Red Bull’s Max Verstappen started the new season as he ended the last with a dominant win in the Middle East.
The two-time champion led the Bahrain Grand Prix from almost start to finish, first lapping at a pace that beat his rivals and then controlling the race.
The drive, Verstappen’s 36th victory, underscored his status as favorite for a third straight world title.
Sergio Perez scored a Red Bull one-two ahead of an inspired drive from Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in third place.
“It was a very, very good first stint in which I made up my gap,” said Verstappen. “From then on it was just about taking care of the tyres. You never know what will happen later in the race. We just wanted to make sure we have the right tires and that they’re still in good condition.
“We have a good race package. We can definitely fight with this car and also a big thank you to the team for getting us another fast race car over the winter.”
Perez had won a battle with Charles Leclerc for second place before the Ferrari driver retired from third place with 16 laps to go when he lost the drive.
But it was Alonso who caused the great excitement in the race, dropping from fifth place on the grid to seventh place behind the two Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell on the first lap, but fighting back to the last place on the podium.
Alonso passed Russell before the first pit stops, then caught up with Hamilton and passed him after the second stops before approaching Sainz.
The movements on Hamilton and Sainz were of the highest quality.
Alonso and Hamilton battled for a couple of laps, with the Spaniard passing the Brit at turn four before a snap from behind left the Mercedes behind.
Then Alonso came back to Hamilton and overtook the inside of Turn 10, an extremely rare spot for a move.
At Sainz, the two touched as Alonso tried to exit Turn Four. Sainz was then smart to make the same move at Turn 10, but Alonso was able to drive down the following straight and passed the fast Turn 11.
“To be on the podium in the first race of the year is just amazing,” said Alonso. “What Aston Martin did over the winter to have the second best car in the first race is just unreal.
“We didn’t have the best start and had to pass on the track – that made it more exciting but we enjoyed it.”
After Alonso’s pass, Sainz held off Hamilton in fourth place. The seven-time champion initially looked like he could pass the Ferrari as well, but was unable to catch up as both struggled with tire problems and had to settle for fifth.
Lance Stroll’s second Aston Martin was sixth despite hitting Alonso at turn four on the first lap, costing the Spaniard a spot for Russell, who finished seventh.
Verstappen menacing in his superiority
In terms of spectacle, the race needed the battle between Ferrari, Aston Martin and Mercedes, because Verstappen was in a league of his own at the front.
The World Champion turned his pole position into an advantage at the first corner as Leclerc used the superior grip of the new tires he had saved for the race to pass Perez for second.
But Leclerc had no answer for the man he briefly challenged for the title last year.
Verstappen was more than a second clear after the first lap, four seconds clear after five and seven seconds clear after 10. It was clear the Dutchman was in no danger unless he got into trouble and the Red Bull ran save for a few Complaints flawlessly from its driver about slow gear changes.
Behind him, Perez’s challenge was to overtake Leclerc again.
He did this by using a second set of soft tires for his second stint, while Ferrari chose hard tires for Leclerc. The Mexican soon caught up and hit turn one on lap 26 and eased off.
Leclerc looked poised for a podium, within 10 seconds of Sainz’s lead, until his car lost power on lap 41 and he went down the straight to the last corner.
Desperate and aware of Ferrari’s inability to challenge Red Bull, he said: “We are very far behind Red Bull. The first stint was as expected after the choice we made on the tires, the car to the end and that’s the most important thing.”
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas was eighth ahead of Pierre Gasly, who put in a strong drive from the back of the grid after an equally difficult qualifying session. Alex Albon got the last point for Williams in tenth place.
Esteban Ocon’s second Alpine had a nightmare day and was hit with three penalties.
The first was for overstepping his grid spot, second for not correctly serving that penalty on his pit stop, and a third for speeding in the pit lane. Ocon eventually withdrew.
Lando Norris finished last for McLaren, hampered by an issue that required his car to be periodically refilled with compressed air.
His teammate Oscar Piastri retired early on his debut with an electronic problem.