Max Verstappen fastest in Formula One practice for season-opening Bahrain GP

Bahrain opening practice
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SAKHIR, Bahrain — Max Verstappen started the Formula One season on the front foot Friday by clocking the fastest times in the opening two practice sessions at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver was 0.095 seconds ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and 0.235 clear of world champion Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes under the floodlights at the desert track in Sakhir.

“Now we have to show what we can do in qualifying,” said Verstappen, who has taken only three career pole positions because of Mercedes’ dominance since 2014. “I think it’s going to be even more windy (on Saturday) so it will be even more difficult to drive.”

Ferrari’s new driver Carlos Sainz Jr. finished the day fourth quickest ahead of Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo, the Australian driver who replaced Sainz Jr. at McLaren.

“It felt like we’re still not quite there with the car’s balance,” Bottas said. “(We have) work to do if we want to fight for the pole and the win.”

Fernando Alonso, who came out retirement to replace Ricciardo at the Alpine team, had a tricky evening and managed only the 15th best time in the second practice.

Veteran Kimi Raikkonen spun his Alfa Romeo and hit a wall early in the evening session, but the 41-year-old Finn managed to get the car back to the team garage without too much damage.

Verstappen, 23, won the final race last season with a commanding drive at the Abu Dhabi GP. The Dutch driver also did well in preseason testing this month, offering hope that Red Bull can challenge Mercedes much more strongly this year.

“We have a hill to climb, but we’re staying positive,” Hamilton said. “We thought Red Bull would be as fast as they are … they are leading at the moment. McLaren are looking great and it’s great to see them taking a step.”

There is a third and final practice session on Saturday ahead of qualifying.

DRIVING DIVERSITYLewis Hamilton focused on trying to win eighth championship

Bahrain is the first of a record 23-race season.

In Friday’s first practice, Verstappen was .298 seconds ahead of Bottas and .503 clear of Norris, with Hamilton just behind Norris in fourth spot.

Hamilton is looking to win a record eighth F1 title to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher, whose 22-year-old son Mick Schumacher is making his F1 debut with Haas.

He finished 18th in the second session and 19th in the first.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
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Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”