Verstappen leads last day of testing to give Red Bull hope

Having won the last race of the 2020 Formula One season, Red Bull showed it might be a strong challenger to Mercedes this year after leading the final day of pre-season testing on Sunday.

With the evening sun setting on Bahrain’s desert track in Sakhir, Max Verstappen topped the leaderboard after his new teammate Sergio Perez was fastest in the morning run.

“I am pleased with where the car is, there is definitely good potential in it,” Perez said. “The overall picture is a positive one.”

Verstappen, who won the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with a commanding drive last December, also topped Friday’s first testing day.

“It was very smooth, as it has been throughout the whole test. I think we can say it has been a good weekend but of course that doesn’t give you any guarantees,” Verstappen said. “We’ll find out for sure in a couple of weeks where we really are, but I would say the car feels good.”

World champion Lewis Hamilton span his car 360 degrees on track late in Sunday’s session and finished the day only fifth fastest and, encouragingly for Red Bull, about one second behind Verstappen’s time.

Hamilton expects Red Bull to push him hard as he bids for a record eighth F1 title to overtake Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats.

“Both the drivers, I think, have been looking quite strong,” Hamilton said. “They’re going to be a different animal this year with a real good lineup. It’s going to be a great, long battle with them.”

Perez brings huge experience and race craft, to back up Verstappen’s abundance of natural ability, audacity and speed.

The 31-year-old Mexican switched from Racing Point, which rebranded as Aston Martin following a takeover and perhaps unfairly replaced him with four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, who did not get a new contract at Ferrari.

“It has been the shortest pre-season I have ever done and I still have a lot of things to learn in the car to get the maximum out of it,” said Perez, who won his first F1 race last year for his 10th career podium.

Mercedes struggled on Friday and on Saturday morning before finding its form in Saturday’s afternoon session. On Sunday, Bottas was down in 16th and felt the car’s balance was still not quite right.

“I would say that one of the big issues with the car is the rear,” Bottas said. “It’s quite snappy and it’s quite unforgiving … We’re trying to calm the car down a bit and that way trying to get some more pace.”

The season starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix at the same track on March 28. The scheduled first race in Australia was postponed to November because of travel restrictions, while testing was moved from Spain and cut from six days to three to save costs amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am grateful for the these short test days but it is the racing we really enjoy,” said Hamilton, who will go for a record-extending 99th F1 win in two weeks’ time.

He is confident that is long enough for Mercedes to iron out the issues that arose in testing.

“It’s better that it doesn’t go smoothly now and goes smooth once we get into the racing scene,” he said. “I think everyone’s just keeping their heads down. No one is fazed by it. We are a multi championship-winning team, and we know how to pull together.”

For Bottas the last day was more about avoiding further hiccups, and he was content to clock more than 80 laps.

“I can’t say we fully achieved the mileage we wanted to but not that far off, a good amount of laps,” Bottas said. “Considering what happened on day one, how day two went, I am pleased for that.”

It was an encouraging debut for AlphaTauri’s 20-year-old Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda, who ended the day second behind Verstappen and ahead of 41-year-old Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo.

After enduring a torrid last season with Ferrari, Vettel’s first days with Aston Martin were forgettable.

After completing just a handful of laps on Saturday because of a gearbox problem, he was 17th on Sunday.

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