Verstappen leads second practice at Bahrain GP, ​​Hamilton slow

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 the spotlight on Friday.

His rival Lewis Hamilton continued to fight for Mercedes and was only ninth fastest. Last year’s runner-up has a record 103 F1 wins but is totally ruled out to open the season in 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 are way ahead.”

Hamilton’s teammate George Russell fared slightly better, placing fourth in the second session, but said it was unique lap pace and he thinks it will be a case of "damage limitation" for Mercedes this weekend.

“The rhythm just isn’t there right now. We are both fighting and we are both very far away,” said the British driver. “For our part, we are not too happy with where we are.”

Red Bull and the resurgent Ferrari, who last won the drivers’ title in 2007, must be delighted.

Although Verstappen was fifth in Friday’s first practice, the Dutchman improved to finish ahead of Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.

"We had a pretty easy and quiet day, so I’m very happy"said Verstappen, who wasfastest in all pre-season tests."We tried a few things in the car each session and they seemed to work fine.".

Verstappen’s time put him 0.09 seconds ahead of Leclerc and 0.58 ahead of Sainz on an encouraging day for Ferrari.

“Ferrari is pushing hard and very close, so that’s exciting,” said Verstappen, who could have a new rival.

Hamilton was a distant 1.2 seconds behind Verstappen’s leading time on a disappointing day when the seven-time F1 champion was seventh in first practice.

“We have had little problems in the past compared to this year. We are facing much, much bigger problems,” Hamilton said. “Everything we do to try to fix it doesn’t really change that. It looks like it will be a longer-term solution, so nothing short-term.”

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There is a third and final practice on Saturday before qualifying in cooler conditions in the evening at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Friday’s first practice was led by AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, with Leclerc and Sainz also in second and third, as Ferrari’s encouraging performance in pre-season testing continued.

Russell was fourth in his first practice since taking over from Valtteri Bottas on the team. Hamilton was a considerable .75 behind Gasly’s time, and the gap to the leader only grew larger in the second session.

This season has seennew regulations designed to level the playing fieldgame by reducing the advantage of the big traditional teams.

In an attempt to increase fairer competition, the budgets have been reduced from $145 million (€132 million) to $140 million (€127 million) for each team and will drop to $135 million (€123 million) in 2023.

The cars are heavier and there has also been a problem with what is known in F1 as "porpoise"an aerodynamic problem where cars jump and bounce around the track.

Mercedes has been affected by this.

"Braking is something we can fix so it’s not a concern"Hamilton said."It’s more of the balance and this bounce that we have, and a loss of downforce that we seem to have compared to others".

McLaren uses Mercedes engines and seems to have similar problems to solve. British driver Lando Norris was 16th in first practice and 11th in second practice as he slid.

McLaren had five podium finishes last season, four for Norris and one win for Daniel Ricciardo, while straggler Haas didn’t even score a point.

But the two Haas cars, which use Ferrari engines, were ahead of McLaren in second practice, with Mick Schumacher eighth and Kevin Magnussen 10th.

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