Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff said “track limits won the race for us” on Sunday after Lewis Hamilton claimed a sensational season-opening victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Wolff praised his team for their strategy to help set up a sublime triumphant drive from the defending seven-time world champion – but gave credit to a set of white lines at Turn Four.
It was there, with three laps remaining, that Max Verstappen ran beyond track limits as he passed Hamilton to take the lead, but on the instructions of the race director had to hand back the place immediately.
Hamilton held the lead and did not give Verstappen another chance as the pair provided a thrilling finale with the champion winning by seven-tenths of a second.
“Max made a tiny mistake there and he had to give the position back,” said Wolff. “We were told suddenly during the race that track limits were imposed – and that is what won us the race today.
“If he (Verstappen) hadn’t made a mistake he would have won the race,” said the winner. “I had to really keep my head and mind set in the car and to make no mistakes.”
“What a difficult race that was,” added Hamilton. “Max was all over me right at the end, but I just about managed to hold him off. It was one of the hardest races I have had in a while.”
“It was such a great fight, but this is not the end for them. They will hit back with a vengeance in the next race.”
Wolff said Red Bull looked strong.
“For the first race, I think these guys are a tiny bit ahead of us.
“It was a great battle of strategies,” Wolff said.
“We took a very bold move pitting so early with Lewis and we gained a position, but then we thought we are doing the same again to prevent the under-cut.”
‘I love the challenge’
Hamilton also praised Mercedes for team strategy.
“Stopping early, we knew was going to be difficult, but we had to cover Max. They’ve had an amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special here.”
Hamilton said he was relishing the prospect of a close battle with Verstappen all season.
“I definitely am. Each year they’re talking about when you think you’ve hit your peak.
“I think timing is everything and it is going to take everything and more for us to put in performances like this, but we love the challenge. I love the challenge. I still love what I do.
“It was so hard in the car today, but what a great event and this is a really good start for us. Through testing we thought we were going to be six to eight tenths behind, so the work that has gone on this week has been spectacular.
“We came into this race on the back foot, knowing it would be a tough start, but everyone worked hard to maximise what we had. It was heads down for everyone. I am so proud of everybody.
Hamilton’s first win this season increased his career record total to 96 wins – 75 of them with Mercedes. He also passed Michael Schumacher’s record of laps led in a race and recorded the 300th win by a British driver.