Mercedes and F1 paddock have Red Bull and Ferrari ‘suspicions’ after day two of testing | F1 | Sport

Red Bull and Ferrari are already being touted as the F1 frontrunners for 2024 after just two days of pre-season testing in Bahrain. And the noises coming from Mercedes and co imply they already suspect they’ll be trailing in the wake of their rivals when the season gets underway on the opening weekend of March.

Pre-season lap times have long been deemed unreliable as far as being a guide for the season, given the number of variables for teams and the experimentation that goes on. But on Wednesday, Max Verstappen’s pace was eye-catching, 1.14 seconds quicker than McLaren’s Lando Norris in second, with the Scuderia’s Carlos Sainz just behind in third.

The three-time world champion didn’t venture back out onto the Bahrain International Circuit on Thursday, with Sainz recording the fastest lap. Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez was 0.75 seconds behind him, with Lewis Hamilton third.

Hamilton’s partner at the Silver Arrows, George Russell, was blunt with his assessment afterwards, conceding the Constructors’ champions were clearly superior in pace. “Red Bull are the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone else. That was to be expected.”

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc echoed those sentiments, saying Red Bull “remain quite a bit ahead.” But according to Sky Germany, the F1 paddock believe the Italian giants are evidently the nearest challengers to Christian Horner’s team.

Mercedes engineers reportedly believe the gap between the front two stands at one second, while personnel at Williams consider it to be half that. But early indications suggest that if anyone outside of Red Bull is to end the dominance of Verstappen this season, then it will be Leclerc or Sainz.

The two days of practice have been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Team Principal Horner, who remains under investigation following allegations of inappropriate behaviour. But in terms of on-track matters, the 50-year-old will be satisfied with the showing in the Middle East.

Red Bull finished a mammoth 451 points clear of Mercedes in the Constructors’ standings last season, with Ferrari three points further back. And the drivers’ championship was equally one-sided, with Verstappen a huge 290 points clear of Perez.

That represented a third straight F1 crown for the 26-year-old. And from the 22 Grand Prix races, Sainz proved the sole winner outside of Red Bull with Verstappen taking 19 and Perez two.

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