Verstappen dominates F1 preseason testing

Max Verstappen concluded the opening day of Formula One’s preseason testing in the same place that he finished last year’s championship — comfortably clear of the rest of the field.

The first of three days of testing got underway at the Bahrain International Circuit on Wednesday, with the opening race of the season set to take place at the same circuit on March 2.

While headline times in testing can be misleading, Verstappen’s advantage of 1.140s over nearest rival Lando Norris is an ominous sign for the rest of the grid, especially as it comes off the back of two successive seasons of Red Bull dominance in 2022 and 2023.

Verstappen, who will be chasing his fourth consecutive title this season, set his time in the final hour of testing using the C3 compound tire. The lap beat his best effort earlier in the day by 0.3s, which had already spread a huge grin across the face of his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, in Red Bull’s garage.

The upcoming two days of testing will likely provide a more accurate picture of just how far ahead Red Bull is as rival teams better understand their cars and refine their setups. So many variables can impact single lap times in testing, such as fuel loads and engine settings, meaning the true advantage of one team over the rest is often found deeper in the lap times by averaging out longer runs.

What’s more, as impressive as Verstappen’s time was, his 1:31.344 was still one second off the best time of last year’s preseason test at the same circuit and over 1.6 seconds off his own pole position time for the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix.

McLaren’s Norris set the second-fastest time on Wednesday — a 1:32.484 — using the same C3 tyre compound as Verstappen, albeit earlier in the day before the sun had set and the track cooled to a more favourable temperature.

Norris was 0.1 seconds clear of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari in third place, who was a further 0.015s clear of Daniel Ricciardo, driving for Red Bull’s second team, now known as RB.

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While Red Bull was always expected to keep at least some advantage at the start of this season, many rival teams had hoped to close the gap over the winter.

Several teams have clearly borrowed ideas from last year’s dominant Red Bull RB19 in an attempt to close that gap, but during the same period of time the world champions appear to have moved the game on further.

The most visible difference on the new RB20 is a novel approach to the car’s cooling, which includes thin horizontal sidepod inlets that have allowed for a deeper undercut below the sidepod itself.

Along with prominent bulges running the length of Red Bull’s engine, the new design has led to comparisons with the car concept Mercedes pursued for the past two years and abandoned over the winter.

However, whereas Mercedes combined those features with slimline sidepods, which became known as the infamous “zero pod” design, Red Bull’s new car retains more conventional sidepods.

“Every team follows their own development direction, trying to generate lap time in the virtual world, simulations and in the wind tunnel,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff stated on Wednesday when asked about Red Bull’s design. “And then you put that on the car no matter what other teams do.

“We have gone back from our zero-pod concept and some of the features because we didn’t feel like it had performance, and that’s why we have gone with what looks like, at first sight, more conventional with the bodywork, but we will use it with a better platform.”

After concluding second in the championship last year, Mercedes is anticipated to be among Red Bull’s closest competitors this year. 

George Russell drove the new W15 throughout Wednesday’s opening test day, setting the 12th fastest time, and will hand over to teammate Lewis Hamilton on Wednesday before the pair split driving duties on the final day.

By this point last year, Mercedes’ drivers already had misgivings about their 2023 car, but Wolff, who was speaking during a news conference midway through the opening day, said the early signs this year were more promising.

“We’ve had a filming day yesterday and some aero running this morning; we will know better with later lap times,” Wolff said. “But part of the feedback from the drivers was that this is something that we can work with, and that is encouraging.”

Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin are also expected to be strong contenders in the pack chasing Red Bull, although Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur, whose team was third fastest on Wednesday, remained sceptical about catching Red Bull.

“Compared with Red Bull, I don’t know,” he said when asked whether the gap would close. “All the others, I think, will converge for sure with the stable regulations.”

Williams was the team that encountered a significant reliability problem on the opening day. A driveshaft issue after Logan Sargeant spun in the afternoon session capped the team at 61 laps, leaving it with plenty of ground to catch up over the remaining two days.

Preseason testing continues at the Bahrain International Circuit on Thursday.

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