Season opener sees Max and Checo forced to retire

21 March 2022, Bahrain:  There was heartbreak all round for Oracle Red Bull Racing as World Champion Max Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez were forced to retire from the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix after suffering from suspected fuel pump issues.

F1 reports

Season opener sees Max and Checo forced to retire

For the bulk of the race Max had shadowed race leader Charles Leclerc of Ferrari and when the safety car was released after a fire halted the progress of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly on lap 44, the field bunched and Max was presented with a chance to attack.

However, following his final pit stop, Max had complained of a worsening issue with heavy steering and when the safety car left the track his problems were compounded as he reported he felt that he was also losing battery power. The pit wall informed him that it was not a battery issue, but the champion continued to lose ground.

On lap 55 he slowed dramatically and the field swept past as he limped to the pit lane to retire. That left the hopes of the Team in the hands of Checo, and initially the Mexican driver was able to hold P3 behind the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and hold off Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. But then with just two laps to go Checo radioed the Team saying he was losing power. Hamilton closed on and at the start of the final lap Checo spun in turn one, which saw Hamilton power past and the Team suffered its first double DNF since the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix.

Commenting on the race, driver Max Verstappen said: “We were feeling quite competitive throughout the weekend so the result today was very unfortunate for us.

“The problems started initially with the brakes, they were overheating so I had to lift off and as a result I lost pace and had to let Charles go. After that, there were still a few issues with car balance and after my final pit stop my steering wheel was locked. That made it very difficult to drive so defending from Carlos at the re-start wasn’t easy. The final issue looked like a fuel system problem, which is why I had to retire and it was extremely painful for both our cars to DNF.

“We don’t know exactly what went wrong yet but we’ll definitely analyse the data and make sure we learn from it. At the end of the day, motorsport is unpredictable and these things can happen, this is race one, we have plenty more ahead of us.”

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When the lights went out, Max made a good start from the front row but ahead of him pole sitter Charles Leclerc also got away well. Checo lost places to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen but was soon on the attack though and on lap three he closed up to Magnussen who had locked up at turn four. The Danish driver’s mistake allowed Cheo to pass with ease and he began to chase down Hamilton. Checo was on the seven-time champion’s gearbox on lap nine and with the aid of DRS he muscled his way past the Briton into turn four to return to fourth place.

At the front, Leclerc began to draw away from Max as the opening stint developed and by lap 13 the Monégasque driver, who started the race on new softs, was almost six seconds ahead of Max, who began on used tyres. The Team then pitted the world champion on lap 14 and the undercut proved powerful. Leclerc made his first stop at the end of the following tour and when he re-joined, Max was right behind the Ferrari.

Max attacked on lap 17 into turn one. He passed the Ferrari, but Leclerc immediately fought back, retaking the lead in turn four. Max stayed close and attacked again in the same place on the following lap. But despite once again getting past the Ferrari in turn one, Leclerc again stole back the lead in turn four. Max tried for a third time on the next lap, but this time he locked up on entry and Leclerc was able to comfortably hold his lead.

Behind them, Sainz was being pushed hard by Checo who took medium tyres in his first pit stop. After the action at the start of the stint, the remainder of the second phase of the race counted down without any significant movement at the front. Max made his second pit stop, for medium tyres, on lap 31, again seeking the undercut, but once again Ferrari reacted and thanks to a quicker pit stop the Italian squad managed to get the Leclerc back out in the lead.

Sainz and Checo made their second visits to the pit lane at the end of the next tour and the Oracle Red Bull Racing driver went for a second set of softs in order to attack Sainz, who had moved to medium compound Pirellis. Although Checo was the fastest man on the track for a spell, Sainz was able to hold position and as the laps counted down, Checo’s times began to fade.

The Team brought both Max and Checo in for a third stop on lap 44 and both took on soft tyres. That dropped Max behind Sainz and Checo fell to fifth behind Hamilton. However, Ferrari reacted by pitting Sainz, while Mercedes brought Hamilton in. That boosted Checo back to fourth place behind Sainz. Leclerc stayed on track to maintain position at the head of the field.

It was at this point that Max began to complain of heavy steering. On lap 46, Gasly pulled over at the side of the track just after turn three with the rear of his AlphaTauri on fire. The safety car was deployed and Leclerc pitted.   The safety car left the track at the end of lap 50 and Max attempted to wrestle his car to the end of the race. The attempt was valiant, but on lap 54, after also complaining of power issues, he was forced to retire from a suspected fuel pump issue.

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Checo then took up the gauntlet but on the start of the final lap his race was over as he spun in turn one, again with suspected fuel pump issues. With both Oracle Red Bull Racin cars out of the race, Ferrari scored its first one-two finish since the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix.

Discussing his performance today, driver Sergio Perez said: “It was going to be a great start to the season but unfortunately, we didn’t manage to get the result we were hoping for. It is very disappointing to not be able to execute the result we wanted; we had the podium in our pocket until the last lap.

 “A couple of laps before the end I could feel I was losing power, we knew there was an issue and we knew what had happened with Max. I had a similar issue to his car, at the moment we think it was a fuel system problem and basically the engine just stopped.

 “It is tough to digest but we are going to look for the positives and come back stronger next week in Jeddah. I am sure we will get to the bottom of the problem, we are a great Team and I really believe in them.

 “Today is very disappointing and an unfortunate start to our season but a year is a long time in Formula 1 and we’re only one race in.”

The final podium place went to Hamilton, with the Mercedes driver’s new teammate Russell in fourth. Magnussen claimed fifth place for Haas, with Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas in sixth ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, and the second Alpine of Fernando Alonso. Alfa Romeo rookie Guanyu Zhou took 10th place to score a point on his Formula One debut.

Commenting on the result, Team Principal Christian Horner said: “Obviously we are hugely disappointed to lose the chance of podium finishes today, but congratulations to Ferrari on their one, two finish and a return to the front.

 “We will need to conduct a full investigation into what happened, but it looks suspiciously like the failures are related to each other and it may be an issue with the fuel system.

 “The positive side for us is that we clearly have a competitive car, I don’t think we quite had the pace today, but there was some great racing between Max and Charles.

 “It’s an incredibly long season with 22 races remaining, so we need to get on top of whatever this issue was today and come back stronger next weekend.”

The paddock remains in the Middle East as Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is the stage for the second race of the 2022 season.