• KYODO, REUTERS

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With a brave last-lap pass, Yuki Tsunoda claimed ninth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix, scoring two championship points in his Formula One debut on Sunday.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton won the season-opening race after an epic showdown with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen over the final laps.

Tsunoda, the 20-year-old AlphaTauri driver, shrugged off a slow start that saw him lose three positions in the first four laps to battle back through the field, passing three former world champions on the way to becoming the first debutant to score points since 2016.

“It was a bit disappointing for the first lap, I was too cautious to not damage the car so I lost quite a lot of positions,” he said on Sky Sports after the race.

“I had to recover lots of positions from there, which takes a lot of time and tire. So, it is not a 100% performance, but I am really happy for the first points and (it is) really positive learning for the future.”

In becoming the first Japanese driver to score points since Kamui Kobayashi in 2012, Tsunoda passed former F1 champions Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonnen. Passing Alonso — who he said is his father’s favorite driver — meant the most.

“I got a bit emotional when I passed Fernando,” he said.

“In turn one, I just trusted Fernando’s skills and I just launched it like a rookie. I felt a bit sorry but I really launched from really quite far away, but it is definitely a bit emotional.

“After I passed him, I tried to copy his driving and a couple of corners were better from my car as well.”

His last lap dive past Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll gave him two championship points, especially important because his teammate Pierre Gasly was involved in an early-race incident that sent him to the back of the pack. Gasly finished four laps behind the winner, Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton won the season-opening race after an epic showdown with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen over the final laps.

Verstappen, who passed the Briton with four laps to go before being forced to give up the lead for exceeding track limits, finished a mere 0.745 seconds behind after starting on pole position.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s teammate, was third, 37.383 seconds behind.

“Wow, what a difficult race that was,” said Hamilton, who started second on the grid and took another of Michael Schumacher’s records with his 5,112nd lap led in a strategic cat-and-mouse thriller.

“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’ve had for a while,” added the Briton, who had to negotiate the final laps on older and more worn tires than his rival.

Towards the end, he simply told his race engineer to “leave me to it.”

The victory was a record-extending 96th for Hamilton and extended his run of winning at least once in every season since his debut with McLaren in 2007. It’s the first time he’s won an opener since 2015.

“I had that one shot, went outside of the track and I then of course gave the position back and tried again but my tires were not in the right state to put the pressure on,” said Verstappen.

The Dutch youngster had hoped he might be able to continue and pull far enough ahead to absorb the inevitable time penalty, but Red Bull was clear about what he had to do.

“Once you have that instruction you have to move out of the way. It is tough racing, it is fair racing,” team boss Christian Horner said.

“I think the biggest winner today was the fans. It sets up a great season and I hope we see more battles between Max and Lewis this season.”

Lando Norris finished fourth for McLaren while Verstappen’s new Mexican teammate Sergio Perez went from starting in the pit lane, after his car had stopped on the formation lap, to fifth place.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was sixth and Australian Daniel Ricciardo seventh in his McLaren debut with Spaniard Carlos Sainz, the man he replaced, eighth in his first race for Ferrari.

Alonso, returning after a two-year absence at the age of 39, retired from the race after debris was trapped in a brake duct, causing it to overheat.

Mick Schumacher, F2 champion and rookie son of seven-time champion Michael, was lapped and was last to finish, placing 16th for Haas.

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