Lewis Hamilton holds off Max Verstappen to capture F1 season opener in Bahrain

F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain
Clive Mason - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton just held off Max Verstappen to win the Bahrain Grand Prix season opener and clinch his 96th career victory Sunday.

The race was effectively decided when Verstappen overtook Hamilton with four laps remaining but went too wide on a turn.

Verstappen was instructed by his team to give Hamilton the position back, as he risked a time penalty from the race stewards, who had been enforcing track limits during the race at the exit of Turn 4 where Verstappen made the pass.

Verstappen still had a few more opportunities to catch Hamilton, and he almost did, finishing just 0.74 seconds behind the Mercedes driver.

“What a difficult race that was. Max was all over me at the end and I was just about able to hold him off,” Hamilton said. “I knew he was going to catch me and I thought it was going to be impossible to keep him behind … That was one of the hardest races I’ve had for a while. I love the challenge.”

Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, took third but finished 37.383 seconds behind because of a late pit stop for new tires that allowed his Mercedes to set the fastest lap of the race.

McLaren’s Lando Norris was fourth, followed by Sergio Perez in his Red Bull debut. Perez started from the pit lane because of prerace mechanical problems, but Verstappen’s teammate was voted the Driver of the Day after overcoming adversity.

Verstappen took a superb pole position Saturday, the fourth of his career, and started immediately ahead of Hamilton, who used an early pit stop to seize the lead.

The race then turned into a strategy battle with Hamilton maintaining a 9-second advantage after Verstappen made his last pit stop with about 15 laps remaining. Despite tires with about 10 more laps of wear, the Mercedes driver managed to set a quick enough pace that prevented Verstappen from retaking the lead.

“It’s a shame but you also have to see the positives,” Verstappen said. “We are really taking the fight to them, and I think that’s great to start the year like that.”

The rest of the top 10 were: Charles Leclerc, Daniel Ricciardo (in his McLaren debut), Carlos Sainz Jr., Alpha Tauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda and Lance Stroll.

It was a miserable race for Stroll’s teammate, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel. After sustaining a five-spot grid penalty, Vettel was penalized for spinning Esteban Ocon and finished 15th.

In his return to F1 after a two-year absence, Fernando Alonso failed to finish because of suspension trouble in his comeback with Alpine.