The first race of the Formula 1 season wasn’t much of a race at all.
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing opened the defense of his world championship with a dominant performance on Sunday at the Bahrain Grand Prix, winning by 12 seconds — an eternity in a sport that measures gains in the hundredths of seconds — and sending a message to the rest of the series that he will not surrender his championship easily.
Fastest in Saturday’s qualifying, Verstappen pulled away from the starting line on Sunday, beat his top rivals and his teammate Sergio Pérez to the first turn and never looked back. His lead grew slowly at first, two seconds, then four, then five. He beat Pérez by just under 12 seconds and the rest of the field by at least 38.
The big surprise was the car that followed the Red Bulls across the line: Fernando Alonso, the oldest driver in the field at age 41, who gave Aston Martin a surprise trip onto the podium in his first race with the team. Carlos Sainz, in a Ferrari, was a distant fourth but his team had bigger problems: His teammate Charles Leclerc didn’t even finish.
Aston Martin had raised eyebrows with its fast performances in testing and practice sessions the past two weeks, but even Alonso wasn’t sure that would translate to Sunday’s race. Until it did.
“I had the same feeling from testing — it’s too good to be true,” Alonso said of his ability to stay with the top teams on Sunday. “But it seems real. I could have driven for another hour on the track.”
Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, had been just as uncertain before the race, calling the first start of any season “a bit of a trip into the unknown.” And Verstappen’s ride was not flawless: He grumbled about some gear troubles on his radio, worried about tire conditions and, afterward, suggested Red Bull could still get better.
Formula 1: On and Off the Track
“Nothing big,” Verstappen said. “Just little things that you always want to fine-tune.”
Sunday’s Race in Seven Photos
Track Position, Lap by Lap
Verstappen surrendered the lead only once on Sunday, to his teammate Pérez, and only briefly. He quickly took it back and ran away from the field.
Where the Race Turned
This one was effectively over the moment Verstappen stepped on the gas. Starting from the pole, he was fastest to the first corner, and then second, and the third … you get the idea. Charles Leclerc gave Ferrari a few seconds of hope when he passed Red Bull’s Pérez in the opening sprint. But it wasn’t long before he was behind both Red Bulls and, like everyone else, wondering where Verstappen had gone.
Worst Days, Ranked
Esteban Ocon. The landslide winner in this contest. The Alpine driver managed to line up in the wrong place on the starting grid, drawing a five-second penalty, and then served it incorrectly, bringing on a second one. A third penalty — for speeding in the pit lane as he tried to make up the seconds he had lost — just seemed comical. Honestly, if there was a way to lock the keys in an F1 car, Ocon probably would have done it.
Oscar Piastri. His much-discussed move to McLaren last year, after Alpine had announced him as a driver for 2023, produced one of the more spicy moments of the new “Drive to Survive” season. But Piastri’s debut race for McLaren was a disaster: He was out after roughly a dozen uninspiring laps, part of a miserable day for his team.
Charles Leclerc. He was running third when his car’s power unit suddenly gave out. (Essentially, the car just died after he was going around a corner.) Starting the season out of the points was not in his plans, or Ferrari’s. Leaving the garage in a million-dollar racecar only to hitch a ride back to it on a Vespa, though? Ouch.
What They’re Saying
“That was exactly the start to the season we needed.” — Max Verstappen after Red Bull went 1-2.
“Yes! Bye-bye.” — Fernando Alonso on the radio, after a late-race pass of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz put him in third place and (eventually) Aston Martin on the podium.
“Unfortunately we’ve taken a step back and Red Bull’s on another planet. Third was the best we could hope for.” — Charles Leclerc, after his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz finished fourth and he didn’t finish at all.
March 19: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Jeddah Corniche Circuit.