Red Bull heads into the 2021 season looking like a real threat to Mercedes after setting the fastest times in each of the two sessions on the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain.
Max Verstappen had been fastest on the opening day and completed the most mileage, and when he next got in the RB16B to round off the test he was once again at the top of the times. The Dutchman completed 64 laps on Sunday afternoon and the car looked consistent and stable throughout as he was the only driver to dip below the 1m29s barrier with a 1m28.960s on the C4 compound.
The C4 is the second softest in the Pirelli range and will be the soft tire available when we return to race in Bahrain in two weeks, but Verstappen also completed plenty of rapid running on the C3 medium, running wide at Turn 11 but still improving at one stage before lowering the final benchmark.
It was the two Honda-powered teams that topped the times on the final day as Yuki Tsunoda impressed for AlphaTauri in an entertaining ending to the test. Multiple runs on C4 and C5 tires saw Tsunoda often jumping to the top of the standings, and his best attempt on the C5 left him just 0.093s adrift of Verstappen. While that lap is likely to be close to a full-on qualifying simulation to allow the rookie to gain experience, more importantly he added 91 laps to his total and looks well prepared for his debut, despite a half-spin at Turn 7 in front of Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo soon after the mid-day break.
Carlos Sainz ended up third for Ferrari, and although he was 0.6s off the pace on the C4 tire he could have been even closer but for a bizarre incident in the closing stages. Sainz started a flying lap with a little under a minute remaining of the session but for some reason coverage was wrapping up as if the checkered flag was out. A strong first sector hinted at a quick time but Sainz then came across a slow Raikkonen.
Keen to push on, Sainz dived down the inside of the Alfa Romeo at Turn 10 and the two very nearly collided, with both ending up in the run-off area. Sainz then chased Raikkonen back to the pits with the car’s body language suggesting he was angered by the incident.
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Sainz’s frustration could have been added to by an earlier gearbox issue that confined him to the garage for a spell, after he got stuck in fourth gear on an in-lap.
Raikkonen was fifth, a little over 0.1s behind Sainz on the C5s, and the incident shouldn’t overshadow an extremely strong performance that saw him finish up with 166 laps to his name and a solid race simulation.
Mercedes’ day was another strange one, with Lewis Hamilton fifth but never looking capable of threatening the times posted by Red Bull and AlphaTauri. Whether that was due to fuel load remains to be seen but Hamilton never looked fully happy on the softer compounds, emphasized by a strange spin when he was accelerating out of the final corner to start a timed lap on the C5s.
By contrast, George Russell was less than 0.1s behind Hamilton in sixth and amassed 158 laps on his one and only day of testing for Williams. Both set their best laps on C5 tires at similar times, edging out the similarly Mercedes-powered McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo, who set his best lap on the C4 in the evening session.
Sergio Perez in eighth was quickest in the morning session, although he was limited to 49 laps as Red Bull worked through different setup changes to increase his understanding of the car. What it showed was the car is quick in all conditions at this venue right now, increasing expectations of a true fight at the front come the opening race in two weeks’ time.
Fernando Alonso ended up ninth for Alpine — also testing the softer compounds under the lights — and while he was 1.3s off Verstappen’s pace he was also only quicker than two cars that ran after lunch.
The top 10 was rounded out by Charles Leclerc, who surprised many with his quickest time as it came very early on in the morning session. The fact that the 1m30.486s was set on the C3 tire also hints at solid raw pace but Ferrari still faces a tall order to leapfrog a highly competitive midfield.
The two Haas rookies gained further good mileage as Nikita Mazepin added 67 laps to the 78 managed by Mick Schumacher in the morning, but they were only quicker than Valtteri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll.
Bottas and Stroll ran in the morning and focused on high fuel plans, while Vettel had similarly only done long runs and slower laps when a turbo issue ended his day early and left him with just 117 laps in total across the entire test.