Red Bull delivered definitive notice that they are genuine challengers for the Formula One world championship in practice in Bahrain. With Max Verstappen topping both sessions, the reigning world champion, Lewis Hamilton, and his Mercedes team had to admit that as things stand they are simply unable to match their rivals.
Hamilton, attempting to take his eighth world championship this season, accepted that he and Mercedes, having dominated F1 since 2014, were now on the back foot. “It wasn’t where we wanted,” he said. “This weekend it is looking better but not perfect. We still have a hill to climb but we are staying positive.”
The British driver again highlighted the unstable nature of the car that has been evident in the Mercedes since testing. “We thought Red Bull would be as fast as they are,” he said. “We know they are leading at the moment, we will work away tonight and try and find a way.”
In the morning running, contested under atypical daytime conditions, Red Bull already appeared to have carried their form from testing into the first weekend of this 23-race season. Verstappen was quickest, almost three-tenths up on the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, while Hamilton was almost half a second back from the Red Bull in fourth, while McLaren’s Lando Norris an impressive third.
In the evening session, taking place in the conditions under floodlights representative of the race, Red Bull – who had headed the times in pre-season testing – proved their package is genuinely as strong as it had been hoped. Verstappen put in a time of 1min 30.847sec, over half a second up on his previous best and enough to leave Hamilton in third, two-tenths back. Norris and McLaren, who finished third in the constructors’ championship last season, will take heart from their strong showing, the British driver claiming second only a 10th of a second down on Verstappen.
Having already pronounced testing the best of his career, Verstappen retained his cautious optimism. “It’s been a good day,” he said. “With the heat, not easy to find a really good balance around the whole lap but it was a positive day. Now we have to show what we can do in qualifying.”
Mercedes’ team principal, Toto Wolff, admitted that the best scenario for his team at this point was just to be able to match Red Bull’s pace. “From what I’ve seen and what I hope is that we can have a really tough fight; it’s what the fans want to see and what we would like to have,” he said. “I think if we are behind, then we just need to catch up and do a good job. If we’re just about on the same pace – which I would consider today maybe as the best possible scenario for us – then we’re up for the fight with another great team.”
In their favour on long runs, simulating race pace, Mercedes did appear to be on a par with Red Bull.
Mick Schumacher, son of seven-times champion Michael, put in a solid performance in his debut as an F1 driver. In an uncompetitive Haas, the German was 18th in the evening, two spots in front of teammate Nikita Mazepin and Williams’ Nicholas Latifi in 19th.
Fernando Alonso, returning after a two-season absence, was in 15th for Alpine, four places down on his teammate Esteban Ocon.