SAKHIR, Bahrain – Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen quickly returned to work for Red Bull by leading the spotlight on Friday’s second practice session at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Rival Lewis Hamilton continued to struggle for Mercedes and was only ninth. Last year’s title runner-up has a record of 103 F1 wins, but will completely rule out the season with No. 104 on Sunday.
“As you can see, we’re still a long way off,” said Hamilton. “I’m just being realistic, we’re not going to race for a win here. If you look at the Red Bulls, they’ve come a long way.”
Hamilton’s team-mate, George Russell, fared slightly better, finishing fourth in the second session, but said this was a one-off lap pace and thinks it will be a case of “damage mitigation” for Mercedes this weekend.
“The pace is just not there at the moment. We are both having a hard time and we are both a long way from being there,” said the British driver. “For our part, we are not too happy with where we are.”
Red Bull and the resurgent Ferrari, which last won the drivers’ title in 2007, should be happy.
Although Verstappen finished fifth in first practice on Friday, the Dutchman improved to ahead of Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
“We had a pretty easy and smooth day, so I’m quite happy,” said Verstappen, who was fastest in all tests for the season. “We tried a few things on the car in each session and they seemed to work well.”
Verstappen’s time put him just .09 seconds ahead of Leclerc and .58 of Sainz on an encouraging day for Ferrari.
“Ferrari is pushing hard and is very close, so that’s exciting,” said Verstappen, who may have a new rival.
Hamilton was 1.2 seconds behind Verstappen’s lead on a disappointing day as the seven-time F1 champion finished seventh in first practice.
“We’ve had minor issues in the past compared to this year. We are facing much, much bigger problems,” said Hamilton. “Everything we do to solve it won’t change that. It looks like it will be a longer term solution, so nothing short term. .”
There will be a third and final practice on Saturday prior to qualifying in cooler evening conditions at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.
Friday’s first practice was led by AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, with Leclerc and Sainz also second and third, as Ferrari’s encouraging pre-season test performance continued.
Russell was fourth in his first practice since replacing Valtteri Bottas on the team. Hamilton was a good .75 back from Gasly’s time and the gap to the leader only widened in the second session.
This season, new rules have been put in place to level the playing field by reducing the advantage of the traditional big teams.
To make the competition fairer, budgets were reduced from $145 million (€132 million) to $140 million (€127 million) for each team, and this will drop to $135 million (€123 million) by 2023.
The cars are heavier and there has also been a problem with what in F1 are known as ‘porpoises’ – an aerodynamic problem where cars jump and bounce on the track.
Mercedes suffers from this.
“The braking is something we can fix, so it’s not a problem,” said Hamilton. “It’s more the balance and this bounce that we have, and a loss of downforce that we seem to have compared to others.”
McLaren uses Mercedes engines and seems to be solving similar problems. British driver Lando Norris was 16th in the first practice and 11th in the second practice as he slid around.
McLaren had five podium finishes last season – four for Norris and a win for Daniel Ricciardo – while back-marker Haas failed to score a point.
But both Haas cars – which use Ferrari engines – were ahead of McLaren in practice two, with Mick Schumacher in eighth and Kevin Magnussen in tenth.