Verstappen opens with a win as Red Bull takes 1-2 in Bahrain
SAKHIR, Bahrain — Max Verstappen's dominant Bahrain Grand Prix victory seemed normal by his high standards.
The surprise of the Formula One season opening race? Fernando Alonso in a stunning third place on his debut for Aston Martin.
Verstappen cruised to the win Sunday as he opened his defense of his back-to-back world championships. His dominance put all the focus on the rest of the field and it was Alonso who stole the show with his first podium in 26 races — a performance that came 13 years after he won in Bahrain with Ferrari.
The Spaniard felt Aston Martin had a fighting chance after preseason testing, and he was strong all weekend in Bahrain in spectacular debut with his new organization.
“I had the same feeling from testing — it's too good to be true," Alonso said. “But it seems real. I could have driven for another hour on the track.”
Alonso has now kicked off "Mission 33,' the catchphrase his fans created as he chases a 33rd career F1 victory. The 41-year-old is a two-time world champion but last won a grand prix 10 years ago.
“I would say yes, when you are P3 in race one, anything can happen in 22 races," Alonso said of his chances at winning a race this year.
Verstappen's mastery, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly commonplace. He won a record 15 races last year and led almost the entire race on Sunday as Red Bull clinched a 1-2 finish.
Sergio Perez finished second, but a full 12 seconds behind his teammate.
As Red Bull celebrated, the spotlight shifted to Alonso and Aston Martin, which also got a sixth-place finish from Lance Stroll.
“What have you done guys? What have you done?" a jubilant Alonso radioed his team. "I'm so proud.”
Alonso, who joined after an acrimonious split with Alpine, pumped his fist at the finish line and then hugged his race crew.
“To finish on the podium first race of the year is just amazing," Alonso said. “What Aston Martin did over the winter to have the second best car on race one is just unreal.”
Verstappen's 36th career win was the Dutchman's first at the flood-lit Sakhir circuit, where he retired just laps from the end in last year's opening race.
“That was exactly the start to the season we needed,” said Verstappen, who retired from three of his first four career races in Bahrain. “I’m very happy to finally win a race here.”
Both Red Bulls failed to finish the race in 2022.
“Our best start ever, much different to last year," Perez said. “I’m comfortable with the car.”
The start of the new year brought no new luck to Ferrari as defending race winner Charles Leclerc lost power while running third near the end of the race.
“No, no, no, no," pleaded Leclerc over his radio as his car slowed to a stop. Ferrari had changed an engine battery before the race, too.
“It’s a pity because it’s at these weekends where you have to maximize points," Leclerc said. "Unfortunately we’ve taken a step back.”
Leclerc's engine caused panic at Ferrari, and Carlos Sainz Jr. didn't even bother trying to defend Alonso's pass for third with 11 laps remaining.
Sainz finished fourth ahead of seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton and Stroll, who missed preseason testing because of an injury suffered in a bicycle accident. He needed surgery on his right wrist and wasn't even confirmed able to drive this weekend until Thursday.
“Congrats to my teammate Lance; 12 days ago he had surgery," Alonso said. "He is fighting right up with everybody. So amazing for the team."
George Russell was seventh for Mercedes and was followed by Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo, and Pierre Gasly, who recovered from starting last to finish ninth in his Alpine debut. Williams driver Alex Albon rounded out the top 10.
Logan Sargeant, the first American driver on the grid since 2015, was 12th for Williams after starting 16th.
It was a day to forget for Alpine's Esteban Ocon, who was hit with three time penalties totaling 20 seconds and finished 18th.
Alonso was a menace for Ferrari and Mercedes, who both made tactical tire stops to ward off any challenges from Alonso. That helped Stroll, who used the undercut perfectly to overtake Russell just as he was emerging following a second tire change.
Alonso passed Hamilton on Lap 37 but then slid wide as Hamilton reclaimed position. Alonso had another go on the next lap, and passed him by attacking on the outside and then quickly diving inside in a classic move.
It could be one of many such moves in a season where Alonso has a car to match his talents.
“This is just the beginning,” Alonso said.
Next up: the Saudi Arabian GP on March 19, where there are more long straights, high-speed corners and less tire degradation. ___
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports