Lewis Hamilton keeps Max Verstappen at bay to win Bahrain Grand Prix
Mercedes driver fights off young challenger in closing stages of season opener on Sunday
Lewis Hamilton produced another stunning demonstration of his racing talent on Sunday to resist a charging Max Verstappen and 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 record-extending 96th Formula One victory.
Hamilton came home seven-tenths of a second ahead of the Dutchman, who was forced to hand back the race lead in the closing laps after passing the champion with a move that had taken him off the track and beyond the limits.
As expected, Hamilton and his heir apparent delivered an exhilarating exhibition of racing as they stormed to the flag – the pair leaving third placed Valtteri Bottas, in the second Mercedes, to finish adrift by 37 seconds.
It was Hamilton's first season-opening triumph since 2015 and surprised many observers after Red Bull had dominated pre-season testing and two days of practice and qualifying ahead of the race.
Standing with his hands on his hips, Verstappen, who started from pole position, said: "It is a shame but you have to see the positive because we are taking the fight to them."
Hamilton added: "Firstly, can I just say it's the first time I've seen fans in a long time. 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.
"Max was all over me right at the end but I just about managed to hold him off and it was one of the hardest races I have had for a while.
"Each year they are talking about when you hit your peak, and I'm at that and Max is really doing well, too, so it's going to take everything and more from us but I love the challenge, and I love what I do."
Hamilton twice stopped for tyres earlier than Verstappen in a bid to undercut the Red Bull car.
Following the second round of stops, Verstappen exited the pit lane 8.5 seconds behind Hamilton with 16 laps left.
It provided a mouth-watering climax as Verstappen, the driver desperate to dethrone Hamilton as F1's ruler, set about chasing his man.
And on lap 53 of 56 under the lights of the Sakhir International Circuit, Verstappen seemed to have done just that, as he drove around his rival's black machine.
But Red Bull were instructed by the stewards to order Verstappen to give the place back.
Hamilton has won six of the last seven titles, with his Mercedes team winning both drivers' and constructors' championships every year since 2014.
But Verstappen's encouraging weekend – the flying Dutchman topping every practice session and claiming pole while running Hamilton all the way to the flag – suggests the record-breaking Briton will be provided with his toughest challenge of recent times and the tantalising prospect of a year-long fight.
Sergio Perez finished fifth on his Red Bull debut after he was forced to start from the pit lane following technical trouble on the parade lap.
On his comeback to the sport after a two-year hiatus, Fernando Alonso failed to make the flag after brake failure, while Sebastian Vettel limped to 15th in his maiden Aston Martin appearance. The four-time world champion crashed into Alpine's Esteban Ocon on a dour weekend for the former Ferrari man.
Mick Schumacher was 16th and last while his Haas team-mate Nikita Mazepin's debut lasted just three corners as he crashed out.
Updated: March 29, 2021 07:06 AM