Max Verstappen led the way from surprise package Fernando Alonso and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz after the first day of testing ahead of the 2023 Formula 1 season.
The reigning world champion picked up where he left off to lay down an ominous marker as Red Bull displayed an impressive combination of speed and reliability.
Sainz set the early pace in the morning session before the Dutchman closed the gap and eventually took over top spot by a shade under three tenths of a second.
He then increased that margin to more than four tenths in the afternoon until Alonso produced the lap of the day with less than 30 minutes left on the clock to get within three hundredths of the benchmark time.
Charles Leclerc finished the day fourth, a fraction behind his teammate, with Lando Norris rounding out the top five and salvaging something from what was a pretty disappointing start for McLaren.
Lewis Hamilton was in the top three for most of the afternoon but eventually had to settle for sixth, almost seven tenths behind Verstappen. George Russell, who took the morning shift, was a further seven tenths off the pace in ninth on a day that highlighted the scale of the task facing Mercedes.
Alex Albon and Guanyu Zhou impressed in seventh and eighth, as did Williams rookie Logan Sargeant, who managed 10th.
Verstappen underlines favourite tag
Despite the windtunnel penalty as a result of breaching the 2021 cost cap, Verstappen is undoubtedly the favourite to clinch a third successive world championship in 2023. Day one of testing only served to further underline his title credentials.
Not only did he record the fastest lap, but he also racked up 157 laps as the only driver to take part in both the morning and afternoon sessions.
To make matters worse for Red Bull’s rivals, on Verstappen’s quickest lap he ran well wide at the last corner, likely costing him an extra couple of tenths.
Team boss Christian Horner admitted to Sky F1’s Rachel Brookes that his star driver was immediately happy with the RB19, which is an evolution of the dominant and record-breaking RB18 that proved the class of the field in 2022.
Mercedes well off the pace
One of the big question marks of the 2023 season was whether Mercedes could recover from a disappointing 2022 campaign and rejoin the title fight. On the evidence, that appears a long shot.
The W14 looked a handful on day one in Bahrain, struggling specifically in the high-speed sections as Hamilton and Russell wrestled the car to sixth and ninth respectively.
On the plus side, the two Brits completed their running without any reliability concerns, putting 152 laps on the board between them, but that’ll be little consolation if the eight-time constructors’ champions can’t unlock some more pace.
Toto Wolff did temper expectations in the build-up to testing by saying he didn’t expect to be pushing for wins right from the off and that the team were ready to ditch the radical ‘zero-sidepod’ philosophy if required.