Bahrain GP: The F1 Day One verdict as Red Bull serve Mercedes notice and the pack closes right up for 2021
F1's shorter Friday format helps further energise the start of the 2021 season as Red Bull show Mercedes-challenging form and McLaren shine in an increasingly competitive midfield pack; Watch Saturday's action from Bahrain live only on Sky Sports F1 from 12pm
By James Galloway and Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 27/03/21 12:30pm
Mercedes vs Red Bull truly does seem real
It was 'only' testing a fortnight ago, and it's 'only' free practice now, but the ever-firmer indication from the early throes of F1 2021 in Bahrain is that the hitherto all-conquering Mercedes team do have a battle for supremacy on their hands against Red Bull at the start of this new season.
Or, as Toto Wolff put it after seeing the sport's big two show closely matched long-run pace in Practice Two, a "real dogfight".
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As expected, the world champions have made improvements to their W12's handling since it ran unexpectedly skittishly in testing, with Wolff reporting after the morning's running that the car was no longer "as poisonous at the rear". Lewis Hamilton, who spun off twice in the three days two weeks ago, certainly looked more characteristically planted around the Sakhir sweeps in the two hours of Friday running and said afterwards that the team had indeed made progress, even if they "still have a hill to climb".
How much further can they can climb with car and engine for when it really starts to matter in qualifying? We'll find out from 3pm on Saturday...
F1 2021: Closing in
It's unwise to make predictions for the season based on one Friday but the ingredients are certainly there for a much closer year. As was predicted due to few car changes, the pack seems to have closed up from the front to the back and, most intriguingly, from the midfield to the front. Four teams were within 0.3s of Verstappen's fastest time in P2.
Have McLaren made a big step?
New Mercedes engines. New star driver in Daniel Ricciardo. And a very strong start to F1 2021 for McLaren as the team - rejuvenated in third last year - picked up where they left off in Bahrain on Friday. And not only do they appear to be the leading midfield team, there's an argument to suggest they're a lot closer to the front two after Lando Norris finished just a tenth off Verstappen under the P2 floodlights.
McLaren, of course, are keen to play that down.
"We look quick today but I think it's fairly obvious what's going to happen tomorrow - it's going to be the usual front four cars," insisted Norris. "Behind them, it looks very close. The car does feel good."
All eyes on those papaya cars on Saturday.
Shortened Friday running generates excitement
Cutting Friday's practice sessions from 90 minutes down to an hour? "A big thumbs up," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle. The shortened schedule certainly led to a more exciting feel to practice as, with teams keen not to lose out on any running, there was busy track action throughout both sessions, and plenty of lead changes. Perfect.
Ferrari's rebuild begins
Ferrari's steady lap times at pre-season testing and cautious optimism about their new package - with Charles Leclerc only declaring it was a "bit" better than the car that was sixth-fastest in F1 last year - meant the sport's most successful team arrived for 2021's season-opener somewhat under the radar. Perhaps that has helped, as Ferrari steadily got about their business on Friday and impressively finished the day with the fourth-fastest time through new signing Carlos Sainz. And that followed Leclerc placing fifth in first practice.
It's very, very early stages in Ferrari's rebuild - but encouraging signs nonetheless. They appear to be a strong midfield runner this weekend, maybe ahead of expected close rivals Aston Martin and Alpine.
The impact of the new regulations
Back to Mercedes and a not-so-subtle hint from Wolff on his feelings about the reason for the change of regulations at the rear of the car for 2021 to cut downforce and lap times.
"I'm sure it has been specifically designed to somehow change the pecking order. But we knew that," Wolff told Sky F1. "We knew that the low-rake concept is going to be a car that is going to be more penalised than the high rake. But it's still a big challenge for us and we embrace the competition. It's just about doing the best-possible job without complaining."
New, and old, drivers settle in
There are plenty of drivers joining new teams, and seasoned team-mates, this year - and they have all long warned that a shortened pre-season testing would make the settling-in process that little bit longer in 2021. And so may be the case. Only three of the six driver debutants (discounting Haas' all-rookie line-up) managed to out-pace a team-mate on Friday - Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin), Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri), and Sainz - and none did so in both sessions.
Sergio Perez, Daniel Ricciardo and returning world champion Fernando Alonso will certainly hope to improve through the weekend, and indeed the season.
Credit, meanwhile, to Mick Schumacher, who led Nikita Mazepin in both P1 and P2 for Haas.
Uh oh, Kimi...
A record-breaking 329 race starts, 41 years old... but Kimi Raikkonen suffered the first crash of the F1 2021 season after shunting his Alfa Romeo off at Turn Two, losing a front wing in the process. Otherwise, it was a very steady day for Alfa, who appear to have closed towards the midfield.
Gone, but definitely not forgotten.
On the first race weekend since the passing of the legendary Murray Walker at the age of 97, the broadcasting legend continues to be remembered around the paddock, with Williams displaying what classes as arguably Murray's most famous line on their car's halo. It reads 'and I've got to stop because I've got a lump in my throat', in reference to Walker's immortal words as Damon Hill finally became world champion for Williams in 1996.
Watch out for a special tribute feature from Sky Sports F1 to the commentary icon ahead of the race on Sunday from 2.30pm.
Sprint race discussions continue
The concept of three editions of a new Saturday 'Sprint Qualifying' format has gained support from teams but the plan is not quite yet signed off as discussions continue over cost implications amid the first year of the F1's inaugural budget cap.
McLaren boss Zak Brown explained: "It definitely needs to be addressed, that sprint racing/sprint qualifying will cost more money and can cost significant more money if there's accident damage. I think there are some different proposals on the table. We just need to make sure that we address that specific issue and that it doesn't create... we don't put a rule in place that creates an opportunity that starts expanding the budget cap that we've all agreed to."
But, with talks continuing among team bosses, F1 and the FIA, Brown added: "I'm confident that we'll figure that out."
What's next from the Bahrain GP LIVE ONLY on Sky Sports?
10.15am: F2 Sprint Race One
11.45am: Bahrain GP Practice Three (session starts 12pm)
2pm: Bahrain GP Qualifying build-up
3pm: BAHRAIN GP QUALIFYING
4.30pm: F2 Sprint Race Two
9pm: Ted's Qualifying Notebook
11.40am: F2 Feature Race
2.30pm: Grand Prix Sunday
4pm: THE BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX
6pm: Chequered Flag
7pm: Ted's Notebook
8pm: Bahrain GP Highlights
11pm: Bahrain GP Race Replay