Sakhir, Bahrain – Defending champion Max Verstappen ended the first day of the new Formula 1 season as the fastest driver with a narrow victory over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc with the fastest time in training on Friday.
Verstappen’s Red Bull passed the Bahrain International Circuit with a time of 1:31.936 to go 0.087sec faster than Leclerc, with both drivers using the soft compound tires to set the fastest laps.
Red Bull and Ferrari looked like the two teams to beat during pre-season testing, and Verstappen’s lap was 0.593sec faster than Mercedes’ fastest time set by George Russell in fourth.
Verstappen’s advantage was clear around the lap, as he gained lap time over Ferraris in Turn 7 and Turn 13 and an important performance step on Mercedes in Turn 1.
Red Bull’s long-range pace, which is used to simulate the reaction of his car in heavy-fuel race trim, suggested Verstappen could slip away from the group on Sunday if he was ahead at the end of the first lap. His average lap time over 13 laps was one second faster than a race similar to Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, while Leclerc’s heavy-fuel data was too limited to make a clear comparison.
Mercedes’ struggle moved from pre-season testing to its first two training sessions in Bahrain, where the car jumped along the strait as it continued to suffer from a phenomenon known as porpoises.
Pigs are caused by the underside of the vehicle running close to the ground, disrupting the airflow underneath and causing the underfloor aerodynamics to stall and the downforce to be lost. The car rides up on the suspension when this happens, causing the lower aerodynamics to work again, which in turn forces the car to roll back, causing the rebound cycle to start again.
Mercedes introduced a reconfigured flooring on its car on Friday, which it hoped would help solve the problem when combined with rods connecting the floor and upper body to prevent the floor from bending.
While the Pig wasn’t as dramatic as it was on the test, Mercedes continued to lack performance compared to its main competitors and Russell had to pounce on entry into Turn 14 on his fastest lap to tackle the problem.
Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton finished ninth fastest in the Mercedes after complaining of both rebound and a braking problem on his fastest lap. His car’s drag limiting system also failed to open on the main line on his fastest lap, costing him 0.6secs in lap time, which explains his gap to teammate Russell.
Based on Russell’s time, Mercedes appears to have the third fastest car, with the chase group, led by Fernando Alonso in the Alps, at 0.35sec. However, the long-term Alpine pace seemed comparable to that of Mercedes and McLaren.
“We’re so far away, we’re not cheating like people assume we were,” Hamilton said. “It is as it is.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can through it and do what we can. I’m just realistic. We’re not going to be in the race to win here.
“Red Bull has a very long way to go. He’s in the region of eight to nine tenths of us and maybe a Ferrari half a second, six tenths ahead. Hmm.”
McLaren failed to impact the schedules, but after missing a lot of pre-season testing last week due to a brake cooling issue, the team implemented a different running plan for the rival teams to make up for the loss of ground.
Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez’s second Red Bull and Haas driver Mick Schumacher also looked rivals on one lap, with the F1 midfield looking closely matched between at least seven teams.
Slightly more split second than Alonso in fifth and Sebastian Vettel’s replacement at Aston Martin, Nico Hulkenberg, in 17th, suggesting that the margins between getting out in the first part of qualifying and advancing into the top 10 would be slim.
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