Seemingly no sooner than it had started, a condensed three days of pre-season testing have flown by in a flash and left plenty of intrigue on the eve of the 2021 Formula 1 season.

But which teams are looking strong and who still has work to do ahead of the opening round of the new campaign in Bahrain in a fortnight? 

Here’s what we learned as the sun set on another year of pre-season testing...

Red Bull look like a genuine threat

Max Verstappen hailed the three days of winter testing in Bahrain as “definitely” being his best with Red Bull, and it is clear to see why. 

Not only did the Dutchman produce the fastest lap of the winter to end the test at the top of the timesheets, but he also indicated that Red Bull had made encouraging progress to address the stability issues of its RB16 predecessor. 

Half spin for Verstappen on the opening morning aside, the updated RB16B looked both well balanced and much easier to drive throughout the three-day test.  

Red Bull also got through the test without any major issues, and its upgraded Honda power unit looks to have brought a performance step while it also ran smoothly, enabling Verstappen and new teammate Sergio Perez to log plenty of mileage.

Verstappen exuded confidence both in and out of the car, though he was quick to dismiss suggestions that Red Bull enter the new season as the team to beat, saying: “I don’t think we are the favourites if Mercedes wins that many championships in a row. I think it is still the same as before we came to the test.”

Despite Verstappen’s keenness to play down expectations, Red Bull find themselves in the best position they have been in heading into a season during the V6 hybrid era, and that should give them confidence of being able to finally hit the ground running.

Mercedes are on the back foot 

In contrast, it was a difficult pre-season test for reigning world champions Mercedes.

So often in recent years we have become accustomed to seeing Mercedes sail through testing without any major dramas, but things were strikingly different this time around in Bahrain. 

Mercedes has always tended to keep its cards close to its chest in pre-season without wanting to reveal the true potential of its car. After all, little can be gleaned from winter lap times given the many variables at play. 

Instead, the area Mercedes has so often led the way in is the mileage charts, but that was not the case this year. Mercedes’ test started off badly when an early gearbox issue hampered its Friday programme and the niggles continued with the German manufacturer ultimately ending the test with the fewest laps completed of all the 10 teams. 

What’s more, its W12 looked a real handful at times, displaying nervous and unstable tendencies as both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas struggled to keep the car pointing in the right direction. Mistakes for Hamilton are rare, but he spun on consecutive days in testing as both drivers reported instability with the rear-end of Mercedes’ latest F1 car. 

Mercedes will be working hard to get a handle on this over the next two weeks in time for the opening race in Bahrain, with Bottas conceding the team has endured its most challenging winter since his arrival in 2017.

The team has been left with a confusing picture regarding its short-run pace and believes it is currently lagging behind Red Bull in its race simulations. 

While only a fool would write off Mercedes, the team genuinely looked to struggle and there are some signs that it could be vulnerable this year. 

SEE ALSO: Combined best laps and total lap counts from F1 pre-season testing

Flawless test for McLaren

One of the teams leaving Bahrain in a confident mood will be McLaren. 

McLaren arguably faced the biggest challenge over the winter with the added task of having to install a new engine into its package as the only team to switch power units. This forced a redesign of its chassis, creating extra work. 

But the Woking squad will come away from testing delighted to have ticked a lot of boxes with its programme. Most impressively, its Mercedes-powered MCL35M ran faultlessly despite the mammoth task of getting a power unit installation right.

While its lap count was at the lower end of the scale, this was part of the plan as McLaren spent much of its focus on carrying out time-consuming but important data tests that it believes will prove valuable for the season. 

McLaren turned heads with its unique diffuser design raising eyebrows and catching attention up and down the pitlane, and it already looks to have potentially stolen a march on its rivals in this particular area of development. 

Daniel Ricciardo got plenty of laps under his belt as he continues to get accustomed to his new team and both he and Lando Norris showed an encouraging turn of pace in the MCL35M while running on the softer compounds. 

Its bid to further reduce the gap to Mercedes and Red Bull was always going to be an enormous challenge, but McLaren has demonstrated some promising indications that it will be in a strong position in 2021. 

The ‘field’ looks tighter than ever 

The hardest area to judge after pre-season testing is how the midfield pack will stack up this year. 

A number of teams look well-placed heading into the new campaign, with McLaren, AlphaTauri, and Alpine all impressing throughout the three days with stable and well-balanced cars. 

F1 rookie Yuki Tsunoda caught the eye with his late turn of pace on Day 3 to put AlphaTauri within 0.093s of Verstappen’s benchmark, suggesting Honda had turned up its power unit. 

Alfa Romeo also showed an intriguing flash of pace at the end of the final day, as did Ferrari, with the Scuderia confident it will no longer carry a straightline speed disadvantage this season. 

Fernando Alonso made an impressive start to his comeback with Alpine despite the French squad opting against setting rapid lap times, while Aston Martin looked solid, though it did suffer some reliability setbacks. 

It all points to a fascinating midfield scrap that promises to be tighter than ever. 

“I think it’s not a midfield any more, it’s a field, really,” explained Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski. 

“We still expect Mercedes at the front. Clearly they had a few issues and they were probably sandbagging a little bit at the beginning of the test. We still expect Red Bull to be strong.

“But behind them it’s a field, really, and where we are in this field is difficult to say. I expect it to be competitive. McLaren seem good, seem quick. Aston Martin, when they actually run, seem pretty quick. The rest I don’t know, really.”



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