As world champion Max Verstappen dazzled under the floodlights for Red Bull, easily topping the charts on the last day of Formula One preseason testing on Saturday, title rival Lewis Hamilton was not optimistic about how Mercedes will fare when the season starts next weekend.
Hamilton missed out on a record eighth F1 title on the last lap of the last race last year and is looking to grab his crown back from Verstappen.
Although it’s only testing, which can be misleading because teams sometimes have something in reserve, the task could prove harder than envisaged for the British veteran with a record 103 race wins.
Verstappen looked to be in that sleek pole position mode — he led F1 with 10 poles last year — beating his own leading time near the end, and going so fast at one point he even did a 360 spin.
Running with the RB18's upgraded sidepods and floor that clearly worked, Verstappen clocked a leading time of 1 minute, 31.720 seconds, the fastest across the three days of testing in Bahrain.
He was around .5 seconds ahead of Mick Schumacher, who moved up when driving alone as the American-owned Haas team was granted two extra hours after everyone finished.
That was agreed in order to make up time lost on Wednesday, after the late arrival of freight shipments left Haas unable to join in Thursday morning’s first session.
Before Schumacher's late effort, Verstappen placed .7 seconds ahead of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc when the session ended under floodlights, and in conditions similar to next Sunday's opening race on the same Sakhir circuit.
“We can’t read too much into the timing,” Verstappen said. “The new parts we tested today worked well, which is what we always hope for.”
But Schumacher's late run in optimal conditions pushed Leclerc down to third fastest; two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso to fourth, and Hamilton's teammate George Russell to fifth. They were both around a second slower than Verstappen, who won 10 races last year to Hamilton's eight.
Hamilton was 4.5 seconds behind Verstappen in 17th spot, although when he drove earlier in the day the conditions were less suitable than in the afternoon and evening.
Still, he wasn't happy about the way it went.
“We’re not the quickest at the moment, I think Ferrari look to be the quickest. Perhaps Red Bull and then maybe us," Hamilton said. “But we’re certainly not at the top.”
Hamilton and other drivers have been struggling during preseason testing with what F1 calls “porpoising” — an aerodynamic issue where cars hop and bounce on the track — and with other issues like tire grip.
Hamilton was only ninth best in the morning run, which was topped by Verstappen's teammate Sergio Perez.
Even Mercedes, with its eight straight constructors' titles, has been having trouble getting the car under control.
“Everyone's struggling out on this bumpy track, and we come out of it knowing we still have a lot of work (to do)," Hamilton said. “Everyone's sliding around, the tires are worse this year. I hope we can maybe get some better tires at some stage, or maybe that work better in places (that are) not so hot this year.”
Russell agreed with that assessment.
“It's definitely bouncing around a lot. It's not the comfiest, in all honesty," Russell said. "I don't really care about comfort if the performance is there. But at the moment we do seem a step behind our rivals.”
Mercedes finds itself in the rare position of scrambling to find a solution.
“We’ve yet to find one, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to find one ahead of next week, or later in the season,” Russell said. “I do believe the performance is in there, somewhere.”
Hamilton did have some cause for optimism, however.
“The positive so far is following behind other cars feels a little bit better,” the 37-year-old British driver said.
AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, who was third fastest in the morning, agreed following is better than in previous years — which was one of F1's hopes amid a series of regulation changes.
“That makes me quite optimistic in terms of racing,” the Frenchman said. “(The fans) should see some exciting races."
It was proving a long day for McLaren's Lando Norris driving alone on the Bahrain International Circuit, with teammate Daniel Ricciardo recovering from the coronavirus.
Norris thinks McLaren has “a lot of work to do” before next week.
“The slower speed corners is where we struggle," he said. “When you look at Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, they’re quite a long way ahead of us in those types of corners.”
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