Alonso matches Red Bull pace as Mercedes make slow start in Bahrain practice

By Sports Desk March 03, 2023

Fernando Alonso provided an unlikely threat to Max Verstappen and Red Bull in practice ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen and Red Bull will be expected to take the Formula One title again this year after dominating in 2022.

But Verstappen topped the charts in neither of the first two sessions of the week on Friday.

Team-mate Sergio Perez was fastest in FP1, yet Aston Martin's Alonso was in second, ahead of third-placed Verstappen.

In FP2, F1 great Alonso then went one better with the fastest time. Verstappen was again one place back, in second, with Perez third.

Red Bull could at least be encouraged by the lack of a credible challenge from their long-standing rivals.

Charles Leclerc was fifth and then fourth for Ferrari, and the two Mercedes cars were further back still.

Lewis Hamilton was made to work hard for a pair of top-10 finishes in 10th and eighth, while George Russell settled for 11th in FP1 before falling to 13th in FP2.

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    Charles Leclerc ensured pole position for this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix, while Max Verstappen could only manage sixth place after crashing into a wall during qualifying.

    Leclerc beat Oscar Piastri by 0.154 seconds for his third pole in the last four races in Monaco, where Ferrari have excelled on the narrow track layout, high kerbs and slow-speed corners.

    Verstappen was seeking history by surpassing Ayrton Senna for an eighth successive pole in Qualifying, while maintaining his perfect record at the start of the season.

    However, the runaway Drivers' Championship leader hit the wall at Sainte Devote on his final lap, and had to settle for sixth on a track where overtaking is regarded as the most difficult on the calendar.

    Leclerc now hopes he and Ferrari can now convert their position at the head of the grid into victory, having failed to do so in each of the last two years.

    "It was nice. The feeling after a qualifying lap is always very special here," he said. "[I am] really, really happy about the lap, the excitement is so high, but it feels really good.

    "But now, I know more often than not, qualifying is not everything. As much as it counts, we need to put everything together on the Sunday. In past years, we did not manage to do it, but we are a stronger team now, and I am sure we can achieve the target."

    His Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz was third, though he faces an investigation for impeding Williams' Alex Albon in the first session, ahead of Lando Norris and George Russell.

  • Verstappen not expecting 'very easy weekend' at Monaco Grand Prix Verstappen not expecting 'very easy weekend' at Monaco Grand Prix

    Max Verstappen believes it will be a far from "very easy weekend" at the Monaco Grand Prix, as he looks to extend his lead at the top of the Drivers' Championship.

    The three-time world champion has a 48-point advantage at the summit after winning five of the opening seven races this season.

    Verstappen could make history by surpassing Ayrton Senna with an eighth successive pole in Qualifying, and maintaining his perfect record at the start of the campaign.

    Although, the narrow track layout and high kerbs may present a problem to Red Bull, who struggled with the latter at last year's Singapore Grand Prix, where they failed to finish on the podium for the only time in 2023.

    Ferrari's strength in slow-speed corners could also prove crucial, while Lando Norris' challenge appears to be gathering momentum after the McLaren driver finished less than a second behind him in Imola last weekend. 

    "In Monaco, you might have some surprises," Verstappen said. "It's one of the more difficult tracks for us.

    "In the last few years, Ferrari have always been very, very strong here. Plus, McLaren lately - the last two races - really ramped up in performance. They are, for sure, ones to watch as well.

    "I don't think this is going to be a very easy weekend. Our car normally struggles a bit over bumps and kerbs. Monaco is never very straightforward, even when you have the best car. Monaco is a very tricky track to get everything to work.

    "For sure, things have closed up [the challenge from Norris], which makes it very important to try to be at our very best. I know that is not always a very realistic possibility, but you always try to get to a certain point and maybe the last few races we haven't been operating at that."

  • Norris: McLaren can challenge Red Bull for title Norris: McLaren can challenge Red Bull for title

    Lando Norris believes McLaren can open up the F1 title fight when they head to Monaco for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

    The 24-year-old finished in the top two of the previous three grand prix, claiming his maiden victory in Miami.

    He threatened to finish ahead of Max Verstappen for a second time at Imola last Sunday with a late charge, but finished within one second of the Red Bull driver.

    Looking back at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Norris said while he is sure he could have done things differently, he sticks by his choices.

    "I did everything I believed was right at the time," Norris told Sky Sports.

    "When it's so close you always think 'What really could I have done that little bit differently,' but you always could have done something a little bit better or a little bit differently. I'm sure Max could have reviewed things and said the same thing.

    "But nice to know it wasn't an easy one for him. It's about time someone put him under pressure, and he felt a bit of nerves again because I'm sure he hasn't felt it for a while.

    "I don't want to be overconfident - that's never been me - but we want to come into races now and be confident in racing against the Red Bull, racing against Ferrari because we are in the mix with them."

    Before the race at Imola, Norris said he believed McLaren were not quite ready to challenge Red Bull for the title this year.

    The Briton currently sits fourth in the standings, 60 points behind Verstappen, but he now thinks they can count themselves in the running this year.

    "We're a third of the way through so we have a very long way to go, so I think many, many things can happen," he added.

    "But also, Monaco is a place where anything can happen. So, I would never say 'no' anymore.

    "I've got fed up of myself kind of underestimating what we can achieve as a team. So, we're going to come in, we're positive, we've had a very good run of results - second, first, second - and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to continue that here in Monaco.

    "It's not known to be our best track but, at the same time, anything can happen."

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