Red Bull’s Max Verstappen wins F1 opener amid team turmoil

AP photo by Darko Bandic / Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, left, steers through a corner at the start of Formula 1's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday in Sakhir.
AP photo by Darko Bandic / Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, left, steers through a corner at the start of Formula 1's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday in Sakhir.

SAKHIR, Bahrain — The ongoing drama around Red Bull's two-car Formula 1 racing team had no effect on its three-time reigning series champion Saturday, when Max Verstappen routed the field by 22 seconds in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen started in pole position at the Bahrain International Circuit and was never seriously challenged on his way to a commanding one-two finish for Red Bull with Sergio Perez. Embattled team principal Christian Horner was joined before the race and during the podium celebration by his wife, singer Geri Halliwell — also known as Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls, the British pop group that rose to fame in the 1990s.

"Today went even better than expected. It was a lot of fun," said Verstappen, who added that he felt "one with the car."

Carlos Sainz Jr. was third for Ferrari after fighting hard with teammate Charles Leclerc.

At the start of what is scheduled to be the longest ever F1 season at 24 races, Verstappen already shows signs of repeating the dominance that allowed him to be nearly perfect 2023, when he won 19 of 22 races as Perez won twice and Sainz won once.

Bahrain was the eighth win in a row dating to September for the 26-year-old Dutch driver, who set an F1 record of 10 consecutive wins last season.

The F1 paddock's focus had firmly been on Horner leading up to the race, with Verstappen saying on Friday his boss was "probably a little bit distracted."

"Obviously, it's not been pleasant, some of the unwanted attention, but the focus is now very much on the cars," Horner said. "My focus has very much been on what's going on on track, and the result today, I think, demonstrates where the whole team's focus is and we move onwards."

Horner arrived on race day hand in hand with Halliwell, and they celebrated together as Verstappen received his trophy. The race came after Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the FIA sanctioning body for F1, said the turmoil around Horner was "damaging the sport," in comments to the Financial Times.

On Wednesday, the team's parent company dismissed a complaint of alleged misconduct by Horner toward a team employee. A day later during practice in Bahrain, a file alleged to contain evidence against Horner was emailed to nearly 200 people in the F1 paddock, including Liberty Media, F1, the FIA, the other nine team principals and multiple media outlets.

The authenticity of the files, which came from a generic email account, has not been verified by AP.

In another sign that Red Bull is significantly faster than any other team, Perez climbed from fifth on the grid to second and faced little challenge after that. Sainz's third place was his first podium finish since the United States GP in October as a challenge from George Russell's Mercedes faded.

After qualifying second, Leclerc talked of Ferrari making a "step forward" compared to its dismal 2023, but the Italian team couldn't get close to Red Bull on race day.

Leclerc's challenge to Verstappen ended when the Dutch driver held the inside line at the first corner. After that, Leclerc was overtaken by Russell, Perez and his Ferrari teammate Sainz in quick succession.

Sainz, in particular, fought closely with his teammate — and then did it again after Leclerc briefly got back ahead at the pit stop. It was Sainz's first race since it was announced he would lose his Ferrari seat to Lewis Hamilton in 2025.

Leclerc's day went from bad to worse as he complained to Ferrari that the car was pulling sharply to the right when braking in a "dangerous" way that left him unable to defend his position. However, he later recovered to overtake Russell and finish fourth.

Russell was fifth, Lando Norris sixth for McLaren, and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton seventh after an uneventful race in the second Mercedes. Oscar Piastri of McLaren was eighth, ahead of the two Aston Martins of Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll.

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