Bahrain GP preview: Horner situation dominates while Verstappen eyes victory

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SAKHIR, Bahrain — On the eve of the new Formula One season, so much of the sport’s spotlight has been on what’s happening off-track with Red Bull’s Christian Horner.

But it was very much business as usual for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen as he scored pole position for the opening round of the year in Bahrain, ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Mercedes’ George Russell.

The doubts teams had over the pecking order were dispelled come qualifying, and although there were no major changes compared to the end of last year — except for Alpine’s backslide — fine margins and surprising conditions still leave uncertainty for how tomorrow’s race will shake out.

Here’s what we’re watching for in Saturday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

Pole ‘didn’t come easily’ – but Verstappen’s victory might

Given his growing list of records and achievements in F1, it takes a lot to surprise Verstappen. But even he wasn’t sure his final qualifying lap in Bahrain was good enough for pole.

Verstappen hopped straight onto the radio to air his doubts to engineer Gianpiero Lambiase, only for ‘GP’ to respond, “It was enough, well done!” Verstappen hung on to P1  by two-tenths of a second.

Qualifying hadn’t been an entirely smooth session for Verstappen, who struggled with a lack of grip. The unusually windy conditions on Friday in Bahrain made it harder to get the balance of the Red Bull into a good window. Any new car, even as radical and fast as the RB20, will take time to get into a sweet spot.

Qualifying was a strong showing from Verstappen, particularly after how much more positive Mercedes and Ferrari sounded about their cars to start the new season. Testing and Thursday’s practice on Thursday pointed to Red Bull’s true advantage being on the long runs and perhaps reduced over a single lap, only for Verstappen to deliver when it mattered yet again.

It didn’t stop the Dutchman from talking up the fine margins throughout the field, which he believes is closer than this time last year. “What you saw already yesterday in the long runs, the gaps are small,” Verstappen said. “It’s about attention to detail that will make the difference, also, tomorrow.”

Given he’s chasing his eighth victory in a row, Verstappen has rarely slipped on that front, meaning the prospect of a close fight for victory is not one his rivals are giving much thought to.

Ferrari, Mercedes will fight for second-best

The fastest lap of the day didn’t come from Verstappen. Ferrari’s Leclerc ran an eye-catching 1:29.165 in Q2 — just 0.011 seconds between him and the Dutchman’s pole position lap in Q3.

He’ll line up alongside Verstappen on Saturday, a familiar spot for the Monégasque driver. But can he beat the Red Bull after Ferrari changed its car design? “I’m confident we did a step forward, but we have to wait and see tomorrow how much of a step forward we did. We really think that Red Bull is still ahead by quite a bit in the race.”

Ferrari’s race likely will be with Mercedes. Russell qualified between Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, and Mercedes also changed its car design heading into this year. Saturday will be the first time where nothing will be hidden in terms of race pace, and Russell said, “Ultimately, I think the race is, for all of us, is for second.”

Leclerc and Russell felt their cars did better than expected during qualifying. The Mercedes driver said: “I think we all knew it was going to be very, very close between ourselves, Ferrari, Aston, McLaren and Checo. And I think, you know, the gap in qualifying today was probably slightly closer to Max than we all expected. I think race pace is the important one. We’re expecting, probably, a half-second deficit. That’s what we thought after testing.”

Verstappen, though, did not seem to agree with that half-second deficit expectation, exclaiming, “Half a second!” Russell responded, “Is that too small?”

“No, no, I think it’s way too big,” Verstappen said. “But if you say that now, then if it’s better tomorrow, then you can say, ‘Oh, it’s unbelievable, the car is unbelievable.’”

Russell’s response likely is what the Silver Arrows are hoping for: “Exactly. Under-promise, over-deliver!”

Russell and Leclerc should put on a fun fight behind Verstappen. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

Lewis Hamilton’s fightback rests on setup direction

Hamilton’s final season in Mercedes colors didn’t get off to the best of starts on Friday in Bahrain as he slumped to ninth in qualifying, six places back from Russell. But he was surprisingly upbeat about the result after the session.

“The car is really fantastic,” Hamilton said. “It is a real big improvement from the previous years, a lot more stable, a lot more fun to drive. We still have work to do, as you can see, but for George to be three-tenths off Max, it’s incredible.”

Hamilton explained that the gap between him and Russell — which was only 0.225 seconds, so fine were the margins in Q3 — was due to diverging setup directions after their 1-2 in practice on Thursday. Hamilton said he “put something on the car that we haven’t put on for the last two years,” which meant it “wasn’t nice necessarily to drive,” but could pay off tomorrow. “There’s a lot of degradation with the rears, and race pace is really everything here,” he said.

It gives Hamilton reasons to hope for a step forward in the race tomorrow. There’s an evident confidence in him that was absent through the closing stages of last year. It may not be enough to win, but it could well be the setup shift helps the race come toward him on Saturday.

“To know that we have a package that we can potentially fight with is really pleasing,” Hamilton said.

Alpine expected a rough start — but this poor?

When opening up X (formerly known as Twitter) on Friday, any F1 fan likely saw the wave of memes about Alpine that hit the social media platform after Q1. Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly are slated to make up the final row of Saturday’s race.

“After testing, we had clues that that’s where we were going to be,” Ocon said Friday. “We were not sure, obviously. The reality is today, it is the case. We are at the back, we are lacking pace, we need to keep pushing on together to make a difference in the future.”

The Alpine duo weren’t too far off from escaping Q1, though. Ocon was only a tenth of a second off Kevin Magnussen’s lap, but the Haas driver made it into Q2. But this is the first time the Enstone-based team locked out the last row since Baku 2016 with Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer. Heading into the first race weekend of the year, Alpine did expect to struggle.

Matt Harman, the team’s technical director at Enstone, told the media Thursday: “I think traction on these cars is always very tricky, and we have to be a little bit careful because we’re in Bahrain, and we know it’s very traction-sensitive. But it’s an area we’d like to focus on, and we are focusing on (it). And we have some good things coming through to address it.” Team principal Bruno Famin has admitted that the car is overweight, and Harman said a failed crash test “played a bit of a part in some of” the issues.

The question remains: Where will Alpine sit in race pace?

“We should be closer, I reckon, to the others,” Ocon said, “but it’ll be a good test to see exactly where we are, where we stand, where our weakness is in comparison to qualifying.



Alpine’s F1 newfound aggression may make for a slow start — and long-term payoff

Cold, windy conditions add an extra twist

One theme that popped up a couple of times during the post-qualifying press conferences is the “very tricky conditions,” as Verstappen put it, that the grid is dealing with this week. Bahrain typically has a warm and arid climate, but it has been uncharacteristically cold and windy so far. Sakhir will be around 16 degrees C (60.8 F) by race time on Saturday, but it should be “a little bit less windy, so maybe that’s a bit nicer to drive,” said Verstappen, who struggled for grip and balance through qualifying.

The windy conditions matter because the cars are sensitive to it – particularly at Turn 4. “So whenever there’s a slight change of direction or intensity, then it makes a big difference,” Charles Leclerc said. “But it’s the same for everybody, so I don’t think we shall see anything very different tomorrow, or at least if we see anything different, I don’t think it’s because of the wind.”

As for the temperatures, Bahrain usually experiences between 86 and 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit (30 to 33 degrees Celsius) this time of the year. This can impact the tires. With colder track temperatures, getting the tires to temperature takes more time, which affects tire grip.

GettyImages 2050783011 scaled

The Christian Horner allegations have threatened to overshadow the whole weekend. (Photo by Kym Illman/Getty Images)

Horner remains the F1 paddock’s big talking point 

The tight end to qualifying was a brief moment where the attention of the F1 paddock turned to what was happening on the track and away from the headlines surrounding Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.

Following Thursday’s anonymous leak of text messages allegedly between Horner and a female employee — less than 24 hours after a grievance against Horner was dismissed following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior — Horner refused to comment on “anonymous speculation” and said he was “fully focused on the start of the season.”

But it remained the most pressing topic of conversation in the F1 paddock, leading to a significant media presence outside Red Bull’s hospitality throughout the day.

Horner arrived in the paddock early on Friday, more than four hours before the start of final practice. He also met with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali between practice and qualifying.

Horner was on the Red Bull pit wall for both sessions as usual and came over the radio to talk to Verstappen after securing pole, telling him it was a “good start.”

Verstappen has maintained he’s remained entirely focused on the racing amid the investigation and scrutiny of Horner in recent weeks, something he reiterated after qualifying and said he felt was true of the wider team. “We are here, we are paid to do our job, and that’s what we are doing, and that’s also what we love doing,” Verstappen said. “So that’s what we focus on.”

Asked by The Athletic if he still had full faith in Horner’s leadership of Red Bull Racing, Verstappen said: “When I look at how Christian operates within the team, he has been an incredible team boss, so absolutely, from the performance side of things, you can’t even question that.”

Verstappen added that he speaks to Horner “a lot, and also throughout the weekend here,” and that Horner was “fully committed to the team.”

“But like I said before, we just focus on the performance side of things,” Verstappen said. “That’s how we all work together.”

Even if Saturday brings another Red Bull victory on-track, what happens off-track will likely remain F1’s big talking point.

(Lead image: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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