Max Verstappen gave an early confirmation that Red Bull’s pre-season testing pace might carry through to race weekends by setting the fastest time of the first practice session for the opening round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship, the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Dutch driver used soft compound Pirelli tyre to claim top spot in the session, just under three tenths of a second ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, with McLaren’s Lando Norris third. Defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton finished fourth.
With Friday’s practice session cut to an hour each this season the session was a busy one with returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso leading the field out of the pit lane in his Alpine when the lights went green to signal the start of the first grand prix track session of the new season.
It was Red Bull who quickly forced their way to the top of the timesheet, however, with new recruit Sergio Pérez claiming top spot as he bolted on a set of soft tyres inside the first quarter of an hour.
Mercedes pursued a similar strategy and Hamilton then went quickest on soft tyres with a time of 1:32.884. Bottas then moved ahead but Verstappen eclipsed everyone with his first flying lap of 1:32.214.
With early soft tyre runs complete teams switched focus to longer running before once again looking at performance in the closing stages.
Norris was the first to move up the timesheet, with the McLaren driver posting a lap of 1:31.897 on soft tyres. With improvements occurring across the order the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers eventually emerged with a little more Hamilton went fastest of anyone in the first sector with just over 10 minutes remaining.
The defending champion seemed to be enjoying a more stable Mercedes than seen in pre-season testing but after setting the fastest first sector the improvement ebbed and he finished the session with a best time of 1:31.921, a tenth behind Norris.
Bottas, though, was able to extract more from the new Mercedes W12 and he posted a time of 1:31.692 to claim P1. Verstappen was still circling, however, and with purple times in the first two sectors he claimed top spot with 0.298 in hand.
Charles Leclerc was fifth for Ferrari, six tenths off Verstappen but less than a tenth behind Hamilton, while Pérez was sixth with a lap of 1:32.071, 0.677 behind his new team-mate, though the Mexican did claim the quickest third sector.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly finished seventh in front of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, while Daniel Ricciardo was ninth in the second McLaren ahead of Sauber’s Antonio Giovinazzi.
2021 FIA Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix – Free Practice 1
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 12 1:31.394
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 17 1:31.692 0.298
3 Lando Norris McLaren 20 1:31.897 0.503
4 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 15 1:31.921 0.527
5 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 14 1:31.993 0.599
6 Sergio Perez Red Bull 15 1:32.071 0.677
7 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 23 1:32.195 0.801
8 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 15 1:32.366 0.972
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 20 1:32.434 1.040
10 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo 16 1:32.786 1.392
11 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo 18 1:33.134 1.740
12 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 21 1:33.157 1.763
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 20 1:33.233 1.839
14 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 21 1:33.329 1.935
15 Esteban Ocon Alpine 20 1:33.528 2.134
16 Fernando Alonso Alpine 18 1:33.872 2.478
17 George Russell Williams 22 1:34.127 2.733
18 Nicholas Latifi Williams 22 1:34.340 2.946
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 16 1:34.501 3.107
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas 16 1:34.975 3.581