Honda, Verstappen Second in F1 Season Opener

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Honda announced its presence in the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship with authority during this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, winning the pole and leading more than half the race as Max Verstappen’s second-place run paced a trio of points-paying results.

Honda showed its hand in qualifying as Verstappen stormed to the pole, giving Honda its first back-to-back F1 poles (Abu Dhabi 2020) since 1991. He made it stand up as he roared away from Lewis Hamilton and held the advantage through slowdowns for two early accidents. The two combatants got on different tire strategies early on as Hamilton bailed for hard Pirellis on Lap 13, while Verstappen waited four laps before ducking in for medium shoes.

The move appeared to work well for Verstappen as he climbed to within two seconds of the front-running Hamilton at the race’s halfway point and assumed the lead on Lap 28 when Hamilton went to the pits again. The fight to the end was set up 11 laps later when Verstappen made his final stop, leaving him to make up 8.8 seconds with 17 laps to run.

The Dutchman used just 13 laps to get to Hamilton and make his move, sweeping to the outside of the World Champion in Turn 4. He completed the pass, but exceeded the track limits in doing so, leading Race Control to insist that Verstappen give the position back. Once given new life at the front, Hamilton was equal to the task, holding off Verstappen’s late thrust and dropping the Honda driver to second at the checkered flag.

Verstappen’s new teammate Sergio Perez had an equally dramatic day after an electrical problem on the formation lap forced him to start from Pit Lane. Running last in the early laps of the race, Perez used a three-stop strategy and good pace to work through the field, passing Charles Leclerc with three laps to go to secure a fifth-place finish.

Meanwhile 20-year-old Yuki Tsunoda had a day to remember in his F1 debut. The Scuderia AlphaTauri pilot came from 13th on the grid to finish ninth, scoring in his first race and becoming the first Japanese driver since 2012 (Kamui Kobayashi) to card a points-paying finish. His teammate Pierre Gasly was not as fortunate, losing a front wing in Lap 6 contact and failing to finish after starting a strong fifth.

The finish gave Honda the 200th podium result in its Formula 1 history, and the 21st provided by Verstappen. The series will journey to Imola next, competing at the Italian circuit on April 18.

Toyoharu Tanabe
Technical Director, Honda F1
“Max started from pole and led for many laps, which is a very positive start to the season, although it’s a shame he missed the win by so little. In the end the gap was very close and the result was really down to the different strategies between Red Bull Racing Honda and the winner. Unfortunately, Sergio suffered an electrical shut-down on the formation lap and we will now examine the chassis and PU side to find out exactly what happened. He was able to get the car started again and then drove a very strong race, going from a pit lane start to fifth place at the flag. For Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda, Yuki had a very good F1 debut, with several overtaking moves resulting in a points finish in ninth place. Pierre was never able to recover from the early incident that forced him to pit for a new front wing. However, he and his teammate were quick all weekend and we hope they can do well at their home round in Imola. I want to thank everyone at Sakura and Milton Keynes for all their hard work in delivering a new PU for this season and our two teams for producing excellent cars. We will study the data to see where we can improve and also look at the reliability issues we experienced this weekend.

Max Verstappen – Red Bull Racing Honda
Start 1st, Finish: 2nd
“We definitely made good steps today but it’s of course a shame not to get the win. We were having to manage a couple of issues throughout the race but there are positives to take from today and the whole weekend. Mercedes did the undercut but we stuck to our strategy which was working fine, the problem is that with these cars, it’s so hard to pass and track position is pretty powerful. As soon as I got close enough to Lewis I had one shot and I just went outside of the track at Turn 4 so I gave the position back, but by then my tires weren’t in a good state. We have to look at the positives, we are taking the fight to Mercedes and I think that’s great and we managed to score some good points for the Team. We will analyze what we can do better. It’s great to get Honda’s 200th podium this weekend. Now we focus on the next race.”

Sergio Perez – Red Bull Racing Honda
Start From Pit Lane, Finish: 5th
“Considering my race almost didn’t happen today, I think we can be pleased and take away the positives as the pace was really good and the potential is there. On the formation lap, all of a sudden the car shut down and I was so close to jumping out but I stayed in and somehow the car got going again which was a miracle. That meant we had to start from the pit lane which wasn’t ideal but we managed to recover and I was just happy to complete the race and get that important mileage under my belt. We’ve got a lot of data to analyze now so that we understand everything and make sure we come back stronger at the next race in Imola.”

Pierre Gasly – Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda
Start: 5th, Finish: DNF
“I’m very disappointed because we’ve had a very strong weekend since we arrived. Starting from P5 I was hoping for some good points today, but my race was over after the contact with Daniel (Ricciardo) in lap one. I broke the front wing, I had floor damage and I was obviously very far behind after just one lap, so my race was almost finished from there. It’s a big shame because we’ve shown good pace all weekend but we didn’t get the rewards today, but I think there are still a lot of positives to take from this weekend and that’s what we’ll look at for Imola.”

Yuki Tsunoda – Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda
Start: 13th, Finish: 9th
I’m happy I managed to score points in my first Grand Prix – I think this race showed how great the performance of the car is. I have to say, I’m a bit disappointed still as I lost a few positions on the first lap – due to being too cautious – and had to work throughout the race to recover these. I’ve learnt a lot here in Bahrain, which is really positive, and I will take this with me to Imola. I had some strong overtakes during the race and, for me, overtaking Fernando (Alonso) was quite an emotional experience, he’s a Formula 1 superstar that I’ve grown up watching, so that was pretty exciting. I’m really proud of my performance and I’m looking forward to seeing how we do next time out.”