Max Verstappen, new teammate Sergio Perez post strong pace for Red Bull in F1 testing

F1 testing Red Bull
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

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 preseason F1 testing 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.”

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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.

Seven-time series champion Lewis Hamilton ranked fifth fastest on the final day of testing his Mercedes at the Bahrain International Circuit (MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images).

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 racecraft, 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.

Formula 1 Testing in Bahrain - Day 3
In his debut driving for Red Bull, Sergio Perez has looked strong in the Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda (Joe Portlock/Getty Images).

“It has been the shortest preseason 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 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“I am grateful for 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.

Formula 1 Testing in Bahrain - Day 3
Lewis Hamilton  and Max Verstappen answer questions in a news conference during the final day of preseason F1 testing at Bahrain International Circuit (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images).

“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.

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).