South Africa

Verstappen cruises to season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix win

Max Verstappen won Saturday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix to give Red Bull a timely boost after a trying week for the world champions and team principal Christian Horner.

Verstappen shut out all the off-track speculation surrounding the Horner inquiry to lead home Sergio Perez for a crushing Red Bull 1-2.

Pole sitter Verstappen held off the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc to lead into the first corner, and it was business as usual for the Dutchman from there to the flag as he enjoyed the perfect start to his quest for a fourth consecutive world title.

In a statement of emphatic superiority, the 26-year-old Dutchman came home 22.5 seconds clear of Perez, who started from fifth, to ease some of the pressure on Horner and repeat his statement triumph last year.

By claiming the 33rd pole of his career, fastest lap and race win, Verstappen delivered the 12th ‘hat-trick’ of his career leaving only the seven-time champions Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton ahead on 22 and 19 trebles respectively.

“That was simply lovely,” Horner told his ace driver.

“To get pole, fastest lap, and a 1-2, a brilliant start to the year, thank you very much.”

It was Verstappen’s 55th race victory and 99th podium finish as Red Bull dominated an uneventful race on a cold evening at Sakhir’s Bahrain International Circuit.

It also extended his run as championship leader to 40 races since the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix.

Carlos Sainz, whose seat at Ferrari is to be taken by Hamilton next year, finished a pugnacious third ahead of team-mate Leclerc, who profited from a rare error by Mercedes’ George Russell in the closing laps.

Russell finished fifth ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris, Hamilton in the second Mercedes, Oscar Piastri in the second McLaren and the Aston Martin duo two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.

Horner show of unity

After days of speculation, Red Bull boss Horner arrived hand in hand with his wife, former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell – a show of unity following the release on Thursday of a cache of alleged messages from him to a female member of staff.

On track, the team showed no apparent distraction as Verstappen topped qualifying to secure his 33rd pole position – and lead the pack when the lights went out in cold, dry conditions in the desert.

The Dutchman made a clean start and led Leclerc, Russell and Perez through Turn One while Stroll spun and dropped to the back of the field after contact with Hulkenberg, who pitted for a new front wing and hard tyres. The entire field started on softs.

On lap three, Russell passed Leclerc on the outside of Turn Four to take second and Norris seized sixth from Alonso, but Verstappen stretched his lead to two seconds.

By lap six, it was 4.8 seconds and clear that the Red Bull were in a race of their own. Perez endorsed this as he swept past Leclerc inside turn 11 for second on lap seven.

Hamilton, ninth, appeared to be stuck behind Alonso before squeezing through on lap 10, as Verstappen stretched his lead to 6.9 seconds.

The pit-stops began on lap 11 with Russell and Leclerc, with brake problems, going first of the leading group, re-joining 12th and 14th. Perez and Hamilton soon followed, all going for hards.

When Verstappen finally pitted he had bulit up a 31 second lead.

For Horner and Red Bull, it was as good as it gets, the Dutchman in command by seven seconds ahead of team-mate Perez and the feisty Sainz with Russell fourth after the first round of stops. Crisis? What crisis?

For Mercedes, problems were piling up – overheating engines, power-unit issues and then, for Hamilton, a broken seat, with 28 laps remaining while Alex Albon’s Williams flashed a message “car too hot’.

Verstappen came in for a final set of new softs at the end of lap 37 and re-joined with a 17-second cushion ahead of Perez. It was a commanding performance from the champion, decorated with a fastest lap of 1:32.608 as he cruised through the final 16 laps: a lap that was fully 1.5 seconds quicker than any other.