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Formula 1

Are we watching the best F1 season in decades?

Wheel-to-wheel action, wet weather races, Sprint Qualifying, the occasional collision and a first-time winner. The first half of F1 2021 had it all, leading many to wonder if we're witnessing one of the best seasons in decades. RacingNews365.com looks back at the top five races so far this year.

Column
To news overview © Getty Images/Red Bull Contentpool

The 2021 F1 season began in spectacular fashion as Lewis Hamilton edged out Max Verstappen in a tense and tightly-contested Bahrain GP.

However, few would have guessed that the opening race at the end of March would be the first of several heart-stopping events, with Hamilton and Verstappen fighting it out in one of the closest championship battles in years.

It's remarkable to think we're only halfway through the 2021 F1 season, meaning there is opportunity for more memorable moments. Until then, here's a look at the top five races from the first half of the campaign.

Bahrain GP

While pre-season testing gave us an indication that Red Bull had closed the gap to Mercedes, the opening race in Bahrain confirmed we were in for a titanic tussle between the two teams.

Even before the lights turned green on Sunday, we saw signs that the 2021 season wouldn't be a cakewalk for Mercedes like it was in 2020 as Verstappen topped all the timesheets and took pole ahead of Hamilton after an impressive display in qualifying.

The action kicked off during the formation lap as new Red Bull driver Sergio Perez, who could only muster the 11th fastest time in qualifying, had more headaches to deal with when his car stopped. The Mexican was able to get his car up and running again, however the electrical issue forced him to start from the pit lane.

Out front Verstappen led from Hamilton while Charles Leclerc, who surprised many by qualifying fourth, passed Valtteri Bottas for third. The race went up a gear when Hamilton found himself seven seconds ahead of the Dutchman after the first round of pit-stops, however a thrilling finish was all but guaranteed as Verstappen pitted 10 laps later than the Mercedes driver for their second stops.

Track limits added another layer of intrigue to proceedings, with drivers and teams unclear as to what was allowed and not allowed. Hamilton was warned about exceeding them on Lap 38, however it came after he had run wide 29 times at Turn 4. Nevertheless Verstappen quickly closed the gap to Hamilton, cutting it down from nine seconds to less than one at the start of Lap 51.

The two battled it out and even saw Verstappen make his way past Hamilton at the outside of Turn 4, however he was told to give the spot back after – you guessed it – exceeding track limits. Hamilton took the chequered flag by just 0.7 seconds but it wasn't the only talking point as Yuki Tsunoda scored his first F1 points, Fernando Alonso was forced to retire due to a sandwich wrapper and Sebastian Vettel's disastrous debut weekend was capped off with a late penalty for running into the back of Esteban Ocon's Alpine.

Safe to say there was no shortage of action in Sakhir...

Emilia Romagna GP

Much like in Budapest, wet conditions made for an action-packed Emilia Romagna GP. Even before the start there was action as Alonso spun on the way to the grid on Intermediate tyres, while the Aston Martin duo of Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel suffered rear brake issues which resulted in the latter starting from the pit lane.

Hamilton started on pole for the 99th time in his career as rain fell ahead of the start, however it was Verstappen who got the better off the line, jumping from third to first with a masterful launch. The two touched wheels at Tamburello as Hamilton sent his Mercedes over the kerbs – a sign of what the battle between these two would offer later in the year.

The Safety Car was brought out early on with Mick Schumacher crashing into the wall at the pit exit due to the tricky conditions, though he wasn't the only driver, with several tripping over the wet Imola tarmac.

With the track drying it looked as though the pit-stops would play a big part in who would come out in first, but that wasn't the case. With Verstappen still in the lead on Lap 31, Hamilton locked up at Tosa and stopped his car just in time before reversing out of the gravel with a damaged wing.

The Briton's hopes of a strong finish looked dashed, however a massive shunt involving George Russell and Bottas down the front straight gave him a lifeline, while also bringing out the red flag. What followed was a majestic fightback by Hamilton as he climbed back from eighth, passing the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Stroll, Daniel Riccardo, Carlos Sainz, Leclerc and Lando Norris to finish an impressive second.

In the end, Verstappen comfortably took the chequered flag by 22 seconds, though he had his own close call after almost losing his Red Bull on the penultimate corner while behind the Safety Car.

However, the front two weren't the only talking points as Norris bounced back from a disappointing qualifying (where he had a lap time deleted) to finish third, while Leclerc and Sainz just missed out on a podium finish for Ferrari in Italy. Meanwhile, Perez had a day to forget, finding himself pointed in the wrong direction more than he would have liked en route to an 11th place finish.

All in all, the entertainment that Imola provided makes it one of the more memorable races from the first half of the season.

British GP

In a season that has featured its fair share of flashpoints, the British GP is one event that will be talked about by F1 fans for years to come.

The action began well before the lights turned green on Sunday as the first-ever Sprint Qualifying event took place. The change in format garnered generally positive reviews from those that watched, with Verstappen getting the better of Hamilton off the line to take pole position and the three points that came with it.

The action and excitement was ramped up even further for Sunday's race as the two championship rivals started on the front row, with Verstappen keeping Hamilton at bay despite some heart-stopping action around the first half of the lap. The Mercedes driver got the better run out of Turn 4 and set himself up for a pass at Copse. With neither driver willing to yield to the other, the two came together with Verstappen sliding across the track and colliding with the tyre wall at 290km/h.

Verstappen avoided serious injury though he was taken to a local hospital for checks, while Hamilton was eventually given a 10-second time penalty for causing the collision. Although fans were robbed of the opportunity of seeing the two championship rivals battle it out, there was plenty of action to keep those watching on the edge of their seat.

Leclerc, who took the lead following the opening-lap incident, held on to his position despite struggling with intermittent power issues throughout the first half of the race and looked set to claim Ferrari's first win since the 2019 Singapore GP.

However, Hamilton had other plans, pitting from second and serving his penalty before rejoining the track in fourth. He quickly passed compatriot Norris while teammate Valtteri Bottas had no issues in letting him through, allowing him to zero in on the Ferrari driver in first.

Hamilton closed the gap to Leclerc and passed him for the lead on Lap 50 at the same spot he tried to overtake Verstappen earlier in the race. However this time both drivers left each other enough room, allowing Hamilton to claim victory and celebrate in front of his home fans – a scene that only added to Verstappen and Red Bull's anger.

French GP

While Hamilton and Mercedes got the better of Verstappen and Red Bull in Spain, the script was flipped when F1 travelled to the Circuit Paul Ricard for the French GP.

Races at Le Castellet have been dull in the past, however that wasn't the case when teams and drivers took to the track back on June 20.

Verstappen started from pole, but he lost his spot after a snap of oversteer on the exit of Turn 1 forced him off track, handing the lead to Hamilton. The two championship rivals stayed in their positions until the first round of pit-stops when Verstappen's undercut saw him move into the net lead of the race, with Perez out front on track having yet to stop.

Had the action stopped there then maybe the French GP wouldn't be on this list, however there was more drama to play out. Hamilton made it clear on the Mercedes radio that he was less than impressed with the team's strategy, though all was not lost as the top three, which saw Bottas in third, were separated by just three seconds on Lap 24.

However, that's where the action picked up, with all three drivers sharing their doubts as to whether they would make it to the end of the race with their tyres. Red Bull, who lost out in Spain after Mercedes switched to a surprise two-stop strategy, made the bold decision to bring Verstappen in for a second stop on Lap 32.

Now down in fourth place with 20 laps remaining, Verstappen eventually found himself third with 10 laps to go, just five seconds behind Hamilton with Bottas in between. The Finn was no match for the Red Bull, leaving Verstappen with eight laps to make his way past his championship rival. He did just that on the penultimate lap, making use of his fresher tyres and DRS to pass Hamilton and take the chequered flag in front of 15,000 fans, with Perez rounding out the podium ahead of Bottas.

It was a race that featured all the key elements of a championship battle, and gave fans a glimpse of the kind of excitement the 2021 season could deliver on track.

Hungarian GP

Tricky weather conditions usually lead to entertaining races and that was certainly the case at the Hungarian GP. The final race before the summer break, the event gave us a first-time winner in Ocon as the Frenchman managed to fend off the challenge of Vettel – who was later disqualified after the stewards were unable to extract sufficient fuel from his Aston Martin.

The result, which was the first by a French driver in a French car with a French engine since Alain Prost at the 1983 Austrian GP, was one of several storylines to emerge from a chaotic race that saw almost all the cars start on Intermediate tyres. Bottas added more fuel to the Mercedes-Red Bull rivalry when he misjudged the run down to Turn 1, braking late and sliding into the back of Norris. The McLaren driver then collided with Verstappen while Bottas also slid into Perez.

A separate incident saw Stroll take to the grass and slam into Leclerc's Ferrari, as the two retired with Bottas, Norris, Perez and Nikita Mazepin. The race was eventually red-flagged, and while Verstappen managed to keep going, his Red Bull was greatly damaged and resulted in him finishing down in ninth.

The drama didn't stop there however as the race resumed with just one car on the grid – Hamilton – as the remaining drivers pitted for slick tyres and started from the pit lane. Mercedes eventually brought Hamilton in, but he dropped down the grid and was forced to battle back.

And battle back he did, as Hamilton looked set to challenge for victory after pitting on the 48th lap. However, his efforts were hindered by former teammate Alonso who, in an exemplary display of defensive driving, kept Hamilton at bay for 12 laps before locking up and ceding his position at Turn 1.

Hamilton eventually passed Sainz for third on the 68th lap, but the time lost battling Alonso proved too big of a hurdle to overcome, allowing Ocon to take his first win in stunning fashion and another spectacular race for F1 fans to savour.

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