
4. Ferrari - 12
5. Alpha Tauri - 2

Mike Elliott will replace James Allison as technical director in a reshuffle for Formula One constructors' champions Mercedes.

Allison has led the Silver Arrows' technical operations since early in 2017, but will step back from day-to-day management to become chief technical officer on July 1.

Elliott, who started his career with McLaren 21 years ago and also worked for Renault, will be promoted to replace Allison.

He joined Mercedes as head of aerodynamics in 2012 before being appointed as the team's technology director four years ago and will switch jobs again in another reshuffle.

Mercedes said in a statement on Friday: "The transition to the new organisation will take place across the coming months as we continue the 2021 championship battle on track and prepare for the significant challenge of the 2022 technical and sporting regulations in our development programmes back at base."

Elliott said: "It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work for James earlier in my career at Renault, and for the past four years at Mercedes. His track record in the sport speaks for itself, and he has been a fantastic team-mate and leader for me during that time.

"They are big shoes to fill and I am delighted that we will be able to call on his expertise in his new role as CTO. On a personal level, it is an amazing opportunity to become Technical Director of a team like Mercedes, and I must thank Toto [Wolff] and our company for trusting me to make the step up to this new role.

"It is an incredible privilege to be part of this team and I know that the leadership strength at every level through the company will be vital to our future success.

"I can't wait to get started and to tackle the many exciting technical challenges ahead of us in the next months and years."

The Silver Arrows have won seven consecutive constructors' titles and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton won the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix last month.

Lewis Hamilton was thrilled to come out on top in a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix, which he labelled as one of the toughest Formula One races he has been involved in for some time.

Max Verstappen started on pole in Bahrain, but despite the Red Bull having had the edge over Hamilton's Mercedes in practice and qualifying, it was the seven-time world champion who triumphed.

It did not come easy for Hamilton, who had to see out a late attack from Verstappen to secure his first season-opening success in six years.

The victory only came courtesy of an error from the Red Bull driver, who was adjudged to have gone beyond track limits during a potentially decisive overtake with four laps left to go, and was instructed to immediately give the place back.

If Sunday's evidence is anything to go by, Verstappen and Red Bull are well placed to make more of a challenge this season.

Speaking in his post-race interview, an exhilarated Hamilton said: "Wow! What a difficult race that was.

"Stopping early we knew would be difficult but we had to cover Max, they have had an amazing performance all weekend.

"We suffered the last stint. Max was all over me at the end and I was just about able to hold him off. That was one of the hardest races I've had for a while."

Asked if he was at the peak of his powers, 36-year-old Hamilton replied: "I definitely am. Each year they are talking about when you hit your peak and timing is everything.

"I think I am at that and Max is doing really well at the moment. I love the challenge."

Verstappen, meanwhile, looked to take the positives after crossing the line just 0.745 seconds after Hamilton.

"It's a shame but you also have to see the positive. We are really taking the fight to them, and I think that's great to start the year like that," Verstappen said.

"I don't know what happened with the car early on. It don't think it was completely solved in the low-speed corners, so we'll have a look at that. Overall, we managed to finish the race and score good points."

It was a sentiment echoed by Red Bull chief Christian Horner, with the team's principal believing they are finally ready to mount a serious title push this year.

"A great race, a tough one to lose. It is the first of 23 so hopefully, we give Lewis a harder time this year," Horner told Sky Sports.

"Once you have that instruction [to give the place back] you have to move out of the way. It is tough racing, it is fair racing.

"The races come thick and fast once we get going. Mercedes have been so strong over the years. I think the biggest winner today was the fans. It sets up a great season and I hope we see more battles between Max and Lewis this season."

Lewis Hamilton clung on to survive a late attack from Max Verstappen to begin his Formula One title defence with a dramatic victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen's Red Bull had the edge in speed over Hamilton's Mercedes for the entirety of the race weekend but, after a frenetic stop-start opening to the race gave way to a strategic battle between the teams expected to compete at the front of the grid this season, it was the Briton who found himself taking the chequered flag.

Having emerged from his final pit stop nearly nine seconds behind Hamilton, pole-sitter Verstappen looked to have made the crucial overtake with four laps remaining.

But he was forced to give the place back having gone beyond the track limits to get past Hamilton, and Verstappen could not find an opportunity with which to make the decisive move for a second time, Red Bull left frustrated as the seven-time champion claimed his first season-opening win since 2015.

Lewis Hamilton claims it is "no secret" the new Formula One regulations have been introduced to slow Mercedes, but he was encouraged by their opening qualifying session of the season.

Changes to aerodynamic regulations for 2021 have had a great impact on the reigning champions' low-rake chassis, the Silver Arrows say.

Mercedes have won the past seven constructors' championships, yet Red Bull led the way in pre-season testing.

The fastest lap belonged to Max Verstappen and the same man took pole on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But Hamilton was only 0.388 seconds back in second and that performance spells good news for the Briton, with all 16 Bahrain winners coming from the first two rows of the grid but only seven of them qualifying on pole.

Meanwhile, Verstappen has retired three times at this event and four times at the Sakhir track.

Hamilton remains very much in contention, despite feeling the rules have been designed to hurt his team.

"It's no secret. The changes, of course they've been done to peg us back," he said. "We've had the changes last year to our engine to do the same thing.

"That's okay. We love a challenge, we don't look down on these things. We just work hard to do the best that we can, and that's what we'll do."

But Hamilton was not amused by a request for him to analyse where Red Bull are now better, as Verstappen - having ended last year with a win - targets back-to-back triumphs for the first time in his career.

"Really? I don't want to tell you what our problem is," Hamilton said. "They're just faster."

With Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualifying third, the top three - Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas - are on course to become the first trio to appear on 15 podiums together.

Although Verstappen is still in the lead, this Mercedes challenge seemed improbable for Hamilton just days ago.

"I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend," he said.

"We thought it was double the gap that you see today. That's down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.

"Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge, we knew from day one on track really that Red Bull was going to be faster than us.

"We knew we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb. I'm just proud of everyone's efforts."

Elsewhere, two former champions had vastly contrasting fortunes after offseason moves.

Three-time Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso is back in F1 with Alpine Team, formerly Renault, where he won two world titles.

And his second debut was a success as he reached Q3 for the first time since Monaco 2018 and claimed ninth on the grid.

"It was good," said Alonso, who won this event on the previous two occasions it opened a season. "I think we have to be pleased with the qualifying.

"I was not confident in any of the sessions so far in the weekend - I was struggling a little bit to feel the rear of the car in windy conditions - and now in the qualifying everything was calmer.

"The night situation I think helped us with the cooler temperatures, so I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better and it was fun."

On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was eliminated in Q1 as his second run was hampered by yellow flags prompted by Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin's spin.

No driver has more wins (four) or poles (three) in Bahrain than the former Ferrari man, but his Aston Martin bow did not go to plan.

Vettel will start from 18th and said: "If I panicked now, would it help? If I was really upset?

"For sure, I am upset and angry that it wasn't our fault in a way not to make it through, but we have to take it and do what we can, preparing tomorrow."

Matters could yet get worse for the German, who will appear before the stewards on Sunday for failing to respect the flags, potentially meaning a five-place penalty.

Lewis Hamilton felt he had got all he could out of his Mercedes as Max Verstappen stormed to an impressive pole position for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Red Bull driver Verstappen finished 0.388 seconds clear of Mercedes rival and defending world champion Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday.

Valtteri Bottas was 0.589s back in third with Charles Leclerc taking an impressive fourth for Ferrari.

Verstappen had previously topped every practice session in Sakhir, a circuit where he is due a change of luck having retired there four times – more than at any other track in his Formula One career.

His dominant start to the campaign has fans dreaming of a competitive 2021 season after Hamilton was in a class of his own in winning a seventh world title last year.

"We have already had a great week of testing," Verstappen said.

"There are no guarantees but it's been great so far coming back for the race week. The car has been working really well - really enjoyable to drive.

"With the wind conditions changing, it's not easy to change the set-up of the car for every session but it all worked out perfectly in qualifying and I'm really happy with pole position.

"My first lap in Q3 wasn't amazing so I knew there was more in it – you never know how much - but finally the balance was there and you can push a little bit more. 

"You have to be careful not to overheat the rear tyres but where it mattered we could perform. The car has been steady on the short and long runs - we have a good car."

Hamilton felt grid spots of second and third were solid accomplishments for Mercedes after their struggles in pre-season testing.

The Briton said: "Amazing [to have competition]. Congratulations to Max. He did such a great job, so fast on that last lap.

"I absolutely gave it everything I had but unfortunately it was not good enough. There is always more but it was the best I could do that is for sure and I got absolutely everything I could from the car.

"We did a really good job from testing to come here - everyone in the factory has done an amazing job. 

"To be that close, closer to the Red Bulls [is good] considering in testing we thought we would be further behind."

There was some disappointment for Red Bull when Sergio Perez was unable to reach Q3 as he tried to reach the shoot-out on medium tyres. He will start 11th.

It means Hamilton and Bottas will, as they did for much of last season when Alex Albon struggled, have a strategic numerical advantage at the front as they battle Verstappen.

Bottas said: "Anything is possible and we can only aim for Sunday. We have two cars in the mix at the front with Max, so we'll see.

"The practice this morning wasn't easy, I had a couple of issues with balance.

"It was a bit better this evening. We used two sets of soft tyres in Q2 so in Q3, I only had one set of tyres, so it wasn't easy to compete with Max and Lewis."

Verstappen was just 0.023s ahead of Hamilton after the first runs of Q3, and then had to respond when his rival went fastest with his second attempt.

The Dutchman produced a brilliant answer, though, comfortably taking pole as he looks to win two straight races for the first time in his F1 career, having triumphed in the last race of 2020.

Pierre Gasly was fifth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for his new team McLaren. Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, the returning Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll rounded out the top 10.

Sebastian Vettel had a frustrating first competitive outing for Aston Martin, as he and Esteban Ocon were eliminated in Q1, not helped by yellow flags towards the end of the session.

Ocon was 16th with Vettel in 18th, just one place ahead of Mick Schumacher on his F1 debut as the two Haas cars finished on the back row.

Hamilton has won the last two editions of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but no driver has ever recorded three straight victories at the event.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:28.997
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.388s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.589s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.681s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.812s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.930s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.977s
8. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1.218s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.252s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.604s

Valtteri Bottas was left "puzzled" by Mercedes' "undriveable" W12 as Max Verstappen set the pace in both practice sessions at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday 

Red Bull driver Verstappen topped the timesheets ahead of Mercedes' Bottas in FP1 and McLaren's Lando Norris in FP2 in Sakhir.

Seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton was fourth and third respectively after team principal Toto Wolff said the best the Silver Arrows could hope for would be to match Red Bull's pace.

Bottas said of Mercedes' new car on the eve of qualifying for the first race of 2021: "The last long run we did was pretty inconsistent, and I couldn't really put any laps together, and the car, as I said, felt undriveable at times.

"A bit puzzled, but it's Friday and that's why we practice."

Dutchman Verstappen, who clocked a quickest lap of one minute, 30.847 seconds, knows Red Bull must build on an encouraging start when it really matters.

He said: "I was really happy but tomorrow is again a different day, even more windy, which with these cars is quite more tricky, so again we'll have to try and be on it, but again, a good start to the weekend,

"I was also really [happy] before, but of course, now we have to show what we can do in qualifying."

The drivers had to contend with a sandstorm in practice and face more testing conditions over the weekend, with high winds and temperatures of up to 38 degrees Celsius forecast.

Verstappen added: "Of course, with the heat, it's not easy to find a really good balance around the whole lap. I think it's a positive day. 

"There are still things to look into what we can look better for tomorrow, but again, also tomorrow, I think it's going to be even more windy so that will be even more difficult to drive.

"That's the same for everyone, so we'll see what happens."

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

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