The years of Mercedes dominating Formula 1 might just be over.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen completed an opening day double in Friday’s closely-fought second free practice for this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver outpaced nearest rival Lando Norris of McLaren by a mere 0.095 seconds and third-placed defending seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes by slightly more than two-thirds.
But the closeness of the top teams – four different teams finished in the top four, and five in the top seven – led Mercedes boss Toto Wolff to declare this weekend’s race will be ‘a real dog fight’.
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MERCEDES NO LONGER TOP DOGS
Mercedes no longer enjoy the kind of dominance of the last seven seasons in which they have claimed every constructors and drivers championship – leaving boss Toto Wolff to declare he expects a ‘real dog fight’.
“The night has fallen and the conditions haven’t come towards us,” said Wolff, after the floodlit second practice session.
“It’s a real dog fight. When you overlay the fastest laps and even the long runs, it’s just so very close that every kilogram in fuel load can have a very big swing so we don’t really know.
“We are definitely closer here than we were in testing, but I wouldn’t know where to position us versus Red Bull.”
Lewis Hamilton said: “We thought that Red Bull would be as fast as they are, if not faster.
“So, we know they’re leading at the moment.
“McLaren are looking great and it’s great to see them taking the step. It will be interesting to see how their long runs are.”
Meanwhile teammate Valtteri Bottas was struggling so much he described his car as “undriveable at times”.
MAX MAX COY
Verstappen was restrained after his successful opening day.
“It was alright,” he said. “Of course, the conditions are different compared to testing, but it’s alright. I have a good feeling with the car and we still have things to look at tyre-wise and balance, but overall I’m happy.
“Tomorrow (for qualifying) is a different day – and it will be even windier, which with these cars makes it quite tricky.”
RICCIARDO ‘STILL GETTING THERE’
Ferrari new boy Carlos Sainz, in his first day’s work since joining from McLaren, was fourth ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes and Daniel Ricciardo, on his first outing for McLaren.
Ricciardo was ninth in the first practice session, once again behind teamamate Lando Norris, and said he is “still getting there”.
“I thought having an hour session instead of 90 minutes meant it would be a bit easier, with less time on track – but it was pretty chaotic actually,” he said.
“You feel the half-hour. It goes quick. I think it was quite fortunate that we were here a couple of weeks ago, so we could hit the ground running. I think you need to make the most of that track time.
“I’m still getting there, I still want to find a few things in the car and obviously within myself. In FP2 I made some inroads, but hopefully I’ll find another step tomorrow to get more where I want to be.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda was an impressive seventh for AlphaTauri ahead of Lance Stroll, of Aston Martin, Pierre Gasly in the second AlphaTauri and new recruit Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.
The one-hour session, reduced from 90 minutes to reduce costs, provided few clear signals for the season ahead other than confirmation that Red Bull are narrowly fastest ahead of a tight pack – separated by very little time.
After a competitive opening session that saw an improved Mercedes ease off as Verstappen went top, the second run began with Hamilton out immediately on mediums in cooler conditions under the lights.
He was soon on top ahead of Bottas before Kimi Raikkonen, at 41 the oldest man in the field, spun his Alfa Romeo at Turn Three, bouncing through the gravel and hitting the wall.
The Finn’s accident ripped off the nose and smacked his right rear wheel into the barrier.
A strong swirling wind, which had changed direction in the cooler temperatures, may have helped cause his mishap.
Hamilton then switched to softs with a group of others and continued to lead the way after overhauling Sainz, who had gone top, before Norris – his McLaren this year powered by a Mercedes engine – took control only to be beaten by Verstappen in 1:30.847.
With 15 minutes remaining, there was less than a second separating the top 15 cars – a sure sign that the teams are tantalisingly close in basic performance, including Fernando Alonso down in 15th, in the final season under the current regulations.
On top of that, there were four different cars in the top four positions as the session drew to a close – evidence that a close fight is in prospect this weekend.
2nd session times:
Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull-Honda) 1:30.847,
Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren-Mercedes) 1:30.942.
Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1:31.082,
Carlos Sainz (ESP/Ferrari) 1:31.127, Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes) 1:31.218,
Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/McLaren-Mercedes) 1:31.230,
Yuki Tsunoda (JPN/AlphaTauri-Honda) 1:31.294,
Lance Stroll (CAN/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:31.393,
Pierre Gasly (FRA/AlphaTauri-Honda) 1:31.483,
Sergio Pérez (MEX/Red Bull-Honda) 1:31.503,
Esteban Ocon (FRA/Alpine-Renault) 1:31.601,
Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1:31.612
Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:31.740,
Sebastian Vettel (GER/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:31.769,
Fernando Alonso (ESP/Alpine-Renault) 1:31.770,
Kimi Raikkonen (FIN/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:31.862,
George Russell (GBR/Williams-Mercedes) 1:32.331,
Mick Schumacher (GER/Haas-Ferrari) 1:33.297,
Nicholas Latifi (CAN/Williams-Mercedes) 1:33.400,
Nikita Mazepin (RUS/Haas-Ferrari) 1:33.449.