Romain Grosjean will return to the cockpit of a Formula One car for the first time since his horrific accident at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix when he takes part in testing for Mercedes next month.

Grosjean, 35, remarkably walked away from a shocking crash in November last year when his Haas car was split in two and caught fire after smashing through barriers on the opening lap of the race.

The Frenchman spent another 27 seconds in the vehicle after the crash and was left with severe burns to his hands, though that was the extent of his injuries.

It proved to be his final race, as he missed the final two events of the season and his departure from Haas had already been confirmed.

Since leaving, Grosjean has started competing in the IndyCar series, however he will be back momentarily in F1 for the French Grand Prix at the end of June, with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff inviting Grosjean to take part in a specially arranged testing session, plus pre-race demo laps.

A Mercedes statement read: "In an emotional return to Formula One, Romain Grosjean will turn the wheel of an F1 car for the first time since his dramatic accident at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, when he drives Lewis Hamilton's world championship-winning W10 at the Circuit Paul Ricard next month.

"In the aftermath of his accident, Toto Wolff made a commitment to Romain that his crash would not be his final act in F1.

"True to his word, Toto invited Romain to the Mercedes F1 base in Brackley on March 30 to undergo a seat fit and spend time on the team's simulator in preparation for a specially organised test at the Frenchman's home circuit on June 29 – seven months to the day since his accident.

"He will also take part in a series of demo laps ahead of the French Grand Prix on Sunday 27 June."

Grosjean thanked Mercedes and Wolff for the opportunity to drive at his home track.

"I am so excited to jump back in an F1 car! It will be a special opportunity for me and to drive a world championship-winning Mercedes will be a unique experience," he said.

"I'm very grateful to Mercedes F1 and to Toto for the opportunity. The first I heard about the chance to drive a Mercedes was in my hospital bed in Bahrain when Toto was speaking to the media and made the invitation. Reading that news cheered me up a lot!

"F1 didn't get the chance to race in France during 2020 because of COVID so driving a Mercedes at the French Grand Prix in 2021 and then completing a test at the Circuit Paul Ricard, my home track, will be so special. I can't wait for the day to arrive."

Lewis Hamilton also paid tribute to Grosjean but could not resist a quip about letting him behind the wheel of his car.

"I'm really happy to see Romain back in an F1 car after his accident last year," the seven-time champion added. "When it happened, we were all praying for him and seeing him walk away from it and recover so well was a massive relief.

"I'm looking forward to seeing him again in France and welcoming him to the team for the weekend – although he better look after my W10!"

Lewis Hamilton is relishing his Formula One title fight with Max Verstappen and expects the battle to go to the wire, by which point the pair are "going to be sick of each other".

Defending champion Hamilton landed another blow at Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix, winning ahead of Verstappen to stretch his championship lead to eight points.

The Mercedes and Red Bull rivals have been the top two in all three races so far this season, with Verstappen boosted by the apparent superior pace in his car.

That superiority was less apparent in Portimao, where the Dutchman repeatedly complained of a lack of grip, even telling Sky Sports: "I hope we don't come back."

But Verstappen was still Hamilton's nearest challenger and the Briton is enjoying a "great fight".

"It's very tight," Hamilton told a news conference. "I saw that he'd gone in for the fastest lap and got it but obviously Valtteri [Bottas] ended up with it at the end.

"As you can see, it's a great fight between Mercedes and Red Bull – I'm sure also down the field.

"It's clear that we just have to continue. We're going to be pushing each other right until the last race.

"We're going to be sick of each other, I imagine, or at least sick of racing, because there are so many races."

Verstappen responded: "It's close. I wish it was closer. But it's a long season and we can't afford to have any retirements or silly mistakes, so we have to keep on doing what we're doing."

Hamilton won the championship by 124 points in 2020 and even then Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas was the man in second.

Although he suggested Red Bull's standards slipped this week – seemingly relating to the grip issue – Hamilton welcomed the competition.

"I'm massively excited and driven," Hamilton said. "I think we all are, as a team, to be in the fight with Red Bull.

"This weekend I feel like Red Bull lost a little bit of performance, because I don't think we improved. From the last race to here, I think they took a slight step closer to us for whatever reason.

"But this is great. This is what we all live for. This is what we live and breathe for, to get up and fight and try to pull out the smallest bits of performance to be able to fight a great competitor."

Despite his own complaints, Verstappen acknowledged Red Bull cannot afford to make excuses if they plan to beat Mercedes.

He added: "Clearly we still have to improve and do better because we should be fast on every single track in every single condition, because the track is the same for everyone."

Lewis Hamilton insisted Sunday's win at Portimao was "such a tough race" despite easing clear of Red Bull title rival Max Verstappen and pole-sitting Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton qualified in second and fell to third early in the race as Verstappen raced past him coming out of a safety car situation.

But the defending champion's skill and speed came to the fore as he outmanoeuvred the two men ahead of him.

Hamilton also reeled in Sergio Perez, who had stayed out on his tyres in a desperate attempt to hold up the 2021 Formula One leader.

A comfortable margin of victory gave Hamilton a second win of the season, having finished second in the other race, but he was keen to emphasise the difficulty of the task.

The Mercedes superstar, while acknowledging "today wasn't all perfect", said: "That was such a tough race, physically and mentally, just keeping everything together.

"It was very windy out there, obviously, so it was very easy to put a foot wrong.

"I didn't quite get as good a start as Valtteri and then lost out on the restart, which I was not happy about, naturally. I really had to try to position myself the best I could.

"I think Max made a mistake at some point through the lap, which was perfect. I knew that was going to be the lap I was going to get as close as I could to him in the last sector.

"With Valtteri, I had to make the move early on before the tyres were destroyed. I managed to just get him at Turn One, just where I wanted him. It was a great race."

Verstappen had bemoaned the tricky conditions after qualifying, saying the Portuguese Grand Prix had "not been a lot of fun to drive".

"Hopefully everything stabilises," he added on Saturday, but Turn 14 continued to test the Red Bull, errors at that corner letting Hamilton in and later denying the Dutchman the fastest lap as he ran wide.

"I think this was a bit of an odd weekend in terms of grip," Verstappen said. "We were not on top of it, but we'll see what we can do in Barcelona."

Bottas, who profited to claim the fastest lap but finished third, was not happy either.

"It was a little tricky day today," the Finn said. "I don't know what happened in the first stint, I just didn't have the pace for unknown reasons.

"I need to have a look at that. The second stint was pretty good but there was an issue with some sensor or something."

Lewis Hamilton continued his excellent start to the 2021 Formula One season with a masterful display to win the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Defending champion Hamilton – pursuing a record-breaking eighth title – won the opener at Bahrain and battled back to a heroic P2 after a crash at Imola last month.

That gave the Mercedes superstar a one-point lead over Max Verstappen in the standings heading to Portimao, and he increased that advantage on Sunday.

Hamilton started from second, behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas in pole, but produced another inspired performance.

The Briton initially trailed Bottas, who caught his colleague cold and pushed further clear coming out of a safety car for Kimi Raikkonen's tangle with team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi.

Verstappen beat Hamilton into Turn One to climb to second after the safety car and was then hunting Bottas.

But after failing to sufficiently close the gap, Verstappen lost pace on the remainder of that lap and Hamilton went past him as they crossed the same section of the track again.

It was Turn One again that gave Hamilton the opening for another smart manoeuvre, making use of DRS to take the outside when Bottas stayed tight on the inside.

Hamilton informed his team those overtakes had left his tyres "pretty shot", prompting a tactical battle.

Verstappen pitted first and Bottas quickly followed, but a slower stop meant he was soon caught and overtaken despite emerging ahead of the Red Bull.

Hamilton had enough of a lead to pit without falling behind either man, instead eventually catching Sergio Perez, who had been left out on the track until that point, perhaps hoping for a safety car.

There would be no further twist as Hamilton claimed a second consecutive Portimao triumph, leading a familiar podium – Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas have now shared the steps on a record 15 occasions.

Verstappen missed out on the consolation of the fastest lap, his best time deleted after both he and Bottas, who would claim the extra point, had pitted for the final lap while Hamilton opted not to take the risk.

'YOU'RE RACING HIM!'

So slow was Perez by the time Hamilton caught him, the Mercedes man thought he was lapping a straggler.

Apparently unaware he had not himself been leading the race to that point, Hamilton appealed for a blue flag for the Mexican.

"No, you're racing him," replied Mercedes over the team radio. "He's yet to stop."

THE MIDFIELD MASTER

While Hamilton is again proving himself to be the best driver among those in the leading cars, Lando Norris heads the midfield battle.

He was fourth in Bahrain and third in Imola but this time had to settle for fifth – beaten by Perez for the first time this season.

That was an impressive result after qualifying in seventh, Norris following Bottas and Verstappen in making a fast restart after the safety car but, unlike those two, making his advantage last.

Valtteri Bottas feels he has learned important lessons from his previous race after claiming pole position for the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Bottas qualified eighth last time out at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix as Max Verstappen took victory for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been tipped to grab pole in Portimao but, after struggling in the windy conditions, he was denied the fastest lap after a correction to avoid a crash at Turn 4 saw his time chalked off for exceeding track limits.

Bottas will start Sunday's race from the front of the grid, denying team-mate Lewis Hamilton the 100th pole of his career by 0.007 seconds, with Verstappen in third.

The Finnish driver was in buoyant mood after tying the great Jackie Stewart on 17 career pole positions, especially given his inauspicious drive at Imola last month, when a crash with George Russell ended a disappointing race weekend.

"It definitely put a smile on my face, because in the first two races of the season, the qualifying really from my side… at least the Q3 session hasn't been the strong point and getting everything out of the car and tyres to work well has been a bit of a weakness," he said.

"But now, it felt like things are starting to go in the right direction. I've been feeling strong all weekend so I knew it was possible and it definitely makes me really happy to put it together in Q3 and be on pole. And as a team as well, with the pressure and with the battle from Red Bull, it's good to be ahead.

"Mentally, I took all the learning points [from Imola], and there were a lot of lessons from that last race, as always. So, I took those, and the rest that I should forget, I completely moved aside and forgot those and moved on."

Hamilton was able to secure a 71st front-row lockout for Mercedes since 2014 but struggled throughout the session, while even the softer compound in Q3 did not yield sufficient grip for better times.

"There was honestly so much time available and I just didn't put it together," said the reigning world champion. "It's really tricky conditions here. The surface of the track is very smooth, and not a lot of grip and the tyres – you need extra laps to get the temperatures even though it's a really nice day.

"Then the balance… one minute you have grip; the next minute, you don't, so it's very tricky for everyone.

"It felt quite good in P3 today and on that Q2 lap it felt solid, and I thought that we were in the right window but it's temperatures... there are gusts of wind so you can be unlucky and get tail winds that perhaps you wouldn't normally get on particular corners."

Verstappen, meanwhile, is hoping for better on Sunday after admitting the lack of grip has made little about the weekend enjoyable so far.

Having won from third at Imola, he remains hopeful Red Bull's straight-line speed will be enough to put the Mercedes under pressure as he aims to overturn the one-point gap to Hamilton in the standings.

"It's been a bit hit and miss anyway, the whole weekend; we're just struggling a lot to find the balance," said Verstappen, who, like the front two, will start the race on medium tyres.

"To be honest, I didn't enjoy one single lap this weekend, just because of the state of the track. I mean the layout is amazing but the grip we are experiencing I don't think is nice. I know it's the same for everyone but for me personally, it's just not enjoyable to drive.

"We'll see [on Sunday] what we can do. It's not so easy to follow here but if we have good pace then, for sure, we'll put the pressure on."

Max Verstappen's title challenge was blown slightly off course as a deleted lap time handed pole position at the Portuguese Grand Prix to Valtteri Bottas.

The Red Bull driver was victorious last time out at Imola and his team again looked to have the best pace in Portimao ahead of qualifying.

But Verstappen complained of a lack of straight-line speed in Q1 and struggled with grip throughout amid windy conditions on the Algarve.

And a correction to avoid a crash at Turn 4 saw a lap that would have been the fastest of Q3 chalked off for exceeding track limits, and he could not replicate it on his sole flying lap that did count.

It meant Bottas claimed pole with a time of one minute and 18.348 seconds, with Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton denied a 100th career pole as he took second, missing out by just 0.007secs.

Verstappen, whose disqualified lap was a 1:18.209, conceded he has found little joy out of the challenge presented by the Algarve International Circuit.

"Whole qualifying was very difficult to drive, was struggling with grip," he said in the post-session interviews. 

"I was quite confident I could do another good lap, [but a] car in front in the last corners disturbs you.

"It's of course not ideal, we'll try to fight them [Mercedes] in the race and see what we can do. Hopefully everything stabilises, up until now it's not been a lot of fun to drive here."

Bottas' emotions were a marked contrast, the Finn left unsurprisingly satisfied with the 17th pole position of his career.

"Feels like it's been a while. It's been a weak point for me in the first two races, getting the tyres to work," said Bottas. 

"The team have been working hard all weekend and we have a good position for tomorrow.

"Starting with the medium tyre tomorrow is good, and it opens up opportunities that we can go as long as we want in the first stint.

Hamilton added: "A great job by Valtteri and our teams for us both to be on the front row, it was not expected. We have to be happy for that, it was not the perfect lap but I gave it everything.

"You can never be satisfied, we exist to keep moving forward but I'm happy with what we're doing and the steps we're taking."

The Red Bulls were far from the only ones to struggle with the wind, McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo failing to make it out of Q1, he will start 16th.

But there was better news for Sebastian Vettel, who made it through to Q3 for the first time since joining Aston Martin.

Vettel will start 10th in a race that will provide plenty of intrigue after an unanticipated shakeup at the front, with both Red Bulls behind an all-Mercedes front row but expected to have better race pace.

Sergio Perez, who will start fourth, told Sky Sports: "I never really got on top of the car in this session, I lacked a bit getting into a rhythm.

"Not really everything worked but at least we have a good starting position, our race pace seems to be better."

If that proves to be the case, it will set the stage for a fascinating duel on Sunday.


PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 1:18.348
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.007s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.398s
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.542s
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.691s
6. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.694s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.768s
8. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.958s
9. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1.127s
10. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1.311s

This was not how the start of the season was supposed to pan out for Red Bull, who had the fastest car in Formula One testing.

Superstar Max Verstappen has finished second and first over the opening two weeks, yet he still trails Lewis Hamilton by a point. Mercedes are also on top again in the constructors' championship, seven points clear even after Valtteri Bottas crashed out of the epic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

"To come away leading both championships almost felt like a get out of jail free card, because our rivals didn't maximise the opportunity we gave them," Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff said.

Verstappen is certainly in a title race, but seven-time champion Hamilton will be the favourite as long as he has the lead.

There is pressure on Red Bull to change that this week when the season continues with the Portuguese Grand Prix.

LAST TIME OUT

It would perhaps be easier to start with what did not happen at Imola, such was the drama.

Verstappen was the victor, while Hamilton came in second, but that does not even start to tell the full story, with incident right from the outset in the pouring rain.

The Mercedes driver started from pole but was trailing and damaged by Turn One, pushed wide by a rapid Verstappen dash.

Worse was to come for Hamilton as he careered off into a gravel trap midway through the race and attempted to get his sparking Silver Arrow back to the pit lane as Verstappen streaked clear.

But an unexpected intervention gave Hamilton a reprieve, with a crash – not the only one – between Bottas and George Russell prompting a suspension of the race.

That meant Verstappen had to restore his advantage after a nervy restart, while Hamilton resumed from ninth and weaved through the field to finish a distant second, retaining his season lead with a late fastest lap.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT PORTIMAO

Now that Hamilton has proven the worth of the W12 car – previously dismissed by Bottas as "undriveable" – Mercedes might expect a more straightforward weekend.

Hamilton won at the Algarve International Circuit last year, after all.

But the tricky circuit, dubbed 'the rollercoaster', could encourage another eventful outing, particularly with Verstappen keen to ensure he has not missed his chance to pull clear over the past two grands prix.

The battle below the top two teams is similarly intriguing, with McLaren's Lando Norris as high as third in the standings after following up a fourth place in the opener by taking third last time out. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, meanwhile, is fourth in the standings.

Neither McLaren nor the Scuderia had the pace to stick with Hamilton when his crash gave them a rare opportunity to compete with the Mercedes superstar, but those two teams will be determined to prove they are the best of the rest.

Sebastian Vettel's challenge right now is simply to get a point on the board after coming 15th in back-to-back races.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Reaching the Max – Having either won (twice) or secured pole position (twice) in each of the past three races, Verstappen is enjoying the best run of his career.

Hundred up for Ham – Hamilton's pole position at Imola was his 99th in F1, meaning he could this week become the first driver to reach a century. This is the same circuit where the Briton passed Michael Schumacher's record for race wins last season.

Keep your friends close – While challenging Hamilton, Verstappen also finally has competition again from within his own garage. Sergio Perez qualified in second last time out, the first time Verstappen had been beaten in qualifying by a team-mate in 19 races.

Yet so far – Leclerc is fourth in the standings and all too often fourth on race day. The Ferrari man has gone 15 races without a podium but has finished fourth on four occasions during that span.

Fail to Finnish – Bottas will hope to avoid a career first following his retirement last time out. In his 158-race career, he has never failed to place at consecutive grands prix.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 44
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 43
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 27
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 20
5. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 16

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 60
2. Red Bull – 53
3. McLaren – 41
4. Ferrari – 34
5. Aston Martin – 7

Lewis Hamilton believes his remarkable recovery to finish second at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday will prove "very valuable" this season.

In the second race of the year, Hamilton seemed set for a lowly finish at best.

Having lost first place to Max Verstappen at Turn One on the first lap of an epic affair, the defending champion, chasing his rival, ran off into a gravel trap midway through the grand prix.

Hamilton was briefly stuck against the wall, struggling to reverse his car back onto the track, before the W12 limped towards the pit under a shower of sparks.

But a red flag prompted by an incident involving team-mate Valtteri Bottas then brought the race to a standstill.

Hamilton had been ninth and a lap down, yet the restart allowed him to weave through the field and claim P2, behind Verstappen but still ahead of the Red Bull man in the drivers' championship.

"I think, without doubt, getting back to second and getting these points will be very valuable through the season," said the Briton.

"If I'd lost 25 points, that would have been hard to recover based on the fact that [for] Red Bull it's the first time that they've had a championship-winning car.

"Their car is incredibly fast. They were faster than us this weekend, definitely in qualifying trim but it looks like a little bit also in race trim.

"I don't know if they made a couple of mistakes – I think they did, Max did in qualifying for example otherwise he would have been on pole.

"But we've got a real close battle. We love the fact that it's a close battle and it's great to see McLaren back up there after such a long time, it's great to see Ferrari looking strong.

"So, there's going to be a lot of exciting races up ahead and challenging for all of us in so many different ways."

Although Hamilton's resurgence prevented Verstappen from taking an early lead in the standings, the Dutchman was delighted to land a blow in the title tussle, having trailed the Mercedes man in the season opener.

But he was also not getting carried away after a first win of the year.

"It's a very long season. We just have to keep on working very hard," Verstappen said. "I'm very happy with the result today, of course, but that's today.

"I'm of course going to be happy about today, but tomorrow, we start again. We have to keep on improving because there's still a lot of work to be able to keep doing this the whole season.

"It's great to be fighting against Lewis, Mercedes who, I think, as a team, have been so dominant and they're very difficult to beat.

"To be able to sit here now, now two races in a row, we were very, very competitive – that's very promising but no guarantees."

With his nose pressed against the wall and rivals crashing elsewhere on the track in torrid Imola rain, Hamilton could easily have retired following his crash.

He was not to know then that the collision between Bottas and George Russell would provide a reprieve, but he was delighted to be able to continue and learn "an amazing lesson" regardless.

"I remember just sitting there, looking at the barrier, and I refused to think that the race was over," Hamilton said. "I refused to believe that the race was done.

"I could have obviously just turned the car off and got out but I'm grateful that I didn't.

"I'm grateful that I did do a reverse and then, after that, just kind of getting out the car and trying to switch the anger and turn it into positive energy so that I could get back in and race forwards.

"It's an amazing lesson to be sent and experience."

And Hamilton, so often starting from the front of the grid, actually relished the chance to blaze past the opposition from ninth place.

"I loved it," he added. "That's how my career actually started as a kid, coming through.

"We had a really dodgy, old go-kart, so I was always starting at the back. It just took me back to my roots."

Lewis Hamilton apologised for his error at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but was relieved to be able to secure an outstanding P2 on Sunday.

Defending Formula One champion Hamilton, who started from pole, looked to have blown his chances of a podium finish when he ran off into a gravel trap while chasing Max Verstappen midway through the race.

But as his Mercedes limped back to the pit lane a lap down, an incident involving Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton's one-time reserve George Russell brought out the red flag.

Neither man involved in the crash could continue, although both avoided injury, but the stoppage gave Hamilton time to regroup.

That he did and the Silver Arrows superstar climbed from ninth to second, behind only Verstappen in a stunning display of resolve.

"Awesome job, guys," the Briton told his team radio. "Apologies for that mistake earlier on."

After congratulating Verstappen and third-placed Lando Norris in the post-race presentation, Hamilton said: "On my side, it was not the greatest of days.

"It was the first time I've made a mistake in a long time, but I was grateful I was able to bring the car home still."

He added: "I was really, really grateful that we got to get going again and to get some points for the team. That was really important."

Having set the fastest lap time late in the race, too, Hamilton still leads the drivers' championship, a point ahead of Verstappen.

But he said such a scenario was not on his mind as he prepared to restart.

"I wasn't thinking about it," he said. "I was just trying to get over the gutting feeling it is when you make a mistake and just moving on from it, learning from it real quick.

"You don't have time to dwell on it. So, that's what I did, get back into racing spirit.

"I didn't know if we'd be able to overtake, because off-line was really wet, but I still had some really fun battles with all the guys."

Verstappen is not concerned by his placing in those standings, however, responding: "It's a long season. We'll stay calm."

The Dutchman was one of the few drivers to enjoy himself in difficult conditions, most notably in the approach to Turn One as he pushed past Hamilton.

"I surprised myself," Verstappen said. "Last week we were struggling a little bit off the line, but we worked really hard to make that better.

"In these tricky conditions, we did a great job."

Max Verstappen claimed victory at a remarkable Emilia Romagna Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton twice sustained damage and a crash involving Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas prompted a red flag.

An epic race encouraged optimism for a genuine title tussle in Formula One in 2021, with drama right from the outset and Hamilton fighting hard to rescue a superb second-placed finish.

The defending champion had started from pole, with Verstappen qualifying in third, behind Red Bull colleague Sergio Perez.

But Verstappen claimed the lead from Turn One in the rain at Imola, racing up alongside Hamilton and forcing his championship rival wide, where he sustained right wing damage.

While chaos ensued behind them, Hamilton held off Charles Leclerc to ensure he remained the biggest threat to Verstappen, with a tactical battle briefly allowed to develop.

Verstappen pitted first on lap 28, with Hamilton following a lap later and coming out behind the Dutchman following a slow stop.

But a manic spell then shook up the race again. First, Hamilton ran off into a gravel trap and desperately sought to reverse back onto the track.

The Briton was limping back to the pit lane a lap down under a shower of sparks, emitted by his Silver Arrow, when a further incident brought out the safety car.

Bottas collided with Mercedes prospect George Russell, driving for Williams, and both cars crashed in spectacular fashion, with the drivers emerging from the wreckage to angrily blame one another over the team radio.

The red flag soon followed, with wreckage spread across the track and a 30-minute suspension required, giving Hamilton time to regroup.

He resumed from ninth, able to unlap himself, with Verstappen forced to build a healthy lead again from Lando Norris after a slightly nervy restart.

Verstappen had retired at each of the three Italian races in 2020 but avoided a similar fate this time and the focus in the closing stages was instead on Hamilton's progress.

The Mercedes man picked off his opponents one by one, eventually streaking past Leclerc to move into position for a podium place once more.

Only Norris in the McLaren stood between Hamilton and a phenomenal P2 and he patiently chased down his compatriot to limit the damage and somehow emerge from this race a point ahead of Verstappen.

'AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT'

As the race got back underway following his crash, Russell posted on Twitter: "Thanks for all the messages. I'm fine, just disappointed.

"At the end of the day, it's an unfortunate incident. You're entitled to defend your position. But at 330kph, you have to respect the speed and the conditions when doing so. Gutted for the team. They deserved more today."

That was the second crash that ruled a driver out, with Nicholas Latifi earlier colliding with Nikita Mazepin to almost instantly exit the grand prix.

The subsequent safety car brought its own share of incident – Perez hit with a 10-second penalty after running wide and overtaking two cars to recover fourth.

Mick Schumacher went into a wall under the safety car, meanwhile, and lost his front wing.

TONE SET BEFORE THE START

The weather was always likely to cause havoc and the drivers took to the track to test their tyres ahead of the race. Even that did not go smoothly.

Fernando Alonso crashed into the wall, while the brakes on the Aston Martin cars caught fire.

That issue meant Sebastian Vettel had to start from the pitlane, and he was later given a 10-second stop/go penalty, too, for failing to have his wheels fitted in time.

Bottas sustained a puncture on his way to the grid and then Leclerc span on the formation lap. It was one of those days.

Lewis Hamilton acknowledged he will likely have his work cut out if he is to start the 2021 Formula One season with a second straight win.

Reigning F1 champion Hamilton qualified on pole for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but will not have the support of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was only good enough for eighth.

Instead, it is Sergio Perez who will start alongside him on the front row at Imola on Sunday, with the Mexican's Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in third.

Hamilton accepted Red Bull's pace and positioning means they will have a significant advantage in trying to stop him from winning the opening two races of a calendar year for the first time in 15 seasons.

"It's much different from obviously past experiences. I can't remember the last time I saw the Red Bulls so close, so I think tomorrow, of course … if we're able to get off in order then they obviously have a bit of a better set of cards in terms of strategy," said Hamilton.

"But that doesn't mean we can't pull out something unique and do something different.

"I'm not really sure what happened with Valtteri. It's very hard to overtake here so obviously we probably won't have the support of him early on.

"Maybe he will make it through but otherwise we've just got to focus on our job and try and do absolutely everything and more to keep these lads behind."

Unlike Hamilton and Verstappen, Perez will start the race on soft tyres.

Explaining the strategy decision, Perez said: "We felt as a team that the soft is nowhere near where it was last year, so it's a good race tyre. It's just different to the medium when it’s important… it was very important and crucial for me to get that learning, that consistency and that progression.

"Whether or not it is the right or wrong strategy I think there's not much between them so we are definitely in the game for tomorrow."

Verstappen added: "Of course, we have to wait and see what is going to happen tomorrow but yeah, it's going to be interesting what can be done.

"But not only with that but also what the weather is going to do, if there is a bit of rain or not. I guess we just have to wait and see what's going to happen but hopefully in the race it will be close again."

Lewis Hamilton was shocked to claim his first Formula One pole position in four races as both Red Bull drivers rued missing out by the narrowest of margins.

Mercedes driver Hamilton took pole in qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix by just 0.035 seconds over Sergio Perez, with Max Verstappen just 0.087s back in third.

Charles Leclerc was fourth for Ferrari at Imola, with Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas struggling to eighth place.

That may give Red Bull a strategic advantage for the race, especially with their cars on split strategies as Perez will start on soft tyres while Hamilton and Verstappen will be on mediums.

Still, Hamilton was thrilled to emerge on pole, which came as a surprise to him after Red Bull's pace this weekend and the fact he did not improve on his first flying lap on Q3.

"It has been great," said Hamilton, who impressively won the first race of 2021 in Bahrain despite Red Bull appearing to have a pace advantage.

"I definitely didn't expect us to be ahead of two Red Bulls.

"They have been so quick this weekend, six tenths ahead at times, but the car was already feeling better from the beginning this weekend.

"Respect to the team for their hard work to narrow down the window [to Red Bull].

"I'm so happy because the first lap was really nice, really clean. The second had some improvements but overall wasn't as good as the first.

"I came around the last corner and heard that I got the pole and was super grateful."

The first qualifying session was halted with a red flag after a crash for Yuki Tsunoda, a session Bottas topped as both Williams cars progressed.

Perez – on his soft tyres – emerged at the top of the timesheets in a Q2 session that saw Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso among the eliminated drivers.

A dramatic Q3 then saw Hamilton just hold on to his lead set after the first runs. 

Lando Norris thought he had put his McLaren on the front row, only to discover he had exceeded track limits, meaning he settled for seventh behind Pierre Gasly and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Perez thanked his team after claiming second but felt he should have had pole.

The Mexican said: "Well done to the team. I made a mistake on Friday and made them the team work hard so it is a good recovery.

"The most important thing is we showed progress. I never expected to be here after where we were on Friday but we have been improving.

"It is P2, but I should've been on pole – I made a mistake on the final corner.

"Everything is positive and we have to make sure we keep progressing and Sunday is when it matters.

"Anything can happen – a different [tyre] strategy to Lewis and Max. It will be interesting to see what we can do. The important thing is we get those points and that learning which is the priority."

Verstappen had claimed the last pole of 2020 and the first pole of this season, while Bottas had started at the front in the penultimate race of last year. 

World champion Hamilton ended his wait for pole here, but Verstappen is eager to make life difficult to him.

The Dutchman said: "Not so good in Q3. I went off at turn three, so a bit messy, just not a good lap.

"You can't be good every time, so we'll see what went wrong – but it was definitely not the easiest in Q3. 

"It's still P3, which is a good starting position. It's going to be interesting. We have the two cars on the different tyres and we will try to make it difficult for them."

A 99th career pole position for Hamilton saw him make Imola the 30th circuit where he has topped the qualifying timesheet.
 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:14.411
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.035s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.087s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.329s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.379s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.415s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.464s
8. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.487s
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.799s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) no time set

The pressure is on Red Bull to respond to a disappointing first race as the 2021 Formula One season continues at Imola.

The Austrian outfit, led by Max Verstappen, were expected to lay down a marker for defending champions Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in week one.

But Hamilton claimed a stunning triumph in Bahrain, described by the victor as "one of the hardest races I've had for a while".

The against-the-odds success might suggest a tricky year ahead for Red Bull, who had set the pace in pre-season testing.

They will be aiming to prove that was merely an early blip when Verstappen takes on Hamilton again at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this week.

A response would set the season up nicely, but Hamilton will be similarly determined to continue his pursuit of a record-breaking eighth title.
 

LAST TIME OUT

Bahrain looked to be set for a season-opening Verstappen victory. The Dutchman was fastest in pre-season, then in practice and again in qualifying.

After starting from pole, his pace was obvious again in a titanic tussle with Hamilton.

But what the Briton lacked in speed - still adjusting to his W12 car, which team-mate Valtteri Bottas claimed was "undriveable" - he more than made up for in experience.

And the strategy of Mercedes had Hamilton in front, although it still took a Verstappen error to giftwrap a Silver Arrows success.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton with four laps remaining but went beyond track limits and crucially had to give first place back to his rival.

Bottas completed the podium in third, also collecting a point for the fastest lap, while Charles Leclerc was the best-placed Ferrari finisher down in sixth.

Aston Martin new man Sebastian Vettel was a frustrating 15th, one place ahead of debutant Mick Schumacher, while the returning Fernando Alonso failed to finish.
 

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT IMOLA

Until the Mercedes drivers can properly get to grips with their cars - not relying on errors and chaos for wins - the Hamilton versus Verstappen theme is likely to continue.

The Silver Arrows have at least had time to work on their flaws, three weeks on from Sakhir, while Red Bull have been left to stew on their mishap.

Particular attention will be paid to practice and qualifying and any change in the significant pace gap between the teams last time out.

As long as Red Bull retain the faster car, Verstappen should be in a title race - even if he cannot afford further mistakes.

A two-way fight for the championship is an improvement on recent years in which Hamilton has been comfortably clear of the grid, and there is also intrigue elsewhere.

Ferrari's continued struggles combined with improvement in the McLaren ranks mean there is competition between the two again.

Both outfits will be bidding for third place in the standings this year, with McLaren boasting the edge heading in to race two, while a busy off-season means the pecking order further back is far from concrete.
 

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Back on pole? - After Verstappen qualified fastest in Bahrain, Mercedes are facing up to the possibility of failing to secure a pole position over the first two races of a season for the first time in the Hybrid Era (since 2014).

Setting the standard - This is one of only four tracks at which Hamilton has never achieved pole, but victory would make this the first time he has ever started a season with back-to-back wins. Only twice before this year had the F1 great triumphed in the season opener, going on to claim the title in both 2008 and 2015.

Man in form - Verstappen is certainly the driver to beat in qualifying after consecutive pole positions at the end of last season and start of this. He only had two poles in his prior 118 races in F1.

Streaking McLaren - Daniel Ricciardo has earned points in his past 12 races, while McLaren team-mate Lando Norris - fourth last time out - could set a new career best with a seventh straight points finish.

In his father's footsteps - Mick Schumacher will this year become used to turning out at events where his father has previously dominated. Michael Schumacher has seven Imola wins, more than any other driver, while Ferrari and Williams are tied on eight team triumphs.
 

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS 

Drivers 

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 25
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) - 18 
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 16 
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) - 12 
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) - 10 

Constructors 

1. Mercedes - 41 
2. Red Bull - 28 
3. McLaren - 18 
4. Ferrari - 12
5. Alpha Tauri - 2

Lewis Hamilton was thrilled to come out on top in a dramatic Bahrain Grand Prix, which he labelled as one of the toughest Formula One races he has been involved in for some time.

Max Verstappen started on pole in Bahrain, but despite the Red Bull having had the edge over Hamilton's Mercedes in practice and qualifying, it was the seven-time world champion who triumphed.

It did not come easy for Hamilton, who had to see out a late attack from Verstappen to secure his first season-opening success in six years.

The victory only came courtesy of an error from the Red Bull driver, who was adjudged to have gone beyond track limits during a potentially decisive overtake with four laps left to go, and was instructed to immediately give the place back.

If Sunday's evidence is anything to go by, Verstappen and Red Bull are well placed to make more of a challenge this season.

Speaking in his post-race interview, an exhilarated Hamilton said: "Wow! What a difficult race that was.

"Stopping early we knew would be difficult but we had to cover Max, they have had an amazing performance all weekend.

"We suffered the last stint. Max was all over me at the end and I was just about able to hold him off. That was one of the hardest races I've had for a while."

Asked if he was at the peak of his powers, 36-year-old Hamilton replied: "I definitely am. Each year they are talking about when you hit your peak and timing is everything.

"I think I am at that and Max is doing really well at the moment. I love the challenge."

Verstappen, meanwhile, looked to take the positives after crossing the line just 0.745 seconds after Hamilton.

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

"I don't know what happened with the car early on. It don't think it was completely solved in the low-speed corners, so we'll have a look at that. Overall, we managed to finish the race and score good points."

It was a sentiment echoed by Red Bull chief Christian Horner, with the team's principal believing they are finally ready to mount a serious title push this year.

"A great race, a tough one to lose. It is the first of 23 so hopefully, we give Lewis a harder time this year," Horner told Sky Sports.

"Once you have that instruction [to give the place back] you have to move out of the way. It is tough racing, it is fair racing.

"The races come thick and fast once we get going. Mercedes have been so strong over the years. I think the biggest winner today was the fans. It sets up a great season and I hope we see more battles between Max and Lewis this season."

Lewis Hamilton clung on to survive a late attack from Max Verstappen to begin his Formula One title defence with a dramatic victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen's Red Bull had the edge in speed over Hamilton's Mercedes for the entirety of the race weekend but, after a frenetic stop-start opening to the race gave way to a strategic battle between the teams expected to compete at the front of the grid this season, it was the Briton who found himself taking the chequered flag.

Having emerged from his final pit stop nearly nine seconds behind Hamilton, pole-sitter Verstappen looked to have made the crucial overtake with four laps remaining.

But he was forced to give the place back having gone beyond the track limits to get past Hamilton, and Verstappen could not find an opportunity with which to make the decisive move for a second time, Red Bull left frustrated as the seven-time champion claimed his first season-opening win since 2015.

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