Sakhir, Bahrain: Three months on from his season-ending victory in Abu Dhabi, Max Verstappen returns to the Gulf this weekend set on claiming another win to ignite his bid for a third consecutive world title.
The 25-year-old Dutchman, who reeled off 15 triumphs in 22 races last year on his way to becoming a double world champion with Red Bull, has never won a season-opener or a race in Bahrain.
Last year, he retired from second place as Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position, fastest lap and a convincing victory, leaving Verstappen to play catch-up in the early part of the season before dominating.
It is a memory he and Red Bull and keen to banish with a brisk start to the 2023 season in front of a sell-out crowd at the Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir where the teams completed three days’ testing last week.
Red Bull shone at the test with Verstappen topping the times on the opening day and team-mate Sergio Perez doing the same on the final day with the fastest lap overall.
Satisfied, but determined, the champion has kept a low profile and on Wednesday said he hoped to be doing his talking on track.
“I stayed out after that test so it has been nice to lead up to the race like that and we head into the weekend in a good position,” he said.
“There’s a lot to be said about reading into the data from testing, but each track is very different in terms of how a car can behave.
“So, I think that we, as a team, now have to focus on improvement and carry on throughout the year. We have three positive days, but this is when it counts – at the race.”
Verstappen’s overall record in Bahrain includes two second places, in 2020 and 2021, and three retirements so he will be seeking a change of fortune on Sunday when Ferrari, again, are likely to be Red Bull’s closest rivals.
Leclerc won last year in a memorable one-two ahead of team-mate Carlos Sainz and they will hope for something similar to welcome new team chief Fred Vasseur, formerly at Alfa Romeo, having replaced Mattia Binotto.
Question marks still hang over the potential of Mercedes after an unimpressive test.
Despite eradicating the chronic bouncing problems from their improved car, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and George Russell conceded they face an uphill task to deliver race-winning speed and performance.
“We didn’t have the smoothest test,” admitted team boss Toto Wolff.
“We had reliability problems and struggled with set-up on day two, but we did lots of learning and made progress on the final day.
“Our expectations are that we will be playing catch-up to the front.”
For Hamilton, who enters the final year of his current contract, hopes of a sixth Bahrain win seem remote especially after registering the first winless season of his career last year.
Among the rest, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso showed strongly in testing with his new Aston Martin team, having replaced retired four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, and could fight for a podium finish.
His team-mate Lance Stroll, son of team owner Lawrence Stroll, may be replaced by reserve driver Brazilian Felipe Drugovich, following a cycling accident in training.
Australian Oscar Piastri of McLaren will be one of two certain debutants along with American Logan Sargeant of Williams.
Dutchman Nyck de Vries makes his Alpha Tauri debut, having raced once as a replacement for Alex Albon at Williams last season.
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