Bahrain GP 2021: A thriller, and a question of rules

The main talking point after the Bahrain GP was why Lewis Hamilton was allowed to get away with exceeding the track limits at turn four time and again while Verstappen was warned after his infringement when overtaking Hamilton.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton began his pursuit of an eighth world title with a win at the Bahrain Grand Prix.   -  AP

“I think [the Bahrain Grand Prix] was definitely a blessing, perhaps in disguise. There’s always a chance, opportunities to prove people wrong, and I like to think that was definitely one of them. I hope there are many opportunities in the future to be able to show what I was able to do [in Bahrain] also.”

— Lewis Hamilton after winning the opening race of the 2021 Formula One season.

Max Verstappen and his Red Bull pit garage might beg to differ. On that as well as the regulations regarding track limits — or, at the very least, the interpretation of the rules.

The Bahrain Grand Prix was the first race of the season after the Australian GP was pushed to November on account of the Albert Park track undergoing a bit of a redesign, and pre-season testing as well as qualifying promised a thriller at Sakhir after Verstappen edged out the seven-time world champion to pole. After several seasons of dominance, Mercedes had a challenge on its hands. Sakhir delivered the race it promised, but it also ignited a debate over the rules.

Tsunoda best F1 rookie in years, says Brawn  

Red Bull set the pace at pre-season testing in Bahrain, and the RB16B clearly looked the car to beat. But ill luck dogged the Milton Keynes team all race weekend. First, Verstappen seemed to pick up damage to his chassis during the first session of qualifying. Then, new teammate Sergio Perez was eliminated in Q2 after a flurry of drivers set last-minute faster laps on the softer tyres, while the Mexican had done his on the harder compound, he and his team confident that his timing would be enough to take him through. In Q3, Verstappen pulled off a stunning lap to take pole from Hamilton by nearly four-tenths of a second.

On race day, Perez’s engine shut down on the formation lap, and he had to start from the pit lane. At the other end of the grid, Verstappen held on to his lead at the start and through to the first round of pit stops, where Hamilton was able to undercut his title rival. By the time Verstappen stopped for a second time on lap 39 of 56, Hamilton had built his lead to eight seconds. But the Red Bull driver was on much fresher tyres and had cut the lead to under a second by lap 51.

F1 race director Masi denies inconsistency on track limit rules  

On lap 53, Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the outside of turn four, but gave the position back after race director Michael Masi deemed the move illegal. Hamilton held on to the lead for the little over three laps remaining, taking the win by a mere 0.745 second.

The main talking point later was why Hamilton was allowed to get away with exceeding the track limits at turn four time and again while Verstappen was warned after his infringement when overtaking Hamilton. According to Masi, the discrepancy is because the two fall under two different pieces of regulations.

Rule 27.3 of the F1 Sporting Regulations, in part, reads: “Drivers will be judged to have left the track if no part of the car remains in contact with it and, for the avoidance of doubt, any white lines defining the track edges are considered to be part of the track but the kerbs are not. Should a car leave the track the driver may re-join, however, this may only be done when it is safe to do so and without gaining any lasting advantage. At the absolute discretion of the Race Director a driver may be given the opportunity to give back the whole of any advantage he gained by leaving the track.”

Hamilton says he loved 'every minute' of tough opening win at Bahrain GP  

Hamilton’s case falls under section 21 of the Race Director’s Notes, which are issued before every race and deal with track-specific matters. On the Friday before the race, Masi told the drivers that the track limits at turn four would be monitored in practice and qualifying, but not during the race.

Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in action during the race. On lap 53, Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the outside of turn four, but gave the position back after race director Michael Masi deemed the move illegal. Hamilton held on to the lead for the little over three laps remaining, taking the win by a mere 0.745s.   -  Reuters

 

“With regard to tolerance given with people running outside of the track limits during the race, it was mentioned very clearly in the [drivers’] meeting and the notes that it would not be monitored with regard to setting the lap time so to speak — but it will always be monitored in according with the Sporting Regulations that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained. Nothing changed at all during the race,” Masi said after the race. “We had two people that were looking in that area at every car, at every lap and pretty much every car bar one was doing the right thing within what we expected in a general sequence. There was the occasional car that had a bit of a moment or went out there but it wasn’t a constant thing.”

Masi added: “Red Bull were actually given an instruction immediately by myself that I suggested they relinquish that position as listed in the Sporting Regulations, which they did. It wasn’t for exceeding track limits — it was for gaining a lasting advantage by overtaking another car off the race track.”

Hamilton pips Verstappen to win Bahrain Grand Prix  

The question here is how did the race stewards decide that Verstappen gained a “lasting” advantage while Hamilton did not. One video on social media showed the reigning world champion straying beyond the white line on the exit of turn four 29 times before his team told him of a warning from race control. This writer counted seven laps in a row before stopping barely midway into the race.

According to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, cutting that corner would have given Hamilton an advantage of 0.2 seconds per lap. You do the math.

Toto Wolff, Horner’s counterpart at Mercedes, feels more clarity is needed to track limits. “… At the beginning of the race, it was said track limits in turn four wouldn’t be sanctioned. Then in the race suddenly we heard that if you would continue to run wide, it would be seen as an advantage and could cause a potential penalty, which we debated with the race director, but there’s nothing we could have done. It was a case of: if he makes that call, then that’s it.”

Ironically, it was enforcement of the same rules that gave the win to Mercedes.

But as Wolff said, “…we need to be consistent in which messages are being given. They need to be clear, they need to be sacred, and not a Shakespeare novel that leaves interpretation.”