SAKHIR, Bahrain -- Max Verstappen won the race, but the Bahrain Grand Prix belonged to Fernando Alonso. Alonso's podium on his Aston Martin debut not only showed the excitement around the team's car was justified (if not slightly overblown at points this week), but has also seen one of the most talented drivers of the modern Formula One era propelled back into a competitive position.
Alonso rolls back the years
Fernando Alonso, the grid's oldest and most experienced driver, is so much fun to watch when he's in a competitive car, and Sunday evening was no different.
The man who told Netflix he relishes being F1's antihero was the saviour of the opening race, which otherwise would have been severely lacking in genuine entertainment. What's more, the Aston Martin looked like it can be a podium regular this year.
"That's why this performance feels good, because it was on merit," Alonso said. "I think the last few occasions I was competitive, like Canada last year, it was a wet qualifying ... there was always special circumstances.
"We were very strong in testing, strong in free practice and strong in the race. Feel proud to be part of this organisation right now. These are the starting points right now, we changed concept, so it's a new philosophy and we need to find more performance in the coming months."
The result included some superb pieces of overtaking. Alonso and Hamilton are considered great rivals but actual track battles between them in recent years have been scarce.
They had a thrilling wheel-to-wheel fight in Hungary 2021, when Alonso's defensive moves helped his then teammate Esteban Ocon win the race. The pair also collided in Belgium last year, after which Alonso suggested that Hamilton only knows how to race when he's in the lead.
There were no collisions this time around, as the two men -- who have a combined nine world championships and 135 race victories -- treated fans to a brilliant wheel-to-wheel battle mid-way through the race.
Alonso's move to pass his former McLaren teammate down the inside of Turn 10 was great to watch, as was their tight battle for position over the two previous laps. Hamilton deserves credit for a great undercut which saw him keep the position at Turn 4, but the pace of the Aston Martin was clear to see.
Fellow Spaniard Carlos Sainz, the man who grew up idolising Alonso, was up next. After a tiny bit of contact, Alonso eventually made light work of the Ferrari driver down the back straight on lap 45, having taken the opposite line through Turn 10 that he took in his fight with Hamilton. This showed Alonso's race craft is as cunning as ever.
He later explained: "The problem with that corner... either you do like Lewis, and you leave the door open on the inside, or you do like Carlos and you close the door and then you are very weak on exit. So I had the good hand on me on that moment.
"I had more grip and better tyres, so they couldn't stop me for that long."
In the final laps of the race, Alonso radioed his team to say "what a lovely car to drive", and it was clear after the race, as it has been for several weeks now, how much Alonso is enjoying being at the wheel of his new team's car. Alonso and Aston Martin might not be capable of winning races on outright pace, but this is the best car the Spaniard has had in almost a decade.
With the early races of the season (at least) looking set to be dominated by Red Bull and Max Verstappen, Alonso might just be the guy worth tuning into see.
Stroll nearly ruins Alonso's big day
It all could have been so different for Alonso had the events of the first lap played out even slightly differently. The day was so nearly ruined by his teammate, and the son of team owner Lawrence, Lance Stroll.
Stroll, who deserves credit for getting back into the car this week with one broken and one banged up wrist, as well as a broken toe, sent an audacious lunge up the inside of Turn 4 and went straight into Alonso's right rear tyre. Remarkably, both cars escaped without damage and were able to go to the end.
There had been concerns about Stroll's fitness for the race when video emerged of him struggling to get out of the car after Friday practice, but he said the incident had nothing to do with that.
"Lucky, really lucky," Stroll said later. "I braked late to stay in front of George. Fernando went for it, cut back on Hamilton in Turn 4 and just really bad timing we came together. So really lucky to get away with that one."
Stroll did reveal he fought back tears dealing with the pain in his wrists from the evasive action he took to avoid the back of the sister car. Alonso has been very complimentary of Stroll since joining -- saying the Canadian, who is yet to win an F1 race, is a future world champion -- and he continued that after the race despite their near-miss.
"He is my hero," said Alonso. "If you see his hands and feet... he deserves a good podium hopefully someday soon."
Stroll raced through to sixth position, underlining just how strong the car is.
Max in a league of his own
We'll be getting used to seeing Max Verstappen disappearing off into the distance this year.
Other than a slight wobble in terms of where it was with the car during Friday's practice sessions, Red Bull looked comfortably better than the rest in Bahrain.
Once Verstappen had led into Turn 1 only a reliability issue looked likely to stop the two-time world champion. Other than a few concerns about his downshifts, Verstappen's race seemed pretty drama free.
With Sergio Perez unlikely to mount a title challenge and Ferrari showing worrying unreliability in the opening race, it could be a very long season from a competitive standpoint. George Russell gave an ominous assessment of things later, saying Red Bull already has the championship won and should claim victory at every race.
New era, same Ferrari?
A combo of a new team principal over the off-season and a 2022 season which went from title challenge to full-blown capitulation in six months has kept expectations around Ferrari muted. However, it was difficult not to think this year will be more of the same old Ferrari given how its opener unfolded.
Charles Leclerc never looked close to challenging either Red Bull but was comfortably third until his car ground to a halt 40 laps from the finish. Leclerc had mentally set his expectations into one of a championship contender last year and its clear to see early frustrations at what looks set to be a long and frustrating campaign off the pace.
"I cannot say it feels good," a deflated Leclerc said about the retirement. "Obviously there was quite a lot of work on that but we need to keep working as first race and first reliability problem... yeah, not good."
Leclerc's car also had two new engine components fitted to it before the race had even started, which is very unusual at this stage of the season.
McLaren in real trouble
McLaren came into the race braced for a difficult weekend but even the most pessimistic member of the team would not have predicted their race.
Australian rookie Oscar Piastri was the first driver to retire this season, while Lando Norris spent most of the race fighting Alpine's Esteban Ocon for last position.
Bahrain has always been unkind to McLaren and it's hard to imagine the team being that bad all season. It started 2022 in a similar position but fought back to challenge Alpine for fourth in the championship.
This year the team is targeting a big upgrade at Baku, the fourth race of the year. If it gets that wrong, McLaren could be in for an incredibly humbling campaign.
Sargeant impresses on debut
American rookie Logan Sargeant carried himself very well across his first weekend, narrowly missing out on a place in Q2 on Saturday and then a solid drive to 12th on Sunday, just two places behind teammate Alex Albon.
"I just looked for the gaps and tried to fill them," the Floridian said. "I didn't ask for too much but just felt my way so... I really enjoyed it. I loved every second of it, I loved the on-track battles. It was super fun."