Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton may have pipped Max Verstappen at the post after the Red Bull otherwise dominated the 2021 season opener in Bahrain.
But the Dutch driver’s boss Christian Horner was looking on the bright side late on Sunday.
“There were a few rule changes this winter that apparently brought the teams at the top together,” he said. “What you can say is that the really big winners this weekend were the fans.
“It was tough but fair racing, and the fact that we were able to push Mercedes so hard is a good sign for the world championship. Toto (Wolff) has had it far too easy in the past seven years – it’s time someone really challenged him.”
That challenger is indeed Verstappen, although even Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas thinks it is overly simplistic to say Formula 1 simply attacked Mercedes’ dominance with new rules.
“For sure Red Bull’s aero philosophy is higher rake but I think they have a really strong package overall – their power unit, their chassis, their aero is good.
“They’ve done a good job over the winter and we need to do a better job,” said the Finn.
Sunday’s race ended in controversy over the race director suddenly enforcing track limits – meaning Verstappen had to hand his race-winning pass back to Hamilton.
23-year-old Verstappen was upset, but fellow Dutchman Robert Doornbos – like Horner – is also looking at the bright side.
“Of course we wanted to see a victory,” the former Red Bull driver told Ziggo Sport.
“But look at the situation – Verstappen had problems with his differential and he still managed a great result with second place.”
Mercedes also aced the strategy on Sunday and Wolff hailed Hamilton for manifesting those tactics “precisely”.
“On one lap we struggle more with the balance but at race pace, the behaviour of the car is much more neutral,” the Mercedes team boss said.
However, no one in the paddock thinks Hamilton will simply now cruise to a record eighth world title – not even the seven time world champion himself.
“I think it’s something that all the fans have wanted for a long time,” said the British driver when asked about the prospect of a close battle in 2021.
“With the pace they have, they could be ahead a lot more. There’s a long way to go — 22 races, holy crap! I’ll be grey by the end of this.”
Wolff agrees: “Red Bull hasn’t been the strongest team at the beginning of the season in the past few years, and they often had a hard time in Bahrain. Now they have the best car.
“I am convinced that it will be very difficult for us to wrestle them down over a whole season.”
Hamilton added: “They are so fast, Max is in top shape, their car is fantastic, the engine is so powerful. I am so glad that I achieved this result when taking all of those factors into account.”