Max Verstappen fastest in F1 testing as Mercedes struggles

SAKHIR, Bahrain (AP) — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was fastest on the first of three days of Formula One testing on Friday, while unexpected reliability issues restricted Mercedes’ time on track and offered its long-frustrated rivals a rare glimmer of hope.

Verstappen set the pace on a hot, windy day with sand blowing across the track and restricting visibility. He was .215 seconds ahead of McLaren rival Lando Norris and .472 ahead of Alpine driver Esteban Ocon.

“We managed a lot of laps, even though the track conditions were quite difficult. It was very warm with a lot of wind and we know the (tire) degradation is always very high around here,” Verstappen said. “The main thing is the car felt nice to drive, so it’s a positive start.”

Not so for Mercedes.

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton was 10th fastest for Mercedes. Teammate Valtteri Bottas completed only six laps in the morning because of a gearbox problem. He was 17th and last before handing over to Hamilton and acknowledged that it felt unfamiliar for the ever-reliable Mercedes to encounter such a problem.

“In recent years things have been pretty much bulletproof, so it’s not a familiar experience,” Bottas said. “I am confident we can recover and I’m looking forward to two good days over the weekend.”

Andrew Shovlin, the team’s engineering director, lamented the wasted time for a team which almost always makes the most of it.

“It’s been a poor start. We lost more or less the whole morning (and) our workload over lunch meant we were late joining the afternoon session with Lewis,” he said. “Once we got running it was clear we didn’t have the car in the right balance window, and while we made some progress during the day, we’re not happy with how the car is performing.”

Ferrari’s preparations were also hit when Charles Leclerc pulled over with a technical problem late in the morning session.

The season starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix at the same track on March 28. The scheduled first race of the season in Australia was postponed to November because of travel restrictions.

Testing has been moved from its traditional home in Spain and cut from the usual six days to three as F1 and the teams try to cut costs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I remember in 2007 during testing I had 10 days in the car and now it’s getting less and less,” said Hamilton, who has also often said he does not enjoy testing. “It’s not easy but it’s the same for everyone. I’d like to think my nine years’ experience with this team will help me get the best out of it. ”

Despite all of his experience, however, the seven-time world champion felt unsettled by all of the sand blowing everywhere.

“I’ve never seen a sandstorm come through here before in all the years that I’ve driven at this circuit,” he said. “The sand was moving like rain would move. Having sand on the tires isn’t good for their longevity.”

Rookie drivers had a chance to get used to their cars, with Yuki Tsunoda driving for AlphaTauri and an all-new lineup at Haas of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.

Two rebranded teams ran in national colors as Aston Martin, formerly Racing Point, took to the track in traditional British racing green, and Alpine, formerly Renault, showed off the French tricolor. Haas has Russian colors on its car because of Mazepin, and Ferrari as usual is in red.

A dramatic shakeup in the standings is considered unlikely after seven years of near-total dominance by Mercedes. The teams are still using 2020-specification chassis after sweeping rule changes were pushed back a year to 2022. There are tweaks to the rules on aerodynamics to stop teams from generating as much downforce from the car’s floor.

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