Verstappen sets opening day pace as Mercedes struggles

Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

Verstappen sets opening day pace as Mercedes struggles

Formula 1

Verstappen sets opening day pace as Mercedes struggles

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Max Verstappen set the pace at the start of pre-season testing on an encouraging opening day for the Honda-powered teams, while Mercedes had a tough first outing.

The defending champions had not carried out a shakedown prior to arriving in Bahrain — the only team not to do so — and it showed when Valtteri Bottas completed just a single installation lap before a gearshift issue confined him to the garage. The team opted to change the gearbox to save time and investigate the problem later, but the end result was Bottas completing just six laps in the four-hour morning session.

That was in contrast to an encouraging morning for Verstappen who was third quickest behind the Honda-powered AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly — that completed the highest mileage before lunch — and pacesetter Daniel Ricciardo.

All three were covered by less than 0.5s but Verstappen pulled clear of the field in the afternoon as he stayed in the car, with only Alpine and Williams also completing running with just one driver.

A sandstorm threatened to interrupt proceedings but with only three days of pre-season testing, all of the teams felt the need to gather as much information as possible despite the difficult conditions. The racing line cleaned up despite a spray of sand off-line, and Verstappen posted a 1m30.674s on the C3 compound — the middle of the Pirelli range.

Verstappen also had the highest mileage of any driver as Honda enjoyed encouraging reliability on day one, completing 139 laps. The next highest came from Esteban Ocon with 129 and the third fastest time overall, the pair being split by Lando Norris.

While lap times should not be emphasized on the opening day of a test, McLaren will have been buoyed by the quickest morning lap time and a 1m30.889s from Norris that left him second as track conditions improved under the floodlights in the evening.

McLaren — using the Mercedes power unit for the first time since 2014 in an official F1 session — was the lead Mercedes-powered car, as the works team didn’t enjoy much better luck when Lewis Hamilton took over from Bottas in the afternoon. Hamilton took an hour to emerge after lunch and then complained of discomfort with his pedals, completing 42 laps and setting the 10th-quickest time.

The day ended with Hamilton struggling to stay on track on consecutive laps before a Virtual Safety Car test interrupted proceedings, just as it had in the morning.

The only on track stoppage came for Ferrari when Charles Leclerc pulled over late in the morning session, although his teammate Carlos Sainz also suffered a spin at Turn 11 after lunch. Sainz still ended up fifth behind Lance Stroll — ahead of Antonio Giovinazzi, Ricciardo, and the two AlphaTauris of Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda — with Leclerc down in 11th, 2.5s off Verstappen’s best.

Sebastian Vettel enjoyed a solid first outing for Aston Martin, completing 51 laps in the morning session. The only incident of note for the four-time world champion was a stoppage at the end of the pit lane but he was still able to get back out on track after a short delay.

Willians ran test driver Roy Nissany on the opening day and the Israeli ended up ahead of both Haas cars, with Mick Schumacher also hampered by a gearbox change as a hydraulics issue limited him to 15 laps before lunch. Nikita Mazepin took over for the afternoon and ran in the worst of the sandstorm early on, but it at least allowed the team to make up some mileage as he managed 70 laps before the checkered flag at 7pm local time, despite a spin at Turn 11 mid-way through the session.

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