Red Bull’s Max Verstappen delivered an early statement of intent on the opening day of the season-opening Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain, the reigning world champion beating out a red-hot Ferrari duo to top the timesheets in practice.
But it was a horror start for Mercedes and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who managed seventh then ninth in the two practice sessions before declaring ‘we’re not bluffing’ with the lack of pace.
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Verstappen led Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc by just 0.087s in the second practice session of the day, and the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz half a second back. Mercedes’ George Russell was fourth while Fernando Alonso was fifth for Alpine, with Daniel Ricciardo 17th and 18th in the two practice sessions.
It came after AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was something of a surprise leader in the opening practice session, using soft tires to lay down a 1m 34.193s lap. That was 0.364s ahead of Leclerc on medium tyres, who led Sainz and – well back – Mercedes’ George Russell and Red Bull’s Verstappen.
But all the talk in the paddock revolved around Mercedes’ struggles, with Russell fourth in both sessions and Hamilton delivering a best position of seventh, and a full 1.2 seconds behind Verstappen in second practice.
Hamilton declared the team required ‘longer term fix(es)’ for their problems.
“I’m just realistic and, at the moment, like I told you last week, we are not going to be in the race for a win,” said a downbeat Hamilton.
“If you look at the Red Bulls, they are a long, long way ahead, in the region of eight to nine tenths, and Ferrari are half a second to six tenths ahead.
“So we’re a long way off and we are not bluffing like people assumed we were.
“We have had small problems in the past, but we are faced with much, much bigger problems this year and everything we do to try and fix it doesn’t really change that.
“It appears as though this will be a long-term fix and not one for the short term, but our mindset is to be the best we can be – it’s not ideal, but we will pull together to try and fix it.”
Hamilton’s new Mercedes teammate, ex-Williams man and compatriot George Russell, was fourth, but said his lap was a ‘one-off’ lap and not an indication of any hidden speed.
Like Hamilton, Russell battled with his car’s problem with ‘porpoising’ – a bouncing sensation that is caused by the unstable management of the aerodynamics of the new cars.
In effect, the cars seem to bounce on their suspension systems as the ‘sucking’ strength of the car changes at speeds of up to 300 km/h.
“It’s all about lap time, and we’re certainly not where we want to be,” he said. “I think we’ve made a bit of progress solving some issues, but the pace just is not there at all at the moment so we need to really go over the data tonight to understand why we’re both struggling a little bit with the car.
“And we’re a long way off the pace of Red Bull, Ferrari – even the likes of AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo are seemingly on our pace or even quicker. So, we’ve got a bit of work to do.”
While teams like Ferrari, AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo and even Haas managed to best Hamilton’s time in practice, it was disaster for McLaren.
After Daniel Ricciardo missed last weekend’s final test due to Covid-19, his return was a little better – running just 17th and 18th.
Teammate Lando Norris managed 16th and 11th on a tough day for the team.
“We didn’t have the smoothest day,” Ricciardo said on Friday evening, having had his session cut short by ten minutes by a water leak.
“Unfortunately, we missed out on some running this evening, so we’ve got our work cut out.
“We’ll keep at it, study the data tonight and try to make up for it tomorrow morning before qualifying.”
“Honestly, I think we are just lacking in the overall grip. The car feels okay but obviously when you’re down a little bit on grip you do struggle a bit more and lock a wheel here or there, and make a few errors,” added Ricciardo.
“But I think compared to the quickest cars, at the moment we are just looking for some overall grip. At the moment, that’s our biggest friend in F1 – it’s grip – and there is never enough.”
To make matters worse for Hamilton, 37, entering his 15th season in F1, it was confirmed that he was fined 50,000 euros by the sport’s ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA), for failing to attend last December’s gala prize-giving ceremony in Paris.
A statement said: “In the spirit of commitment to building a more diverse sport in the future, the FIA President (Mohammed Ben Sulayem) gave his full support to Hamilton’s decision to make a donation of EUR50,000 that will be used to support a student from a disadvantaged background in achieving an educational qualification in motorsport.”
Bahrain GP FP2 results
1. Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:31.936 20 laps
2. Charles Leclerc Ferrari 0.087s 20 laps
3. Carlos Sainz Ferrari 0.584s 21 laps
4. George Russell Mercedes 0.593s 24 laps
5. Fernando Alonso Alpine 0.941s 24 laps
6. Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo Racing 1.015s 29 laps
7. Sergio Perez Red Bull 1.022s 20 laps
8. Mick Schumacher Haas 1.149s 23 laps
9. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1.208s 22 laps
10. Kevin Magnussen Haas 1.247s 22 laps
11. Lando Norris McLaren 1.344s 26 laps
12. Esteban Ocon Alpine 1.424s 25 laps
13. Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1.685s 24 laps
14. Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1.853s 26 laps
15. Guanyu Zhou Alfa Romeo Racing 2.017s 26 laps
16. Lance Stroll Aston Martin 2.022s 24 laps
17. Nico Hulkenberg Aston Martin 2.125s 27 laps
18. Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 2.230s 12 laps
19. Nicholas Latifi Williams 2.550s 27 laps
20. Alex Albon Williams 2.799s 22 laps