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

Max Verstappen F1 testing
MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images
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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.