Damning video proves Verstappen ‘robbed’
The twists keep coming after a controversial finish to the year's first grand prix forced Max Verstappen to give Lewis Hamilton the lead in the dying stages of the race.
Hamilton roared to victory in Bahrain - the first time since 2015 he's won the season-opening race - while Verstappen had to settle for second after starting in pole position as Valtteri Bottas rounded out the podium in his Mercedes.
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Verstappen was left fuming after overtaking Hamilton at Turn 4 to go ahead with three laps remaining. Officials correctly deemed he had executed the move while off the track but the Dutchman was angry at his team after the race for instructing him to allow the Mercedes to retake the lead - instead of just attempting to surge away and increase the lead to greater than the five-second penalty he would have been hit with.
"Why didn't you just let me go, man?" he said on team radio. "I could have easily pulled those five seconds. I am prepared to lose a win like that than be second like this."
However, clear footage shows Hamilton doing the exact same as Verstappen - taking all four wheels off the track at Turn Four - 29 times in the early stages of the race, before his team told him to cut it out, or risk copping a penalty.
Hamilton asked his race engineer why he had to suddenly change his approach mid-race, when F1 officials told drivers before the grand prix track limits would not be applied at Turn 4.
It was a view supported post-race by Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who said drivers had been told they could cross the lines without punishment at Turn 4.
However, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff revealed "we were told suddenly during the race that track limits were imposed - and that is what won us the race today".
Mercedes: "We are getting warnings about track limits at turn 4."— Philip Duncan (@PhilDuncanF1) March 28, 2021
Hamilton: "I thought there were no track limits."
Mercedes: "Copy, but you will get a black and white flag and a five-second penalty the next time you do it."
Hamilton: "I have been doing the same thing all race."
'Verstappen was robbed': World reacts to F1 mess
Red Bull chief Christian Horner told Sky Sports he was informed by Race Control Verstappen had to let Hamilton overtake him.
"Once you have got that instruction, you've got to move out the way," Horner said. "He did that. It was fair racing and it was tough racing."
Speaking to Sky Sports, F1 pundit Paul Di Resta said FIA director Michael Masi told him the rule is "if a car overtakes outside the white line, you've got to let the car back, you've got to give the track position back".
That Hamilton was allowed to get away with veering off track 29 times - while Verstappen was punished for going off once, and faced a time penalty if he didn't retreat and let his British rival pass - has sparked a strong reaction in the F1 world.
F1 journalist Matt Beer said the saga was a "miserable way for such an absorbing season-opener to be resolved"
"Hamilton drove brilliantly, but Verstappen was robbed," Beer wrote for The Race. "If this season stays as close as we all hope it will, that might even prove to be a title-deciding call, and that would be a travesty."
Fellow F1 reporter Mark Hughes said there was "far too much ambiguity" about the call and Scott Mitchell added while the Verstappen ruling was correct, the chopping and changing of the regulations at Turn 4 were a "mess" all weekend.
"We started with track limits not being monitored at Turn 4, then after FP1 that was changed for practice and qualifying - but not for the race," he wrote for The Race. "However, drivers were told they had to obey the sporting regulations, which include keeping all four wheels on the track.
"Because the stewards weren't monitoring Turn 4 through the race, some drivers were going wide there during the grand prix until apparently being spotted and told not to."
Hamilton, fans are all confused
Hamilton himself admitted the whole situation was "very confusing".
"There are most tracks we're not allowed to put four wheels outside the white line, but this weekend and that particular corner, we weren't allowed to on Friday," he said.
"In actual fact, you could go two wheels outside the line, but you can't go past the blue and white kerb. But in the race you can, and that was what had been written.
"Halfway through the race they basically changed their minds. And all of a sudden you're not allowed to go outside that white line … and ultimately it meant that Max wasn't able to overtake off track."
Fans on social media were also struggling to grasp the inconsistency.
Pablo Elizalde tweeted: "Race direction: We won't monitor track limits at Turn 4. Unless we hear someone complain. Then we will start monitoring track limits in the middle of the race."
Journalist Jeff Pappone wrote: "HAM told to watch track limits at Turn 4 by race control. Didn't race control say this would not be enforced in the race and only in qualifying?"
But Red Bull wasn't complaining, accepting the mid-race game changer and not lodging a formal protest, as some suggested it should.
"I think it's very difficult. We had an instruction from the race director to give the place back immediately. Max was very sporting and did that," Horner said.
"It was frustrating and Lewis had just enough to retain his position to the end of the race but look, there's no guarantee we could have gotten the five seconds if that had been the penalty. So he did the right thing."
Red Bull's challenge to Mercedes is real
There has been plenty of speculation Red Bull is finally ready to challenge Mercedes' seven-year dominance and emerge as a genuine chance of winning its first title since Sebastian Vettel in 2013.
Verstappen qualifying fastest added weight to that argument and winning in Bahrain would have sent a clear message to the Silver Arrows they have a real fight on their hands in 2021.
But even though they escaped with victory, Wolff is wary of the battle ahead.
"For the first race, I think these guys are a tiny bit ahead of us," he said of Red Bull. "It was a great battle of strategies," Wolff said.
Hamilton knew he cut it fine in the 96th win of his career.
"If he (Verstappen) hadn't made a mistake he would have won the race," he said. "I had to really keep my head and mind set in the car and to make no mistakes.
"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 (Red Bull). They will hit back with a vengeance in the next race.
"They've had an amazing performance all weekend, so it was going to take something pretty special here."
Originally published as Damning video proves Verstappen 'robbed'