Lewis Hamilton boldly christened himself “brave warrior” after winning the Chinese Grand Prix but the three-time world champion will have more than just title rival Sebastian Vettel to contend with this week in Bahrain.
As Hamilton celebrated a third Shanghai victory in four years with his Mercedes team, he unveiled a new tattoo on the left side of his ribcage bearing the Chinese characters “Brave Warrior” and “Love”.
But the Briton’s thunder had already been stolen by a jaw-dropping drive from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who finished third behind Ferrari’s Vettel after starting near the back of the grid.
The 19-year-old Dutchman began in 16th after an engine misfire in qualifying and tore past nine cars on the first lap alone, suggesting fears that the sport’s new rules had made overtaking harder were premature.
Both Hamilton and Vettel, who himself produced two breath-taking passes, will be casting nervous looks in their rear-view mirrors at Verstappen.
“He is right up there with all the best drivers,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, who noted that Verstappen’s odds of reaching the podium after qualifying stood at 33-1.
“If it had not been insider trading, I’d have had a flutter. Max has a sixth sense in the wet. He is fearless. He explores all the boundaries of the track to find where the grip is.”
Verstappen’s aggressive approach has quickly made him a fan favourite and he has been compared with Formula One great Ayrton Senna, particularly after a seat-of-the-pants drive in Brazil last year when he stormed to third in pouring rain.
By the same token, he has ruffled feathers since making his F1 debut two years ago at just 17 with Ferrari’s Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both letting rip.
But Hamilton, who recognises a kindred spirit in Verstappen, retorted: “This young dude has been a real breath of fresh air for everyone.”
Wider cars and fatter tyres were supposed to make overtaking a dying art, but Verstappen and Vettel went some way to exploding that myth in China.
On a track still slick after morning drizzle, Verstappen pulled off an audacious piece of skill to pass Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, braking late to lunge inside on turn six.
Equally as impressive were Vettel’s pass on Raikkonen after early frustration, and his wheel-to-wheel clash in overtaking Ricciardo, which recalled the days before one team dominated the sport.
Mercedes have enjoyed a stranglehold over Formula One for the past three years, the German team winning all but two races in 2016.
Before that, Vettel won four successive titles with Red Bull on a streak so monotonous he was repeatedly booed on the podium.
But Formula One suddenly has a title race with Vettel and Hamilton heading to Bahrain tied on 43 points after the German’s stunning victory in the season opener in Australia.
Verstappen is placed third on 25, with Valtteri Bottas on 23 for Mercedes, Raikkonen on 22 and Ricciardo 12, adding spice to this week’s dust-up in the desert.