SAKHIR, Bahrain — Formula One champion Max Verstappen’s title defense turned into a nightmare when the Red Bull star retired near the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday allowing Ferrari to clinch a 1-2 finish with Charles Leclerc winning ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton took an unexpected third place after Sergio Perez’s Red Bull also retired with the finish line in sight as the race finished under a yellow flag.

Hamilton had been lagging way behind in fifth when late drama on Lap 46 changed the race.

Leclerc was leading comfortably from Verstappen when the back of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri car caught fire as he parked it on the side of the track. It was quickly put out and the Frenchman walked away unharmed.

From the restart, Leclerc got away and Verstappen started complaining about steering problems.

A few minutes later both Red Bulls were out of the race and George Russell’s Mercedes moved up into fourth to give Mercedes an unexpected bonus.

In a 57-lap race, Verstappen retired on Lap 54 and Perez on 56.

A thrilling race to start the season and one laced with a large dollop of irony.

Verstappen won the F1 title last year with a last-lap pass of Hamilton following a controversial restart under a safety car, just when Hamilton was cruising to what would have been a record eighth title.

Red Bull celebrated wildly that night in Abu Dhabi, then Mercedes lost both appeals and Red Bull started in dynamic form as Verstappen led preseason testing. He lined up second behind Leclerc for Sunday’s race with trusted Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez starting from fourth and the team expecting a healthy haul of points.

Red Bull walked away with none.

Sweet revenge for Mercedes perhaps as team principal Toto Wolff smiled from the side and probably not only because of Hamilton’s unexpected podium.

But also unbridled joy for Ferrari.

“That’s exactly how we should start the season,” Leclerc screamed on radio. “Mamma mia.”

It was the team’s first win and its first 1-2 since former driver Sebastian Vettel won the Singapore GP ahead of Leclerc in 2019, and Leclerc’s first since winning the Italian GP in Monza two weeks earlier.

“Congratulations to Ferrari, so happy to see them doing well again. They’re such a historic, epic team,” Hamilton said. “It was such a difficult race for me. This is the best result we could have got.”

As Leclerc celebrates his third career win, the Scuderia’s Tifosi fans have something to crow about, while his old karting rival Verstappen will be fuming at his bad luck.

Hamilton knows a little about how that feels.

So does Kevin Magnussen, who was fired by Haas at the end of 2020 as a restructuring took place with a Russian backer and Russian driver. But when Nikita Mazepin was axed, Haas re-hired Magnussen and the determined Dane powered the car into fifth place.

Haas scored no points last year.

Posted by WordPress Guru