Max Verstappen fastest on opening day of Formula One testing as Mercedes struggles

Max Verstappen F1 testing
MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was fastest on the first of three days of Formula One testing on Friday, while unexpected reliability issues restricted Mercedes’ time on track and offered its long-frustrated F1 rivals a rare glimmer of hope.

Verstappen set the pace on a hot, windy day with sand blowing across the track and restricting visibility. He was 0.215 seconds ahead of McLaren rival Lando Norris and 0.472 ahead of Alpine driver Esteban Ocon.

“We managed a lot of laps, even though the track conditions were quite difficult. It was very warm with a lot of wind and we know the (tire) degradation is always very high around here,” Verstappen said. “The main thing is the car felt nice to drive, so it’s a positive start.”

Not so for Mercedes.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION: Pierre Gasly excited about the third season of “Drive to Survive”

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton was 10th fastest for Mercedes. Teammate Valtteri Bottas completed only six laps in the morning because of a gearbox problem. He was 17th and last before handing over to Hamilton and acknowledged that it felt unfamiliar for the ever-reliable Mercedes to encounter such a problem.

“In recent years things have been pretty much bulletproof, so it’s not a familiar experience,” Bottas said. “I am confident we can recover and I’m looking forward to two good days over the weekend.”

Andrew Shovlin, the team’s engineering director, lamented the wasted time for a team that almost always makes the most of it.


Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton watch during the first day of Formula One preseason testing at the Bahrain International Circuit (MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images).

“It’s been a poor start. We lost more or less the whole morning (and) our workload over lunch meant we were late joining the afternoon session with Lewis,” he said. “Once we got running it was clear we didn’t have the car in the right balance window, and while we made some progress during the day, we’re not happy with how the car is performing.”

Ferrari’s preparations were also hit when Charles Leclerc pulled over with a technical problem late in the morning session.

The season starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix at the same track on March 28. The scheduled first race of the season in Australia was postponed to November because of travel restrictions.

Testing has been moved from its traditional home in Spain and cut from the usual six days to three as F1 and the teams try to cut costs amid the novel coronavirus *(COVID-19) pandemic.

“I remember in 2007 during testing I had 10 days in the car and now it’s getting less and less,” said Hamilton, who has also often said he does not enjoy testing. “It’s not easy but it’s the same for everyone. I’d like to think my nine years’ experience with this team will help me get the best out of it. ”

Despite all of his experience, however, the seven-time world champion felt unsettled by all of the sand blowing everywhere.

“I’ve never seen a sandstorm come through here before in all the years that I’ve driven at this circuit,” he said. “The sand was moving like rain would move. Having sand on the tires isn’t good for their longevity.”

Haas F1 driver Mick Schumacher drives during the first day of the Formula One preseason testing at Bahrain (MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images).

Rookie drivers had a chance to get used to their cars, with Yuki Tsunoda driving for AlphaTauri and an all-new lineup at Haas of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.

Two rebranded teams ran in national colors as Aston Martin, formerly Racing Point, took to the track in traditional British racing green, and Alpine, formerly Renault, showed off the French tricolor. Haas has Russian colors on its car because of Mazepin, and Ferrari as usual is in red.

A dramatic shake-up in the standings is considered unlikely after seven years of near-total dominance by Mercedes. The teams are still using 2020-specification chassis after sweeping rule changes were pushed back a year to 2022. There are tweaks to the rules on aerodynamics to stop teams from generating as much downforce from the car’s floor.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

GARAGE 56 SPECS: Full comparison of NASCAR Cup car to Le Mans car

BUTTON’S BIG MOVE: Hendrick drone tour was NASCAR entryway for F1 champion

France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”