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Formula 1

Verstappen looks vulnerable but his main rivals look worse

by Matt Beer, Edd Straw, Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

Not fastest in either session, six tenths of a second away from pacesetting Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in practice one, concerned by how his car’s behaviour had changed since the serenity of testing a week ago.

Max Verstappen’s latest Formula 1 title defence got off to a slightly odd start in Bahrain Grand Prix Friday practice.

Not a terrible start, by any means. Probably nothing that couldn’t be solved by overnight set-up adjustments. Indeed by the end of Friday there were signs that Verstappen and the Red Bull were at one with each other again.

Verstappen remains clear favourite for pole and victory at Sakhir this weekend.

But his Friday travails did offer a tiny chink of light.

“Difficult start of the day. FP1 was really bad, just couldn’t get a balance – which was a bit odd because in testing, whatever we tried, OK, some things were maybe not amazing but not that far out. So a few things to understand,” he mused after practice.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

“Even the start of FP2 was a bit difficult but then I think for the final run, even with not really having a good reference and confidence in the car up until then, the lap was not too bad on the short run.

“And also the car felt a bit more connected. And then I think the long run, with all the changes we made, I was quite surprised at the pace we had. I think overall the car is not too bad on the long run.

“I just need to find my rhythm again with the car and just the way the car is handling from short run to long run.”

Our trackside take on Red Bull’s handling change

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Two things stand out as the Red Bulls blast past: they aren’t as hooked up as a week ago, and they are sparking more than any other car when heavier.

The RB19’s limitations are perhaps more apparent at low speed. Neither driver looks as blisteringly committed as in testing but the car still looks decent.

Verstappen seems to find a bit more confidence on low fuel and arrives into Turn 10 with the car more poised, whereas Perez needs a second go to get the car to the apex.

At Turn 11, Verstappen is so far onto the outside kerb for the entry he is pretty much on the drag strip, he’s able to attack and the car is responding nicely with the rotation.

It doesn’t look ultra-planted but still very good.

Asked if he still felt he and Red Bull were favourites once he’d made further tweaks to the car, Verstappen was confident but with a caveat that fixing his Friday problems might come at a cost later in the weekend.

“I think if I feel happy in the car again and I can push like I want to push with the car on one lap, then for sure we are very fast,” he replied.

“But it’s also of course making sure that the car doesn’t fall out of the window for the long run.”

There are enough question marks about Verstappen’s Friday to give hope to his rivals.

Or at least there would be, if his anticipated main rivals were remotely in shape to take advantage.

“I don’t think we have the performance for pole,” said Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, and the fact race pace is “where I think we have the most work to do” bodes worse still.

That might in part be down to how he and Ferrari tackled pre-season testing, with an emphasis on exploratory work meaning Leclerc’s not actually got the new car optimised for him yet.

“Let’s say that the feeling is better than testing,” said Leclerc.

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“On my side in testing it’s been very inconsistent in the way we run the car because we were testing loads of things.

“I didn’t have much time to put the car to my liking, which I did today. I think that went really well.

“On the other hand, it seems what we thought was confirmed: that Red Bull seemed quite a bit ahead compared to everyone.”

And that’s even with Verstappen feeling like he’d lost performance from testing.

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On the other side of the Ferrari garage, Carlos Sainz had gone from being delighted at how much more affinity he had with the 2023 car in testing than had been the case a year earlier to feeling like that affinity had evaporated.

“Simply the car is not exactly responding as I expect or as it did in testing and for that I’m struggling a bit more with the balance and it’s a bit more out of place compared to where it was,” said Sainz on Friday night.

“But we’re having a good look at it and we expect to put it back together for tomorrow.”

He also had a big spin in first practice while Ferrari was experimenting with its wing choices, and felt that put him off his stride.

“We were just testing some things in the car, trying to finalise a few things that we wanted to try in FP1, scrubbing the medium tyres which we wanted to get rid of in FP1 to use the softs in the night session, and, yeah, it didn’t go to plan, clearly!” he said of the spin.

“Clearly it wasn’t intentional but it was a test that went a bit wrong and we came back for FP2.

“But then I lost a bit of track time, I lost a bit of rhythm and probably paid the price in FP2.

“Still the car doesn’t feel the same as it did in testing so we’re putting an eye into what it could be.

“The track conditions have changed a bit and it looks like performance things also have changed, so we will have a good look overnight and try to put it together tomorrow.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

So Ferrari doesn’t look like it’s in a position to take advantage of any Verstappen vulnerability. Mercedes is certainly a long way from being able to. Friday pacesetter Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin may still be in ‘too good to be true’ territory, but actually go into qualifying as Red Bull’s main threat.

But maybe 2023’s going to start with a Red Bull intra-team upset, and the person who’s actually best-placed to profit if Verstappen doesn’t solve his problems before qualifying is Perez.

Perez wasn’t totally happy either, saying “we’ve got some work to do over one lap, which would automatically put us in better shape for the long run” but came across in both words and on track too for much of the day as more settled with the car than Verstappen even while still finetuning things himself.

“We explored the car a bit today so I think we generally have a good idea on which direction to go for tomorrow,” Perez added.

F1 Grand Prix Of Bahrain Previews

Given how huge the storyline around the Red Bull intra-team relationship became in the final week of the 2022 season after Verstappen refused team orders to assist Perez in Brazil and hinted that it was revenge for a past grievance believed to be a suspicion of a deliberate Monaco qualifying crash, the prospect of an early-2023 surprise in the internal power balance is rather intriguing.

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