By JEROME PUGMIRE
AP Auto Racing Writer
The bad news for Max Verstappen’s rivals heading into the Formula One season is that Red Bull’s car could even be better. That’s saying something considering Verstappen won a record 15 races last year on his way to a second straight world title.
But Verstappen topped the first day of F1 testing at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain and teammate Sergio Perez led the last on Saturday.
It’s scary to think that Red Bull could head into next weekend’s season-opening race, held on the same circuit, with none of the reliability woes that saw Verstappen fail to finish two of the first three races in 2022. Even despite that setback, he crushed everyone.
“The car is working really well, just going through a lot of things we wanted to try. It’s very interesting what we’ve been trying, so very positive days for me,” Verstappen said. “Overall I think it’s definitely an improvement to last year.”
Perez echoed that, saying Red Bull will start “much stronger than we did last year.”
Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races last season before Ferrari faded badly. He says the car feels good yet modifications are still needed.
“I expect us to be a bit quicker on the straights, maybe struggling a bit more in the corners,” the 25-year-old from Monaco said. “I can say we are still working quite a bit on finding the sweet spot in terms of set up.”
Ferrari was third and fourth in the first test; sixth-best in the second, and then fourth and fifth on Saturday.
“We’ve had a very intense three days of testing,” Leclerc said. “We still have some work to do. Red Bull seems to be very strong.”
Seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton finished second Saturday, but there’s room to improve.
At least the ground effect — known as porpoising — which hindered the team so much in 2022 seems to have been eradicated.
“It’s nice to drive without the bouncing for once,” Hamilton said. “But there are still some underlying things we’re working through.”
F1 race director Niels Wittich is confident bouncing has been fully resolved.
“I think porpoising is not a topic anymore,” he said. “I think we and the teams sorted it quite well last year.”
Hamilton is F1’s record holder with 103 wins but did not win a race last year, and the 38-year-old British driver feels the W14 car has some limitations.
Teammate George Russell broke down with a hydraulics issue on Friday, leaving trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin confused.
“Stopping on track with a reliability issue wasn’t great and we have struggled to get the car balanced well across the changing conditions,” Shovlin said.
Russell, who won one race last year, placed only eighth in Saturday’s last test day and said challenging for victory in Bahrain “may be a bit of a stretch.”
Among the surprises in testing: Alfa Romeo topped Day 2 through Zhou Guanyu and was third Saturday with Valtteri Bottas behind the wheel.
Alex Albon churned out 136 laps for Williams on Day 3 and his new American teammate Logan Sargeant looked at ease during testing. But it was hard to tell if Williams was just reliable, or threatens to be quick.
McLaren is behind the eight ball.
Although Lando Norris was fifth on Thursday it went downhill from there; with Oscar Piastri ninth on Friday and Norris 11th on Saturday.
CEO Zak Brown said the team was behind its projected development targets, and Norris conceded McLaren is playing catch up.
“There’s still many things we’ve been struggling with. I guess we’ve been exploring,” Norris said. “We know where we stand, and I think our plan is more what we can achieve during this year rather than the car we start the year with.”