Verstappen’s Tactical Play Shakes F1 Circuit

Following the initial and subsequent free practice sessions in Bahrain, uncertainties emerged. Is Mercedes truly as quick as they seem, and should Max Verstappen harbor concerns? At present, the data suggests that Verstappen appears to set the pace in terms of race performance.

An analysis of the outcomes from the second free practice session might lead one to believe that Max Verstappen encountered a less-than-ideal day in Bahrain.

With a sixth-place finish in FP2, the Dutch driver lagged behind Lewis Hamilton by half a second. This outcome quietly stirred surprise, particularly considering the pre-season hype crowning Verstappen as the presumptive World Champion.

Upon scrutinizing the short stints of the second free practice session, Verstappen did exhibit a slight deficit in speed. Notably, in comparison to Hamilton’s quickest lap, the Dutch contender conceded significant time, particularly evident in the third sector.

Verstappen himself made the following comment regarding the substantial variance. “It didn’t go wrong. It’s close together. Some around us screwed up the engine a bit further for top speed. I’m quite happy with the car and we focused a bit more on the long runs.”

The aspect of top speed indeed holds significance, especially in the context of the third sector, which encompasses an extensive straight stretch and merely two right-hand kinks.

In an additional observation, Verstappen encountered a marginal loss of 0.094 seconds in the initial sector, where top speed similarly plays a crucial role.

It’s plausible that Red Bull’s robust DRS system compensates for this deficit to some extent. Notably, the first sector features two DRS zones, potentially aiding Verstappen’s performance.

In general, Hamilton found himself pleasantly taken aback by the velocity exhibited by Mercedes. He stated; “It’s a shock to see where we are now.

“We need to keep our heads up and keep working on the set-up to get more out of it. Our speed in the long run is nowhere near Red Bull. We still need to work on that.”

But is Hamilton onto something when he discusses Mercedes’ performance on long runs?

During the second free practice session, which served as a representative gauge under similar time frames and conditions, most top teams engaged in extended stints on the soft tires, with Verstappen notably showcasing prowess on the C3 compound.

The reigning champion exhibited remarkable consistency, maintaining a steady pace predominantly within the 1:36 range, save for a slower lap due to encountering traffic. This trend was mirrored by teammate Sergio Perez.

In contrast, Mercedes and Ferrari struggled in this aspect. Hamilton encountered challenges navigating through traffic, with George Russell providing the most reliable comparison.

On average, Hamilton lagged behind Verstappen by two to four-tenths and experienced a gradual deterioration in lap times as the tires wore down.

Initially, Russell managed to shadow Verstappen closely, but towards the latter stages of the stint, the gap widened to as much as eight-tenths.

Of course, a reality check can be instructive. While it remains uncertain how much fuel various drivers and teams carried, Ferrari, in particular, left room for improvement.

Although Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz demonstrated greater consistency compared to the previous season, their lap times generally fell short of Verstappen’s benchmark. Leclerc managed to dip below the 1:37 mark only twice throughout the session.

Aside from the usual contenders, Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin also displayed promising form. While Alonso’s long run was marginally slower overall compared to the conventional top three, the variance wasn’t substantial.

This positioning could potentially position Alonso as a formidable dark horse. Even his quickest lap, securing third place in the second free practice session, showcased impressive sector times, with his second sector outpacing both Verstappen and Hamilton.

As for McLaren, Oscar Piastri notably demonstrated impressive pace while carrying a considerable fuel load, although the team from Woking opted to switch from soft to medium tires in the final stages.

Consequently, there remains some uncertainty regarding tire wear and degradation rates. Lando Norris had previously remarked that the Bahrain International Circuit might not suit the MCL38, but thus far, they appear to be holding their own.

In summary, Verstappen still appears to be the frontrunner in the race, but the gap has notably diminished. The Dutch driver no longer enjoys a significant advantage over Mercedes, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and McLaren.

The free practice sessions have hinted at the unpredictability of Verstappen securing pole position. A race with opportunities for overtaking seems inevitable, wherein Verstappen appears to hold an edge.