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FFerrari's Charles Leclerc celebrates on the podium after winning the race with second place Ferrari's Carlos Sainz Jr. and third place Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton at Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 20.HAMAD I MOHAMMED/Reuters

Formula One champion Max Verstappen’s title defence turned into a nightmare when the Red Bull star retired near the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday allowing Ferrari to clinch a 1-2 finish with Charles Leclerc winning ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton took an unexpected third place after Sergio Perez’s Red Bull also retired with the finish line in sight as the race finished under a yellow flag.

Hamilton had been lagging way behind in fifth when late drama on Lap 46 changed the race.

Leclerc was leading comfortably from Verstappen when the back of Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri car caught fire as he parked it on the side of the track. It was quickly put out and the Frenchman walked away unharmed.

From the restart, Leclerc got away and Verstappen started complaining about steering problems.

A few minutes later both Red Bulls were out of the race and George Russell’s Mercedes moved up into fourth to give Mercedes an unexpected bonus.

Hamilton knows his car was slow until Gasly’s misfortune – he was more than 30 seconds behind Leclerc – so will not get carried away.

“We did the best we could and are grateful for these points,” Hamilton said. “It is not going to be a quick turnaround.”

In a 57-lap race, Verstappen retired on Lap 54 and Perez on 56.

It was a thrilling race to start the season and one laced with a large dollop of irony.

Verstappen won the F1 title last year with a last-lap pass of Hamilton following a controversial restart under a safety car, just when Hamilton was cruising to what would have been a record eighth title.

Red Bull celebrated wildly that night in Abu Dhabi, then Mercedes lost both appeals and Red Bull started in dynamic form as Verstappen led preseason testing. He lined up second behind Leclerc for Sunday’s race with trusted Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez starting from fourth and the team expecting a healthy haul of points.

Red Bull walked away with none.

Sweet revenge for Mercedes perhaps as team principal Toto Wolff smiled from the side and probably not only because of Hamilton’s unexpected podium.

But also unbridled joy for Ferrari.

“That’s exactly how we should start the season,” Leclerc screamed on radio. “Mamma mia.”

It was the team’s first win and its first 1-2 since former driver Sebastian Vettel won the Singapore GP ahead of Leclerc in 2019, and Leclerc’s first since winning the Italian GP in Monza two weeks earlier.

A stylish one, too.

“Pole position, victory, fastest lap, 1-2 with Carlos, we couldn’t have hoped for any better,” Leclerc said.

As Leclerc celebrates his third career win, the Scuderia’s Tifosi fans have something to crow about, while his old karting rival Verstappen will be fuming at his bad luck.

Hamilton knows a little about how that feels.

So does Kevin Magnussen, who was fired by Haas at the end of 2020 as a restructuring took place with a Russian backer and Russian driver. But when Nikita Mazepin was axed, Haas re-hired Magnussen and the determined Dane powered the car into fifth place.

Haas scored no points last year.

The dramatic ending should take nothing away from Leclerc’s superb driving on Laps 17-19.

Three times Verstappen overtook him with his trademark aggressive driving, two of those by diving inside Leclerc on Turn 1, only for the driver from Monaco to add steel to his silk and pass him back quickly to regain the lead.

“I was trying to be as clever as possible, brake early in Turn One and twice it worked out,” Leclerc said. “It was nice, on the limit, hard racing.”

The 24-year-old drivers were bitter rivals in their karting days. As Verstappen’s rise continued, a dreadful 2020 campaign left the Ferrari’s Tifosi fans in tears and the team in tatters. Last year was stable with a handful of podiums but no wins.

Ferrari’s last F1 title was Kimi Raikkonen’s in 2007.

Hopes will now be raised that this Ferrari is quick enough to compete, especially with Red Bull shelling so many early points.

“Ferrari are properly back with a 1-2, where the team should be,” Sainz Jr. said. “The hard work is paying off and we are there.”