SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) — New season, another victory. Max Verstappen won the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix from pole position on Sunday, leading almost the entire race as he began the defense of his back-to-back Formula One titles.
Red Bull also clinched a dominant 1-2 with Sergio Perez finishing 12 seconds behind him in second spot while 41-year-old Fernando Alonso took a brilliant third place — and claimed a 99th career podium — on a stunning race debut for Aston Martin.
“What have you done guys? What have you done?” a jubilant Alonso told his team. “I’m so proud of you guys.”
Alonso’s fans are already labelling this season as “Mission 33” — hopeful the Spanish driver can win a 33rd career race. His last win was 10 years ago with Ferrari.
Alonso, who joined after an acrimonious split with Alpine, pumped his fist at the finish line and then hugged his race crew.
“To finish on the podium first race of the year is just amazing,” Alonso said. “What Aston Martin did over the winter to have the second best car on race one is just unreal.”
Alonso believes he can win a race this season.
“I would say yes, when you are P3 in race one,” he said. “Anything can happen in 22 races with different conditions.”
It was Verstappen’s 36th career win but the Dutchman’s first at the flood-lit Sakhir circuit, where he retired just laps from the end in last year’s opening race.
“That was exactly the start to the season we needed,” said Verstappen, who retired from three of his first four career races in Bahrain. “I’m very happy to finally win a race here.”
Both Red Bulls failed to finish here in 2022.
“Our best start ever, much different to last year,” Perez said. “I’m comfortable with the car.”
This time it was Charles Leclerc, after winning last year, who retired on Lap 41 of 57 when his Ferrari lost power.
“No, no, no, no,” pleaded Leclerc over his radio as his car slowed to a stop. Ferrari had changed an engine battery before the race but that didn’t stop Leclerc from making a dismal start to the year after such a frustrating season in 2022.
“There was just no more power. It’s a pity because it’s at these weekends where you have to maximize points,” Leclerc said. “Unfortunately we’ve taken a step back and Red Bull’s on another planet. Third was the best we could hope for.”
Leclerc’s retirement caused panic at Ferrari, and Carlos Sainz Jr. didn’t even bother trying to defend from Alonso — probably through concern he might lose power himself — and Alonso overtook him with 11 laps left.
Sainz finished fourth ahead of seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton in fifth place ahead of Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in sixth.
Stroll’s performance was impressive considering he missed preseason testing because of an injury picked up in a bicycle accident that required minor surgery on his right wrist.
Alonso and Stroll bumped into each other at the start, when Alonso dropped a couple of places, but they were all smiles at the end on an outstanding day for Aston Martin.
“Congrats to my teammate Lance; 12 days ago he had the surgery,” Alonso said. “He is fighting right up with everybody so amazing for the team, it was great.”
Alonso thought he’d touched cars with George Russell’s Mercedes.
“I thought it was George, but I saw in the replay it was Lance,” Alonso said. “It was our lucky day, from this contact and also to (score) very strong points.”
Russell was seventh for Mercedes.
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, Alpine’s Pierre Gasly — starting from last — and Williams driver Alex Albon rounded out the top 10.
Verstappen started from the pole with Perez alongside him. Leclerc and Sainz were on the second row with the 41-year-old Alonso going from fifth.
Logan Sargeant, the first American driver on the grid since 2015, was 12th after starting from 16th.
It was a day to forget for Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, who was hit with three time penalties totaling 20 seconds and finished 18th.
Leclerc gambled on saving a set of new tires in qualifying to use for the race and immediately jumped ahead of Perez, who just held off Sainz.
Alonso was a menace for Ferrari and Mercedes, who both made tactical tire stops in anticipation of what the two-time F1 champion with the best race craft in the business might do.
This helped Stroll, who used the undercut perfectly to overtake Russell just as he was emerging from the pits following his second tire change.
With Verstappen cruising, the action was heating up behind.
Alonso overtook Hamilton on Lap 37 but then slid wide as Hamilton reclaimed position. Alonso had another go on the next lap, and passed him by attacking on the outside and then quickly diving inside in a classic move.
It could be one of many exciting moves in a season where Alonso might have a quick enough car to match his talents.
The next indicator of that will be at the Saudi Arabian GP on March 19, where there are more long straights, high-speed corners and less tire degradation.
“I think the most important point is that the Aston Martin is a new car, a new project,” Alonso said. “This is just the beginning.” ___
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