Formula 1 2021 got off to an intriguing start with an action-packed first day of pre-season testing in Bahrain

After a relatively short winter break, the teams and drivers returned to action on Friday at the Bahrain International Circuit to complete their first extensive runs in their updated cars for the new season. 

There were contrasting fortunes as winter testing kicked off, with teams forced to battle teething problems, tricky track conditions, and even a sandstorm that battered the circuit in the afternoon. 

Crash.net's F1 digital editor Lewis Larkam shares his initial impressions from a busy opening day…

Mercedes on the back foot 

Reigning world champions Mercedes endured a difficult start to the three days of F1 testing in Bahrain as it struggled with reliability problems and the handling of its updated W12 car. 

The day got off to a bad start when Valtteri Bottas encountered a gear shift issue after just one installation lap, resulting in Mercedes having to change the gearbox in his car. 

After being stuck in the garage for three hours, Bottas was only able to complete six laps overall before he handed over to teammate Lewis Hamilton who took part in the afternoon session.

Things didn’t get much better when the newly-knighted seven-time world champion got behind the wheel, with Hamilton reporting further niggles as he battled to just keep his Mercedes on track and struggled for pace on his way to P10. 

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff stressed the team cannot afford to lose more time and must avoid further “stumbling blocks” in the remaining two days of testing.

“It wasn’t a good start because we had a gearbox issue that came out of nowhere and that we haven’t been ready to identify and understand,” Wolff said. 

“So, I hope, if we are able to have a smoother ride from here onwards then I think we can recover. If we have more stumbling blocks then with three days there is not a lot you can do." 

Mercedes chief engineer Andrew Shovlin admitted it had been "a poor start to the season from us".

"It was clear we didn't have the car in the right balance window," he continued. "And while we made some progress during the day, we're not happy with how the car is performing and it's pretty clear we have some work to do.

"We're quite a way behind on our test programme and need to find a bit of balance and speed but we have two days left and every opportunity to recover the situation."

While it is certainly too early for panic stations to set in just yet, Mercedes needs to have a clean day of running tomorrow in order to get its testing programme back on track. 

Bahrain F1 Pre-season test Day 1 - Laps completed
PosTeamLaps  
1Red Bull139  
2Alfa Romeo131  
3Alpine129  
4Ferrari116  
5AlphaTauri111  
6Aston Martin97  
7McLaren91  
8Haas85  
9Williams83  
10Mercedes48  

Red Bull hit the ground running 

If the opening day of testing began badly for Mercedes, it could not have gone much better for Red Bull as Max Verstappen went fastest and clocked the most laps of any driver in the process. 

While lap times must be taken with an element of caution given fuel loads and run plans are not disclosed by the teams, it was certainly an encouraging day for Red Bull as Verstappen demonstrated strong pace on both the C2 and C3 tyres. 

Aside from a half-spin exiting Turn 2 in the morning, Verstappen’s programme was trouble-free, allowing him to rack up an impressive mileage total in Red Bull’s updated RB16B that it hopes will prove a more formidable challenger to Mercedes this year. 

Despite ending the afternoon session clear of the field, Verstappen was quick to downplay Red Bull’s pace, though he did report positive feedback regarding the handling and balance of his new car. 

“We had a very positive day,” the Dutchman said after the first day. 

“We could do a lot of laps, even though the track conditions were quite difficult - very warm, a lot of wind - and of course we know the degradation around here is quite high and it’s not easy to do a lot of laps in a row. 

"But I’m very happy with today. I mean, we don’t need to speak about pace or whatever, we just did our programme, the car felt nice to drive, which I think is always very positive to start the test like that.”

What’s more, Honda’s new power unit ran smoothly for both Red Bull and AlphaTauri on an impressive opening day of running.  

Strong day for McLaren and Alpine 

There was also a notably good start to pre-season testing for F1’s midfield runners, particularly McLaren and Alpine.

Daniel Ricciardo got off the mark quickly as he set the pace for his new team in the morning, before teammate Lando Norris rounded out a positive day for McLaren by finishing just two tenths adrift of Verstappen’s benchmark time. 

Between them the pair completed 91 laps as the Mercedes-powered MCL35M ran faultlessly on its reunion. 

“On the Mercedes side, really there was no issue,” McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl explained. 

“There were a lot of boxes again to tick on our test list, which we could complete as planned today in the morning.

“I would say so far, so good. But at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do on the next two days, but I’m confident we will be ready for Bahrain when it counts the first time.” 

Alpine certainly turned heads in the morning when the A521 was fully revealed on-track for the first time in Bahrain, sporting its striking new colour scheme and a unique, bulbous airbox and engine cover design. 

Esteban Ocon did the leg work for the team as he became the first driver to hit triple figures in the mileage chart on his way to turning in the equivalent of two race distances with 129 laps to his name. 

The Frenchman said the day could not have gone better for Alpine as he also showed a promising turn of pace with the third-fastest time, though he was the only driver to run on Pirelli’s C4 Soft compound tyre. 

Ferrari cause first red flag in low-key start

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc caused the first and only red flag of the opening day with 10 minutes remaining in the morning session, as he parked his SF21 at Turn 4 with apparent mechanical issues. 

Stoppage aside, Leclerc was pleased with his work as he completed 59 laps before handing over to new Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz, who almost matched his haul of laps with his own half-century on 57. 

Despite being among a number of drivers to have wide moments on Sakhir’s sandy surface, the Spaniard was able to end the day fifth fastest, some 1.2s off the pace displayed by Verstappen. 

Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen’s initial impression that Ferrari’s latest power unit offering is a clear “step forward” will act as an encouraging early sign for the Italian outfit as it looks to bounce back from its woeful 2020.

All in all, it was a decent - albeit relatively quiet - start for the Scuderia.

 

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