F1 Testing – World champion Max Verstappen sets pace to cement Red Bull as favourites

World champion Max Verstappen set the pace with a blistering lap on the final day of testing.

As the afternoon session ran into the final minutes, Verstappen pushed his Red Bull to a time of 1:31.72 to cement his team as favourites going into the new season.

Red Bull took top spot in each of the day’s two sessions, with Sergio Perez ending the morning top of the pile with a time of 1:33.105, the sixth fastest of the day.

Charles Leclerc put his Ferrari briefly top while Red Bull prepared Verstappen to take to the track for his second stint of the day.

The Monaco driver set a time just 0.695 seconds behind Verstappen, and strung together lap times in the mid 1:32s on one of his longer runs. It is too early to say with confidence who will be leading the pack but the Ferrari’s consistency is ominous.

Ferrari and Red Bull continually looked some distance out in front of the rest of the pack as temperatures on the track cooled and the desert wind dropped.

It was Red Bull’s chance to turn heads when they unveiled a radical rework of their sidepods in the morning session that Verstappen put to good effect.

The new sidepods, paired with a drastic reworking of the rear of the floor, seemed to give the Red Bull a huge boost to their aerodynamic performance, and speed.

The Red Bull team were able to run their car low enough to generate sparks on the tarmac without generating any of the porpoising that has plagued other teams.

Fernando Alonso finished the day third, running a ‘quali-style’ lap with low fuel and soft tyres.

Despite finishing the afternoon’s session fourth fastest, Mercedes’ new driver, George Russell never looked quite as comfortable as the leading pair.

His car bopped and bounced through corners where others, particularly the Ferrari, smoothed the bumps and looked far more poised.

Hamilton shared his view at the end of the morning’s session on his team’s prospects ahead of the season opener.

“We are not the quickest at the moment,” he said. “Ferrari look quickest, then perhaps Red Bull, and maybe McLaren. But we’re currently not at the top.

“At the moment, I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins.”

The Mercedes was notably suffering with porpoising more than any other of the quickest cars this week. Most teams were able to dampen some of the vibration between the two sessions but Russell nodded down almost every straight.

Beyond the second or so separating the top drivers, the field played it safe as the week’s testing drew to a close with only a pair of red flags slowing the procession of laps.

Mick Schumacher spun towards the end of a push lap but was quickly shuffled on his way.

The Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas once again lived up to its ‘fast but fragile’ moniker, sticking in fourth gear going around turn four. Bottas could do little more than let his car roll to a halt to end his session with the second red flag of the session.

McLaren’s brake woes continued despite the replacement of the crucial brake ducts that should have helped aid the cooling to their front axle.

Instead, Lando Norris was forced to take only short, sharp runs of around 10 laps before returning to the sanctity of the pits for the brakes to cool.

Hot brakes compounded the issues the Surrey-based team faced for the week, after Daniel Ricciardo tested positive for coronavirus and will be isolating until the day before race day next weekend.

Alpine’s reservist Oscar Piastri joined McLaren’s pool of reserve drivers and team principal Otmar Szafnauer confirmed he will be available should Ricciardo not make it to the starting grid.

However there was a silver lining for McLaren as they avoided the porpoising and looked among the smoothest operators on track.

Haas’ Kevin Magnussen was able to ride for an extra hour after the rest of the pack completed their racing, as the US team made the most of the extra hour granted to them following their problems with equipment on Thursday.