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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 21, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202402210975 // Usage for editorial use only //

Leclerc: Red Bull are still quite a bit ahead

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 21, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202402210975 // Usage for editorial use only //

Within ten laps of his final stint at Bahrain Formula 1 Preseason Testing, Max Verstappen in the Red Bull RB20 went faster than all the other drivers in action to that point on Friday, the final day at Sakhir before the Grand Prix at the venue next Sunday.

Prior to that, Verstappen ended his first day in the RB20 on top of the timesheets by 1.1 seconds. It was clearly a case of ‘love at first sight’ for the Dutch ace and his new ride.

In contrast, Sergio Perez was a slower starter in the Adrian Newey-penned car during his stint on Thursday but was still second fastest, only slower than, Carlos Sainz’s best time in a Ferrari shod with the soft Pirelli C4 tyres. Perez did his time on the harder C3.

On Friday, during the morning session, Perez was again a couple of tenths shy of the Ferrari duo. But not a problem for Verstappen, as on lap eight of his stint he popped up to the top of the timing-screens with a best lap time of 1:31.058. And there were still three hours to go!

The pace has not gone unnoticed among Verstappen’s rivals. Before he jumped in the SF24 for his last spell in the cockpit, Leclerc said: “Still very difficult to understand where we are. We didn’t have any major issues, there are no surprises. Everything we expected from this car, we got it. That helps us develop the car in the simulator.

“How competitive we are is another matter. Last year the car was so inconstant it was difficult to understand the main weaknesses. This year we know exactly what those main weaknesses and this gives us a bit more hope. My first feeling is the Red Bull are still quite a bit ahead but we have a much stronger base, compared to last year,” added Leclerc, who in 2023 did not win a Grand Prix.

Russell: Red Bull are already in that sweet spot

2024 F1 official drivers' group photo

Carlos Sainz, who was the only one to break the RBR streak with his victory in Singapore last year, echoed his Ferrari teammate: “In terms of performance, obviously I have no idea. I can just tell that the Red Bull looks very quick but apart from that, nothing else.”

Mercedes driver George Russell observed: “Red Bull are already in that sweet spot but hopefully we can close the gap. But it is going to take a lot of hard work to do it. They are such an impressive team, the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone else. That was to be expected.”

Also wary is McLaren’s Oscar Piastri who told F1TV on Friday: “They don’t look slow, put it that way! It’s hard to say. On day one Max looked very very strong and even Sergio has certainly looked a bit more comfortable.

“So they are definitely the team to beat. How much their advantage is I’m not quite sure, but it is enough of on advantage to be comfortable. For everyone else I’m not sure but I think Red Bull are a step ahead,” ventured Piastri.

The consensus from the abovementioned drivers is hard to ignore, as the stage is already set for another year of 18 drivers chasing two of their rivals. Between those two Perez will have his hands full trying to keep Verstappen in check. All sounds very familiar.