SAKHIR, Bahrain ( Associated Press) — Formula One champion Max Verstappen warmed up for the first qualifying of the season by leading the third and final practice session at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday, while Lewis Hamilton again struggled to keep up.
Verstappen’s lap of 1 minute, 32.54 seconds put him once again narrowly ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. His archrival from their teen karting days was only .01 behind while Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez was .247 behind in third.
Hamilton wasn’t even the quickest of the Mercedes drivers, with teammate George Russell .39 seconds behind Verstappen in fourth. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. was fifth and Hamilton trailed by Verstappen by .58, following on from his disappointing two practices on Friday.
Sainz was summoned by stewards to look at a potential unsafe release for leaving his team garage as a pink Alpine car was approaching just behind.
Verstappen, who won the title on the last lap of the last year’s race following a controversial restart, was looking good for his 14th career pole later Saturday under floodlights on the Sakhir desert circuit. Hamilton is F1′s record-holder with 103 poles but not looking like adding to that huge tally.
Verstappen posted the fastest time in all preseason testing and led the second practice on Friday ahead of the Ferraris, which were also second and third in the first practice.
Mercedes expressed severe doubts about the pace of its car in testing. After Friday’s two practice runs Hamilton ruled out victory in Sunday’s race Despite being F1′s record holder with 103 GP wins. He said Red Bull and Ferrari are considerably quicker.
“Obviously it doesn’t look easy for their drivers at the moment, but what we do know is their ability to bounce back,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “I think until we’ve seen a sample of three or four races, you’re not going to get a true picture of form. With the regulations being so (new) the development rate is going to be fast, is going to be steep.”
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