F1 2021: Red Bull out to send a message to Hamilton and Mercedes in Bahrain opener

By Sports Desk March 24, 2021

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

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  • Australian Open: Brilliant, businesslike Barty a class above Australian Open: Brilliant, businesslike Barty a class above

    Ash Barty is a class above her peers right now – and 2022 is hers to dominate even further on the grand slam stage.

    Barty ended Australia's wait for a singles champion in Melbourne after a 6-3 7-6 (7-2) win over Danielle Collins in the final on Saturday.

    The world number one dealt with the pressure of such high expectations to become the first local Australian Open singles champion in 44 years.

    Barty had already ended another drought – becoming the first Australian women's singles finalist in 42 years.

    The composure she showed during that semi-final win over Madison Keys was again prevalent in the decider against Collins, who predictably threatened and looked certain to force a deciding set on Rod Laver Arena.

    Despite the expectations, there was a constant sense of calm and almost inevitability to Barty's success in Melbourne in 2022.

    In every moment, Barty seemed unfazed by everything around her, in a zone of her own, even at 5-1 down in the second set in front of an electric home crowd. Barty would have been excused for some panic, the fear of letting down the masses awaiting and anticipating a local Australian Open singles champion. But she didn't, and her calmness was mostly mirrored by those in the stands, who eventually got what they came for.

    And Barty's confidence was well-founded. She was far too good for each of her opponents, losing just 21 games on her way to the decider before facing a tougher test against Collins.

    Barty became the second active women's singles player to win a grand slam on every surface after adding the Australian Open to her 2019 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon titles, joining the great Serena Williams.

    Her coach, Craig Tyzzer, warned on Australia Day that Barty had "played better at times" in her career. But there was a steely resolve about Barty, whose focus and concentration was even more impenetrable than her serve throughout the fortnight. The emotions were released after championship point was converted with a cross-court forehand pass.

    The fact there could be more to come from Barty is a warning to the rest of the WTA Tour. That she managed all the pressure and expectation to win an Australian Open without dropping a set says a lot.

    "She seems very focused, but she's playing very within herself, and it just seems like everything is really working for her right now without playing unbelievable tennis for her," said Keys after being crushed in the last four. "I think the rest of us are watching it thinking, 'Wow, this is incredible', but when you watch her, she seems completely in control of all of it."

    Conquered by Barty in the quarter-finals, Jessica Pegula admitted the Australian was simply better than everyone else.

    "Just to do it two out of three sets for somebody to beat her is tough because she just makes you play so much and does everything so well," she said. "Yeah, I think she's definitely living in everyone's head a little bit. I don't think anyone is going to feel great going out to play her because they know they have to play really well."

    Barty has made history and delivered one of the iconic moments in Australian sport. She is a step above her opponents right now, and more history could await in 2022.

  • Australian Open: Barty claims maiden Melbourne triumph after thrilling second-set fightback Australian Open: Barty claims maiden Melbourne triumph after thrilling second-set fightback

    Ash Barty defeated Danielle Collins in an enthralling final to cap a supreme Australian Open campaign with a maiden title in her home grand slam.

    Barty was made to work hard for her success by unlikely finalist Collins and had to come from 5-1 down in the second set to prevail 6-3 7-6 (7-2) on Rod Laver Arena.

    It was to the delight of a partisan Melbourne crowd, who saw an Australian triumph in a singles event at the season's first major for the first time since Chris O'Neil in 1978.

    Barty, who has now won 11 matches in a row in 2022, clinched her third grand slam title at the first opportunity, a sublime cross-court forehand sealing a sensational triumph.

    Barty had offered the first sign of nerves and had to save the match's first break point with a brilliant forehand winner before recovering to hold.

    Yet she turned the tables in the next game, Collins tensing up and conceding the first break when she sent two serves long.

    With the crowd behind her, Barty got into her groove, holding with ease before two fantastic forehands paved the way for her to serve out the set.

    Barty seemed primed to take the match away from Collins in the second set, yet the top seed was stunned as she slumped to a 3-0 deficit.

    Having conceded serve for just the second time in the tournament, Barty squandered two immediate chances to break back, Collins coming out on top in a thrilling rally.

    There were more fist pumps from Collins as she held to go 4-1 up. A brilliant passing shot gave Barty hope in the next game, but she rushed a volley and followed with a double fault to hand her opponent two break points.

    Collins took the first to put herself on the brink of restoring parity, only for Barty to rally back with a break of her own and start a quite sensational comeback.

    Having held for 6-3, Barty appeared to have left herself too much to do when she went 30-0 down on Collins' next serve but reeled off four straight points to send the crowd into raptures before levelling the set with a fine hold.

    Collins needed to regain her composure and did so to reach the tie-break, but a foreland long put Barty in control, and the crowd were on their feet after a volleyed winner made it 4-0.

    Collins struck the net and then missed the court to grand Barty four championship points, and the comeback was complete with her slick forehand.

    DATA SLAM: Barty's home run

    The first Australian woman since 1980 to reach the final of this major, Barty became the first woman to win a grand slam title in her home country since Sloane Stephens triumphed at the 2017 US Open.

    She is also the first woman ranked world number one to lift the trophy since Serena Williams in 2015, ending a run of top-ranked players losing the Australian Open final, after Simona Halep in 2018 and Serena Williams in 2016.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
    Barty – 30/22
    Collins – 17/22

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Barty – 10/3
    Collins – 1/2

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Barty – 3/5
    Collins – 2/4

  • Morant follows All-Star selection with 30-point triple-double: 'It's hard to remember all the stuff he's doing' Morant follows All-Star selection with 30-point triple-double: 'It's hard to remember all the stuff he's doing'

    Ja Morant made Memphis Grizzlies history in his first game since being named an All-Star starter, but that came as no surprise to team-mate Jaren Jackson Jr.

    Morant – a first-time All-Star – was selected in the Western Conference lineup this week after an outstanding start to his third season in the NBA.

    The former second overall pick is averaging 25.9 points and broke new ground in recording his first triple-double of the year in Friday's 119-109 win over the Utah Jazz, who slipped further behind the third-placed Grizzlies with a fourth straight defeat.

    Morant had 30 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds, making it the highest-scoring triple by a Memphis player. The previous record, held jointly by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, was 28 points.

    The 22-year-old's Grizzlies team-mates had celebrated his All-Star recognition before the game – and that continued after another outstanding display.

    "All-Star starter and his first time being an All-Star at the same time – that's probably a lot to think about," said Jackson.

    "I'm glad he was able to come out and perform today, because I imagine there's lots of things to think about, thinking about all the work you put in to get to this point.

    "It's really cool to see. We kind of figured, but you just don't know until it happens. I know he was super geeked about it.

    "I see more of the work he puts in than anybody else – just because I'm on the same team, I get to see him practice, I get to see a bunch of stuff – so that's money, man."

    Jackson, put forward as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate by Morant, had six blocks for a second consecutive game – Brook Lopez, in January 2020, was the last player to enjoy such a streak.

    But he was far more comfortable discussing Morant's latest achievement, adding: "I didn't know he did it, I'm just now looking at it. Thirty-point triple-double? That's tough.

    "He does it all the time, though. I guess we can celebrate it, I'll celebrate it internally and just be happy for him – that's my dog – but it's hard to remember all the stuff he's doing, because there's too many. My memory's not that good.

    "This is historic stuff right here. I'm glad everyone's just enjoying watching it for what it is, because this is special stuff."

    Neither the All-Star selection nor this latest piece of history distracted Morant from the task at hand, however.

    "It's the same job as before the announcement was made: go out and prove myself," Morant said. "Tonight was another one of those nights, just trying to win the game.

    "I think the win was more important, but I guess the triple-double was needed to get the win. All in all, it was a good night."

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