Mercedes and Hamilton shine in Bahrain to hint at F1 drama ahead

<span>Lewis Hamilton was quickest in the night running of second practice in Bahrain, enoying a one-two with his Mercedes teammate George Russell.</span><span>Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images</span>
Lewis Hamilton was quickest in the night running of second practice in Bahrain, enoying a one-two with his Mercedes teammate George Russell.Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

After weeks of drama that had cast the sporting agenda to one side, Formula One finally put some wheels in motion in Bahrain which, intriguingly, suggested there may be an equally gripping spectacle to come on the track.

As the cars opened their accounts for the 2024 season, a triumphant return was anticipated for the Red Bulls after the turmoil that has surrounded the team and that continued in the background in Bahrain.

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Instead they were usurped by a surprisingly rapid Mercedes in Lewis Hamilton’s hands as he topped the timesheets on the first day of the new season.

Christian Horner was on the pit wall overseeing his Red Bull team for the first time since the investigation into his alleged inappropriate behaviour was closed on Wednesday with the grievances of a female employee dismissed and Horner exonerated. Testing the previous week suggested Red Bull had built another rocket ship, they were three-tenths up on the field on race pace simulations and the assumption was that when the gloves came off in Bahrain, they would once more enjoy a handsome advantage.

Certainly Horner must have welcomed the focus on lap-time analysis and working through a run plan. Yet there was to be no balm from the timing screens as Red Bull laboured in the desert.

Practice is only the first salvo of the weekend but this was an opening as unexpected as it was doubtless welcome at Mercedes, who have started the last two seasons only with a sinking feeling as their car proved hard to handle and off the pace. Hamilton, who will leave Mercedes for Ferrari next season, has bemoaned his uncompetitive machinery for two years now, wrestling with cars that were not so much recalcitrant as positively spiteful, but on Thursday he enjoyed as positive a start as might be hoped for.

He was quickest in the night running of second practice, enjoying a one-two with his Mercedes teammate George Russell who was two-tenths back, while Verstappen languished in sixth, almost half a second behind.

This was far from what was expected and not quite the fit for the narrative thus far in Bahrain. There are 10 teams in the paddock for the season’s opening race but one would be forgiven at times for believing there was only one. There has been a constant throng outside Red Bull hospitality, the TV crews and media, like an army, were encamped around this island that held their entire focus all week.

The action on track was expected to be some distraction from the furore that has surrounded the team and that they hoped would ease after the allegations against Horner were dismissed, only for messages purported to have been used in the investigation to be leaked halfway through the session.

As speculation and conjecture once more engulfed the paddock, Mercedes were stealing the show and giving a glimmer of hope that this year might be far from the forgone conclusion many anticipated.

Mercedes had brought an entirely new car design for 2024, dispensing with the one that plagued them for two years and proved impossible to refine into a successful proposition. As early as the first race of the season in 2023 they had declared it unfit for purpose but it has taken 12 months before they could put its successor on track in anger.

There had been cautious optimism after a decent run in testing. Simply the ability to push the car, to have confidence through the corners that has been absent for so long was amply evident under the floodlights in Bahrain. Hamilton hurtling around the track with the joie de vivre of old.

Reading too much into it would be incautious, the gloves do not truly come off until qualifying on Friday, when the fuel loads come down and the engine modes go up.

However this was the only session before the qualifying run in the same night-time conditions as will be the case on Friday, so there was no call for sandbagging. Indeed, Verstappen had not been happy with the car’s balance in the morning session, angrily decrying its performance to the team. They have in the past dialled this out over the opening days to leave it finely tuned when it mattered for the single lap, but regardless there will be no little focus for the team overnight.

Red Bull had hoped normal service might resume in more ways than one when the cars took to the track but for the moment at least Mercedes are on the front foot, looking like they might make a return to the limelight themselves.