A fascinating three-day Formula 1 test in Bahrain ended with Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing topping the overall times, and Mercedes left floundering.
Before the Dutchman took over the car for the final afternoon of running his new team-mate Sergio Perez had been quickest in the Sunday morning session.
Headline times in testing don’t always tell the full story, but the overall picture after three days suggested that RBR is favourite heading into the season, a role that the team has not enjoyed since its Sebastian Vettel days in the V8 era.
Unusually, Mercedes even namechecked its main rival in its media summary of the final day.
“We’ve made a bit of progress with the balance on higher fuel and the car was more predictable,” said trackside engineer director Andrew Shovlin. “But we can see from the data we’ve collected over the last few days that on race pace, we’re not as quick as Red Bull.”
Even without the issues at Mercedes, it’s a logical progression for Red Bull. The Milton Keynes team ended 2020 on a high when Verstappen won in Abu Dhabi after spending much of the year wrestling with a rear-end instability that he could drive around, and which left his team-mate Alex Albon floundering.
RBR has had the winter to make major changes to the rear of the car in order to address that weakness. There has also been a package of aero rule changes with which to deal and, as history suggests, Adrian Newey and his team are better than most in dealing with such challenges.
In addition, Honda made good progress through 2020 and promised a big step for this season, having fast-tracked updates that were originally scheduled for 2022.
All of that fed into a strong performance in the test, even if Verstappen himself remained outwardly unmoved, even by the fact that Mercedes was struggling.
Mercedes' troubles in preseason testing means that the team's performance is "completely unknown", Valtteri Bottas has said on the final day of the Bahrain test. With rivals showing strong performances…
“At the end of the day, it’s a test,” he said. “The amount of times that Mercedes has topped the testing in the last few years is not that high. It doesn’t really say a lot about pure performance. For us, it’s just all about gathering a lot of data.
“The most important thing was just to get a lot of laps on the board and understand the car a bit more, what you want to do with the set-up, and try things on the car as well.
“I have to say that the changes were all responding like we would have hoped. So I think that was very positive.”
He’s not interested in the suggestion that Red Bull is the team to beat: “I don’t think we are the favourites if Mercedes wins that many championships in a row. I think it’s still the same as before we came to the test. Not much more to add.”
Along with an improved package the other big change at RBR this year is the arrival of Perez, setting up one of many intriguing intra-team contests on the 2021 grid.
Taking on an experienced driver represents a huge change of policy for Red Bull as the company seeks someone who can fill the difficult position of being Verstappen’s team-mate.
The basic idea was to have someone who can consistently be up there, giving the team strategic options in the fight with Mercedes, and to take points away when the silver cars hit trouble.
Bahrain was the first opportunity for Perez to adapt to the team. Like others who have switched camps over the winter, he faces a tricky task, given that he only had one and half days of proper running with which to dial himself in. Now it’s straight into practice for the first race weekend.
“I think we are getting up to speed with everything as a team, with my engineer, with the car, with the set-up,” he said after his final running at the test.
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“Today we went through a lot of different set-up options. It’s good that the start of the season is here, so we have a bit of a reference. And we just have a lot of things to go through and try to make it a bit better.
“We have not a lot of time, it’s been definitely the shortest pre-season I’ve done in my career. I still have a lot of things to learn in the car, to get the maximum out of it.
“The best I can do is just to be patient, and take the first races as they come. I will get more on top of things in the team. For now, I just have to be patient and together with my engineers, we just have to keep working very hard.
“Ideally I would like more running. I mean, it’s crazy when I finished my half day, to think that that was it, that I have to jump into the race when we are back. It’s crazy to think that. But it’s how it is, you know.
“Changing teams is not ideal. So I think in that regard, the people that are changing teams are going to be in a disadvantage compared to the people that are carrying on or have experience with their teams. But it’s part of the game, and we just have to make the most out of it. But certainly, it’s very little time.”
Asked how long it would take, he said: “After five races, once we go through very different races, different conditions, you understand the car, the team, a lot better. Five races, proper races, should be good.”
Perez was a fixture at Force India/Racing Point for seven seasons, and thus the package had inevitably developed in a direction that suits him. He has much to get used to at Red Bull with his new car.
“I think they’re obviously very different in many aspects, the way you drive each of the cars is very different,” he said.
“So you have to adapt to a different car, to a different style. But overall, I just have to say that this car has potential in it. And once I get on top of the car, we should be looking good.
“I’ve driven in very difficult conditions with the wind around Bahrain. I’m pleased where the car is, I think there is definitely good potential in it. And there’s obviously good areas to focus on, to try to improve them. But the overall picture, it’s a positive one.”
We might not see the best of Perez in the early races. He knows that one-lap pace is not his main strength, and Verstappen is likely to be comfortably on top in their qualifying battle. However, as a racer, he is consistently good, always getting the most out of his tyres.
Pirelli has made changes to its constructions for this year, with wider fronts, and all drivers and teams still have a lot to learn. Perez will get on top of them earlier than most.
How that plays out at different venues relative to Verstappen remains to be seen. Max’s ability to manage a race should not be underestimated, as he too can nurse tyres when he has to, and over the past few years he’s pulled off some great performances.
If the car is as good as it appears to be, there is a chance that both men could be starting races at the front of the field, and potentially fighting each other for the win. That could give Christian Horner a tricky situation to manage, one that he has not had to deal with for a while.
Verstappen has never paid too much attention to his team-mates, and in Bahrain he had little to say when asked for his initial impressions of his new partner.
“To be honest I’ve been busy myself, so I haven’t really been able to listen or whatever,” he insisted. “I haven’t been running around with the headset on. I guess you can ask other people in the team that question.”