Max Verstappen has been installed as the favourite to make a winning start to the new Formula One season in Bahrain on Sunday.
The Red Bulls looked phenomenal in testing, suggesting that the team is in with a chance of finally breaking Mercedes’ seven-year period of dominance. Even James Vowles, the motorsport strategy director at Mercedes, admitted that “Red Bull are ahead on performance” as the teams gear up for the new season. “They’re the class act from the test,” he added.
The bookmakers have seized upon the narrative by making star driver Max Verstappen the frontrunner for success on Sunday, but can he actually pull it off?
Lewis Hamilton has taken the chequered flag for the last two years in Bahrain. He is bidding for his fifth consecutive Drivers’ Championship title in 2021. If he can achieve that feat, he will move clear of Michael Schumacher as the most decorated Formula One star in history.
He has been utterly dominant over the past few years, and he is priced at just 1/2 (1.50) with Betway and MansionBet to win the Drivers’ Championship in 2021. Verstappen is the second favourite at 11/4 (3.75) with William Hill, while teammate Sergio Perez is priced at 18/1 (19.00). Valtteri Bottas, who typically plays second fiddle to Hamilton at Mercedes, is 16/1 (18.00).
You can find 40/1 at Unibet on McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, 50/1 on Charles Leclerc of Red Bull and 80/1 on four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, who has just moved to Aston Martin.
Most of the money is going on Hamilton extending his reign of supremacy, but the bookies think he might make a slow start to the season as Mercedes plays catch-up with Red Bull.
Verstappen has never won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but he finished second behind Hamilton last year. He will aim to secure Red Bull’s first win at this track since Vettel was stormed to the top of the podium in 2013.
Unibet has 7/5 (2.40) on Verstappen winning the race, with Hamilton priced at 8/5 (2.60), Bottas at 6/1 (7.00) and Perez at 7/1 (8.00). The bookies believe it is between Red Bull and Mercedes, as all the other drivers are long shots in the betting, but Verstappen has tried to cool talk of his team being in the ascendancy.
“I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites,” said the Dutch driver, who finished third in the driver standings last year, 133 points behind Hamilton. “How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?
“I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us, but we are just focussed on ourselves. You can be sure that everyone in this team and at Honda is pushing to beat them and anyone else who may be quick this year.
“I see every season as a new opportunity to beat them, but we would be stupid to expect that fight to be easy and look at testing and think we are ahead. I personally can't wait until we are all pushing in Q3. That is when you will see everyone at full power with low fuel and that is the time to see who developed performance wise, and then in the race we will see who can keep that performance over a race distance. Let’s hope we can be good at both.”
You have to go all the way back to 2015 for the last time Hamilton won the opening Grand Prix of the season, so it might not make sense to bet on him at 8/5. Bottas has actually won the opening race of the season in the last two years, so an each-way bet on the Finn looks like an attractive option.
Bottas finished second in last year’s driver standings, with 11 podium finishes from 17 races, and he is generally a pretty reliable driver. You can find odds of 6/1 on him winning the race with Paddy Power, Betfair and MansionBet, and they will all give you a fifth of the odds for a second or third placed finish if you go each-way.