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Lewis Hamilton: Mercedes driver shocked by pace on first day of Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir

Lewis Hamilton led a surprise Mercedes one-two from team-mate George Russell on Thursday in Sakhir; watch final practice from 12.30pm on Friday, with qualifying at 4pm and the Bahrain Grand Prix itself at 3pm on Saturday - all live on Sky Sports F1

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Lewis Hamilton says he is much more comfortable with the Mercedes car this year after finishing fastest in P2 at the Bahrain GP

Lewis Hamilton admitted it was a shock to finish the first day of the 2024 Formula 1 season at the top of the timesheet as Mercedes showed surprising pace in Bahrain Grand Prix practice.

Most had expected Red Bull's Max Verstappen to dominate Thursday's second session, which took place in the same evening conditions as qualifying and Saturday's race will, but Hamilton led a one-two from Mercedes team-mate Russell.

While the seven-time world champion warned that he expects Verstappen to have strong race pace, Mercedes appear to be genuine contenders for pole position in qualifying, live at 4pm on Sky Sports F1 on Friday.

"P1, we were surprised," Hamilton said. "It was very, very windy this morning so it was a really difficult session I think for everyone. The track was so different I think compared to practice [testing] last week."

"Otherwise, it was feeling ok, but we didn't really know where we stood on the C2 (medium) tyre. And then in this session, we made some improvements over the session.

"Again, I don't understand… it's a shock to see us where we are but we'll take it for now, but we can't get ahead of ourselves.

"We need to keep our heads down, keep working on the set-up and try to extract more. I think our long-run pace is nowhere near the Red Bulls', for example, and I think we [other front-runners] are all a lot closer, so we've got some work to do there."

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Hamilton set the fastest lap in his Mercedes during second practice in Bahrain

Hamilton, who is starting his 12th and final season with Mercedes having agreed to join Ferrari next year, is pleased with the changes the Silver Arrows have implemented on their W15 car after successive seasons without a win for the 39-year-old.

"I'm much happier with the car this year," Hamilton added. "My seating position is finally further rearwards, I've got a better feel for the car approaching the corners, but there are other areas that have been fixed and improved and it feels like a race car, for once.

"The last two cars didn't feel like that, so it's really good platform for us to work on and we've just got to keep our heads down and keep on chasing."

Russell: Gap to Red Bull has reduced

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After an encouraging opening day of the season in Bahrain for Mercedes, George Russell is refusing to get carried away

Russell, who is out to prove himself as capable of succeeding Hamilton as the team's lead driver, finished 0.2s back.

While the Briton also echoed caution, he admitted Mercedes' performance had "exceeded expectations" and that the huge advantage many thought Red Bull held after testing has reduced.

"I mean we're not going to get carried away with ourselves" Russell said. "The qualifying pace looked really strong.

"We still need to try to understand why it was so good. We made some changes from the test and it exceeded our expectations.

"But ultimately the long-run pace, which is where it all happens, Max was still ahead of us. It was very close with Fernando, with Lando and the Ferraris, and Lewis and I were very similar as well.

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Karun Chandhok and Ted Kravitz are baffled by the cause of a mystery light underneath the Mercedes car of Russell

"So we've got a real fight on our hands in race pace, but as I said, we're really pleased with the day, the car is performing really well, but we're not going to get carried away with the timesheets just yet.

"We need to sit down and understand where this increase in performance has come from, whether it's a one off, whether we can sustain this, and what we need to do to fight for a serious position on Saturday. Our aim is to try to focus and fight for victory.

"After testing, Max looked a long way out in front, now that gap has reduced but he's still out in front. I think he's still got a healthy margin to the others rather than a ridiculous margin to the others. So by no means does this mean we're back, or we can fight with them just yet, but a really, really solid day."

Hamilton has 'idea' to improve race pace

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Hamilton gives his thoughts, after being asked if Russell could lead Mercedes from next season

Hamilton is not giving up hope of further reducing Red Bull's long-run advantage, but is wary that changing the set-up of the W15 could impact one-lap performance.

Asked if he had an idea of how Mercedes could improve on long runs, Hamilton said: "I do, in terms of achieving that, I don't know how necessarily with a new car, with a new car you have all new tools, everything's been redesigned.

"All the previous names and numbers have completely shifted, so you're learning a whole new vocabulary when it comes to the car set-up and we've tested some of them but not all of them because we only had a day and a half [at testing].

"We have to see. I hope that we can make a step. I've got a bit of an idea but I don't know how to achieve that yet currently with the set-up changes, without affecting the other side of things, the single-lap, lightweight [pace], so we'll see."

Verstappen expects 'very close' qualifying

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Red Bull's Max Verstappen says his car is not far from finding its 'sweet spot' and is not concerned about its performance after day one at the Bahrain GP

In pre-season testing, Ferrari topped the timesheets and Red Bull seemingly did not show their full hand which may have been the case on Friday.

Red Bull's race pace made the difference last season and Verstappen alluded to that when explaining why he was sixth and nearly half a second down on Hamilton.

"It was not too bad. It's just very close. Maybe some people around us already turned their engine a bit in terms of top speed," he said.

"We just focus on ourselves. There were a few little balance issues from front to rear but nothing big, it's just about trying to find that sweet spot.

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Verstappen expresses his frustration over team radio during first practice at the Bahrain Grand Prix

"Especially around here, with the rough tarmac, once you get into that sweet spot, you just pick up time and that's what we will try and focus on.

"It's not too far away, it's just trying to get into it and then you feel a little bit happier with the car. At the end of the day, you also want to focus on the long run because that's where the car really needs to work. Of course, qualifying is important but we need to make sure the car is good for the race."

Verstappen was on the radio throughout first practice as he appeared unhappy with gearshifts and the drivability of his car.

Asked to clarify his comment that other teams have 'turned things up', the reigning world champion added: "I don't think everyone did that but a few did.

"I'm not too worried about the gap to P1 for example but it's going to be very close in qualifying, so that's going to be very nice. But then, the long run, I was happier with that but there are a few little things we can do better."

Sky Sports F1's live Bahrain GP schedule

Friday March 1

  • 10.10am: F3 Sprint Race
  • 12.15pm: Bahrain GP Practice Three (session starts at 12.30pm)
  • 2.10pm: F2 Sprint Race
  • 3.10pm: Bahrain GP Qualifying build-up
  • 6pm: Ted's Qualifying Notebook

Saturday March 2

  • 8.55am: F3 Feature Race
  • 10.25am: F2 Feature Race
  • 1.30pm: Bahrain GP build-up: Grand Prix Saturday
  • 5pm: Bahrain GP reaction: Chequered Flag
  • 6pm: Ted's Notebook
  • 6.30pm: Bahrain GP highlights

Watch every round of the new season, starting with the Bahrain Grand Prix this week, with the opening race on Saturday at 3pm. Stream every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership

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