Charles Leclerc topped the opening practice session for the Bahrain Grand Prix as Ferrari enjoyed a clear advantage over the rest of the field.
Strong in pre-season testing, Ferrari surprisingly struggled during the season-opening Australian Grand Prix as Mercedes led the way in Melbourne. After spending the gap between races analyzing its poor performance, Ferrari was confident it had found some answer in time for Bahrain and the early signs were promising as Leclerc led the way on a 1m30.354s.
The gap between the two Ferrari drivers was 0.263s, but it was the margin over the rest of the field that was of greater importance. Leclerc’s advantage over Australia race winner Valtteri Bottas was slightly under a second, with the top 18 drivers all using the soft compound for their best laps.
Lewis Hamilton was fourth — 1.247s off the pace with a 1m31.601s — but Mercedes will hope to be closer in more representative conditions when the sun goes down during FP2, which takes place at the same time as qualifying and the race.
Red Bull was close behind Mercedes with Max Verstappen fifth and Pierre Gasly sixth, the latter a little over 0.2s slower than Hamilton. However, both drivers complained of handling issues, with Verstappen stating the rear end was difficult early on, and later running wide at Turn 4.
Ferrari’s advantage was out of keeping with the rest of the field, where the gaps were much smaller. McLaren was best of the rest in the opening session as Carlos Sainz set a 1m31.952s to end up 0.137s off Gasly, with the Spaniard running a new ICE, turbocharger, MGU-H and MGU-K as a result of his fiery retirement in Australia.
Nico Hulkenberg was eighth quickest for Renault — less than 0.1s behind Sainz — but was involved in a strange incident late in the session. After letting Kimi Raikkonen past at Turn 5, Hulkenberg returned slowly to the racing line as Antonio Giovinazzi was approaching in the other Alfa Romeo. Unhappy at being blocked, Giovinazzi was overtaking around the outside of Turn 6 and raised a hand to gesture at Hulkenberg, but the German was apparently unaware and turned in for Turn 7, resulting in contact.
Both drivers went wide and Giovinazzi was momentarily airborne as their wheels touched, but it appears neither car picked up significant damage.
Raikkonen ended up 10th behind Daniil Kvyat after a session in which he was blocked by a McLaren and Kvyat’s teammate Alexander Albon, while Daniel Ricciardo and Kevin Magnussen were 11th and 12th respectively.
Both Haas drivers were off the pace of their Melbourne performance, with Romain Grosjean 17th and ending the session with a damaged front wing as the right-hand side appeared to brake as he ran over the exit curb at Turn 7.
Behind Grosjean were two other drivers to have incidents during the session, with Lance Stroll 18th after spinning exiting Turn 4 and suffering light damage to his front wing as he touched the barrier. George Russell in 19th similarly spun exiting Turn 2, but was able to continue without any apparent damage.
Russell and Robert Kubica were just 0.065s apart in terms of fastest laps, and were the only two drivers to set their best times on the medium tires as Williams was 3.8s slower than Leclerc in the opening session.