SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) — Formula One champion Max Verstappen quickly got back to business for Red Bull by leading the second practice session at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix under floodlights on Friday.
Rival Lewis Hamilton continued to struggle for Mercedes and was only ninth fastest. Last year's title runner-up has a record 103 F1 wins yet totally ruled out opening the season with No. 104 on Sunday.
“As you can see we're a long way off,” Hamilton said. “I'm just realistic, we're not going to be in the race for a win here. If you look at the Red Bulls, they're a long way ahead.”
Hamilton's teammate, George Russell, fared a bit better, placing fourth in the second session, but said that was a one-off lap pace and thinks it will be a case of “damage limitation” for Mercedes this weekend.
“The pace just is not there at all at the moment. We’re both struggling and we’re both a long way off,” the British driver said. “From our side we're not overly happy with where we are.”
Red Bull and resurgent Ferrari, which last won the drivers' title in 2007, must be delighted.
Although Verstappen was fifth in first practice earlier Friday, the Dutchman improved to finish ahead of Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
“We had quite a straightforward and smooth day so I’m pretty happy,” said Verstappen, who was fastest in all preseason testing. “We tried a few things on the car in each session and they seemed to work well."
Verstappen's time put him a narrow .09 seconds ahead of Leclerc and .58 clear of Sainz on an encouraging day for Ferrari.
“Ferrari are pushing hard and are very close, so that’s exciting,” said Verstappen, who might have a new rival.
Hamilton was a distant 1.2 seconds behind Verstappen's leading mark on a disappointing day when the seven-time F1 champion placed seventh in the first practice.
“We’ve had small problems in the past compared to this year. We’re faced with much, much bigger problems,” Hamilton said. “Everything we do to try and fix it doesn’t really change that. It appears that it’s going to be a more longer-term fix, so nothing in the short term.”
There is a third and final practice on Saturday ahead of qualifying in cooler evening conditions at Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.
Friday's first practice was led by AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, with Leclerc and Sainz also second and third as Ferrari's encouraging performance from preseason testing continued.
Russell was fourth in his first practice since replacing Valtteri Bottas on the team. Hamilton was a considerable .75 back from Gasly's time, and the gap to the leader only grew bigger in the second session.
This season has seen new regulations designed to level the playing field by reducing the advantage of the traditional big teams.
In a bid to increase fairer competition, budgets were cut from $145 million (132 million euros) to $140 million (127 million euros) for each team and will drop to $135 million (123 million euros) in 2023.
The cars are heavier and there has also been a problem with what is known in F1 as “porpoising” — an aerodynamic issue where cars hop and bounce on the track.
Mercedes has been affected by this.
“The braking is something we can fix so it's not a concern,” Hamilton said. “It's more the balance and this bouncing that we have, and a loss of downforce that we do seem to have compared to others.”
McLaren uses Mercedes engines and seems to have similar issues to resolve. British driver Lando Norris was 16th in the first practice and 11th in the second practice as he slid around.
McLaren had five podiums last season — four for Norris and a win for Daniel Ricciardo — while back-marker Haas did not even score a point.
But both of the Haas cars — which use Ferrari engines — were ahead of McLaren in the second practice, with Mick Schumacher eighth and Kevin Magnussen 10th.
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