Red Bull should win every race this season, says Russell after Verstappen triumphs on F1 opener
Defending world champion Verstappen picked up where he left off with a crushing display to take the chequered flag at Formula One’s season opener in Sakhir, crossing the line 11 seconds clear of Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull.
As Verstappen dominated, 41-year-old Fernando Alonso provided the spark to a tame race as he duelled with old foe Lewis Hamilton to claim the final spot on the podium. Hamilton finished fifth.
But Alonso, albeit in a rejuvenated Aston Martin, took the chequered flag nearly 40 seconds behind Verstappen, with Hamilton 51 adrift.
“Red Bull have got this championship sewn up and I don’t think anybody will be fighting with them this year,” said Russell, who finished seventh on a sobering evening for Mercedes.
“They should win every single race this season. With the performance they have got I don’t see anyone challenging them. They have got it easy at the moment, and they can do what they like.
“They might not take every pole – because Ferrari are competitive over one lap – but when it comes to race pace, they are in a very strong position.”
Verstappen has won 10 of the last 12 races, and 17 of the past 24 – stretching back to his contentious triumph over Hamilton in Abu Dhabi which brought the curtain down on an F1 season for the ages.
However, a period of dominance has ensued. Red Bull mastered an overhaul in regulations to allow Verstappen to take his second consecutive championship with four rounds to spare last year, and his display here did little to dampen expectations that he will secure a hat-trick of titles.
However, Mercedes have not only fallen further behind Red Bull this year, but been usurped by Aston Martin, too.
Team principal Toto Wolff has effectively waved the white flag on this season’s championship by turning his attention to a new design for next year, and ditching a planned upgrade to come at the fifth round of the season in Imola.
Russell added: “We can’t beat around the bush. It is a big blow for all of us, but if we have to sacrifice races, or part of the season to give ourselves a chance to get a car that can fight – if that is the second half of the season or looking towards next year – then that is what we will have to do because clearly we are a long way behind. We are here to fight for championships. We are here to win and nobody remembers who finishes second or third. If I finish second or seventh in the championship this season it makes no difference.
“I am here to win races. I want to win championships and that is what every single person in Mercedes is here to do. If we need to make drastic changes to give ourselves a shot in the second half of the year or whenever that may be, that is what we will do.”
Wolff concluded: “It was one of my worst days in racing. It was really not good at all. We are lacking pace, left right, and centre and Red Bull are just on a different planet.
“That is what hurts because they are so far ahead and it reminds me of our best years where we just put a second on everyone else. That is the benchmark and we need to come back and we can absolutely do that.”
Following a smooth getaway, Verstappen – keeping a fast-starting Leclerc at bay – was six seconds clear of the Ferrari man after only eight laps, and 17.7 seconds clear of fifth-placed Hamilton with 10 of the 57 laps on the board.
Hamilton started seventh and moved past Russell and Alonso at the start to take fifth but the 38-year-old was finding it difficult to get up to speed in his Mercedes.
“Is Lewis managing or is he slow because I feel like I have a bit more pace,” said Russell, one place back. “Struggling, struggling,” came the response.
Hamilton was the first of the top six to pit, and after the opening stops unravelled, Verstappen held a commanding 10-second lead over Perez, who, in his speedier Red Bull, had by now managed to get the jump on Leclerc.
With the Red Bulls in control, the attention turned to who would be best of the rest and it was Alonso, the 41-year-old on his Aston Martin debut, taking centre stage.
On lap 35, he emerged from his second stop right on Hamilton’s gearbox, and the two oldest drivers on the grid rolled back the years as they diced for fifth place.
Alonso sniffed a chance at Turn 4 on lap 37 but the Spaniard was too hot on his brakes. Hamilton survived, but only for two laps before Alonso threw his Aston Martin down Hamilton’s inside with a bold move at Turn 10 – a sharp left-hander. “Let’s go,” Alonso screamed in delight.
Then, over at Ferrari, drama struck as Leclerc broke down with 17 laps to run.
Elsewhere, Lando Norris finished 17th and last after making six pit-stops with a problematic engine. His rookie McLaren team-mate Oscar Piastri retired with mechanical troubles.
Verstappen said: “I am happy to finally win here in Bahrain. It depends race to race, but we can definitely fight with this car. It was a very good first stint and then it was about looking after the tyres because you don’t know what happens later in the race.”