Max Verstappen laid down an early marker ahead of the world championship on the opening day of pre-season F1 testing in Bahrain, while Lewis Hamilton suffered a nightmare start as a sandstorm swept across the Sakhir track.
Verstappen’s statement came after Daniel Ricciardo made the perfect start to life at his new team McLaren as he topped the first session of day one of pre-season testing.
Ricciardo said: “A good day, yes. It’s nice to be back in the car for sure… It was a pretty smooth morning, got it done. Some good laps, some decent times so a good start.”
Verstappen, long regarded as heir apparent to seven-time world champion Hamilton, clocked a best time of 1min 30.674sec in the Red Bull, posting the day’s fastest time on hard tyres before beating his own marker on the faster medium tyres.
The Dutchman also piled up an eye-watering 139 laps.
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Ricciardo had topped the morning leaderboard with a fastest time of 1:32.203 ahead of Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly (1:32.231) and Red Bull’s Verstappen (1:32.245) and set his fastest lap time on the hard Pirelli tyres.
“We had a very positive day and managed a lot of laps even though the track conditions were quite difficult,” said Verstappen who was third in the championship last year.
“We don’t need to talk about pace yet and it isn’t really a discussion until we get to Q3 at the first race weekend – it’s only then you see the real pace in all the cars.”
In stark comparison, Hamilton was only 10th fastest in 1:32.912 although his 42 laps dwarfed the six managed by Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, the slowest man on the track in 1:36.850.
Bottas, runner-up to Hamilton in the 2020 championship, even finished behind Haas rookies Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher.
“It was not a good start,” admitted Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff at a mid-day press conference.
“We had a gearbox problem that came out of nowhere which we haven’t been able to identify yet.”
Bottas had his gearbox replaced after just one lap, something which took two hours to complete, and returned near the end of the first session to complete just another five laps.
However, Wolff didn’t appear too concerned over his team’s struggles with two more days of testing to go over the weekend.
With just three days testing in total compared to six and eight in Barcelona in recent years, Wolff said the brief Gulf visit offers only a “vague picture” of each team’s readiness.
“A vague picture, but on the first race weekend on qualifying we’ll only know once the flag drops, bulls*** stops,” he concluded.
SANDSTORM CAUSES HAVOC
The drivers taking part in the afternoon session faced trying conditions, with sand blowing across the track.
Hamilton said: “I’ve never seen a sandstorm come through here before in all the years that I’ve driven at this circuit. The sand was moving like rain would move.”
Hamilton was sliding all over the track, suffering from a lap of grip and even calling for a different set of pedals for his Mercedes.
Meanwhile Sebastian Vettel, the former Ferrari driver, said it was “good fun” in the morning as he took to his new Aston Martin for the first time.
He said: “It was good fun to be back in the car to be honest, it’s fun to work with the team… but it was fun to be in the car, fun to slide around and yeah I enjoyed it and there’s more to come in the next days.”
He was running in the morning session, which had less sand but still trying conditions for the drivers.
He said: “It’s in all honesty been quite a tricky morning because it’s very windy and the grip was quite low.”
The season will start in Bahrain on March 28.
The top three on Friday was filled out by Lando Norris in a McLaren in 1:30.889 and Esteban Ocon who clocked a best of 1:31.146 from 129 laps for Alpine, the repackaged Renault.
FERRARI’S BRIGHT DAY
After a humiliating 2020, and their worst season in 40 years, Ferrari saw Carlos Sainz take fifth place with Charles Leclerc in 11th.
But Leclerc was thee first driver of the year to suffer a red flag, after being forced to park his car with 10 minutes left in the morning session.
Ferrari later stated it was a precaution “because of an anomaly with the combustion spotted on the telemetry”.
Sainz suffered a spin in his own session, but no engine problems of his own as he completed 57 laps on a promising day for the Marinello team.
“I feel prepared for testing, definitely. Prepared for race one? Not at all,” he said.
“Compared to the knowledge I had of the McLaren to set it up to my liking and exactly how to drive it under wind conditions, new tyres… How to change the front wing, the switches, I have no idea yet about the Ferrari.
“So very unprepared for race one, but at least we’re testing. I feel like I arrived as prepared as I could and I actually had a decent start.”
BEST FIRST DAY TIMES
1. Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull-Honda) 1:30.674 (139 laps)
2. Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren-Mercedes) 1:30.889 (46)
3. Esteban Ocon (FRA/Alpine-Renault) 1:31.146 (129)
4. Lance Stroll (CAN/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:31.782 (46)
5. Carlos Sainz (ESP/Ferrari) 1:31.919 (57)
6. Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:31.945 (68)
7. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/McLaren-Mercedes) 1:32.203 (45)
8. Pierre Gasly (FRA/Alpha Tauri-Honda) 1:32.231 (74)
9. Yuki Tsunoda (JPN/Alpha Tauri-Honda) 1:32.727 (37)
10. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1:32.912 (42)
11. Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1:33.242 (59)
12. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN/Alfa Romeo-Ferrari) 1:33.320 (63)
13. Sebastian Vettel (GER/Aston Martin-Mercedes) 1:33.742 (51)
14. Roy Nissany (ISR/Williams-Mercedes) 1:34.789 (83)
15. Nikita Mazepin (RUS/Haas-Ferrari) 1:34.798 (70)
16. Mick Schumacher (GER/Haas-Ferrari) 1:36.127 (15)
17. Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes) 1:36.850 (6)
Day One Lap Counts
1. Red Bull 139
2. Alfa Romeo 131
3. Alpine 129
4. Ferrari 116
5. AlphaTauri 111
6. Aston Martin 97
7. McLaren 91
8. Haas 85
9. Williams 83
10. Mercedes 48