The battle lines have been drawn – or at least so we hope. Going 0.298s faster than Valtteri Bottas in first practice at this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Max Verstappen made it clear: Red Bull do really mean business in 2021.
The last time Mercedes weren’t top of the timing sheets at the end of the first practice session of the Formula One season was way back in 2014.
Lewis Hamilton ultimately qualified in first while Nico Rosberg won the race, so Mercedes weren’t behind Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso for long in Australia.
Indeed, the Mercedes duo won all but one of the 19 races that season with the sole exception of Austria where Felipe Massa won in the Williams.
That was the first of seven straight years in which the Silver Arrows have won both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, and Hamilton ended 124 points clear of Bottas in the standings in 2020.
But Verstappen and Red Bull are well placed to be able to put an end to Mercedes’ dominance and Hamilton’s four-year monopoly of the driver’s title this year.
Certainly, Formula One fans worldwide are desperate for their pre-season – and now their FP1 showing – not to prove a false dawn, having watched Mercedes swat aside Ferrari with relative ease a few years ago.
Managing a flying lap of 1.31.394s, which he said himself he could have bettered, Verstappen continued his strong pre-season performance in the desert at the Bahrain International Circuit.
Title-holder Hamilton, bidding for a record-breaking eighth world title this year, was half a second back on the Dutchman.
Don’t expect that gap to last all season and probably not even all weekend in Bahrain, but it is clear Red Bull are in a stronger position this time around, with their RB16B, than in previous years.
Likewise, Mercedes do not appear as imperious as usual, having endured their issues in testing.
Speaking on Thursday, Hamilton said: “I think we are in the best shape we can possibly be in considering we only had three days of testing. I think we come here positive.
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“In terms of quantifying how big or small an issue we may or may not have, we’re in the early phases. It will be a continued hustle to get the car to where we want it to be.”
While Bottas added: “We struggled quite a bit for sure [in pre-season]. The fact is we struggled with the car balance.
“At least I know the team has done everything we can in the short time but the season is so long. There’s no reason to panic, we just need to work hard.”
We may not find out how Mercedes’ W12 truly stacks up against Red Bull’s 2021 challenger until Saturday’s qualifying, when both teams go full tilt in Q3 in search of pole position.
The conditions then will also be different, more similar to FP2 when the sun has set in Sakhir and the track is far cooler.
Yet while Hamilton and Bottas had no real handling problems in FP1, the session appeared to confirm suspicions that they are slightly down on pace.
Whether they are deliberately hiding their peak performance remains to be seen, but how intriguing a season it promises to be if they aren’t.
Hamilton vs Verstappen, in equal cars or with Red Bull having a slight pace advantage, is the battle that the sport has been craving.
This year may finally be the one that the world champion in waiting gets his long-awaited chance to take the king’s throne.
Bahrain Grand Prix schedule – UK times
FP2 – 3pm Friday
FP3 – 12 noon Sasturday
Qualifying – 3pm Saturday
Race – 4pm Sunday