Max Verstappen hailed the “incredible” Ferrari stand-in Ollie Bearman after the British teenager qualified 11th for his shock Formula One debut in Saudi Arabia.

Bearman, 18 years, 10 months and one day when the lights go out for Saturday’s 50-lap race in Jeddah, was thrown into the deep end following a dramatic late call-up for Carlos Sainz, who was hospitalised with appendicitis.

But the Essex teenager – with just one hour of practice under his belt, and having never driven an F1 machine at night – came within 0.036 seconds of toppling Lewis Hamilton and progressing to the final phase of qualifying.

Verstappen put Red Bull’s continued off-track woes to one side by taking pole position, with Charles Leclerc second, three tenths back, and Sergio Perez third. Hamilton qualified eighth.

But Bearman, who will become the second youngest driver to start an F1 race, stole the show. And Verstappen, 17 when he made his debut nine years ago, led the tributes.

“What Ollie has done has been very, very impressive,” said Verstappen.

“I watched his first few laps in practice, because that is where you can judge if someone is comfortable in the car, and by lap two or three I thought ‘that is a strong start’, and to be 11th, and only six tenths off pole at the time, is more than you could have asked for. He he has done an incredible job.”

Probably to Christian Horner’s relief, all eyes were off Red Bull and on Ferrari as Bearman followed in the footsteps of Britain’s first F1 champion Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees – the only man to win a world title on two and four wheels – when he rolled out of the Italian team’s garage.

He will be the 12th British driver to race for Ferrari – and the first Englishman since Nigel Mansell in 1990.

Bearman was just 18 months old when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, and he was not even born when Fernando Alonso entered his first F1 race.

But in Jeddah on Friday, Bearman took to the same track as the men who share nine world championships between them. And, remarkably, he came within a hair’s breadth of beating Hamilton.

Forced to abort his first run in Q2, Bearman returned to the fastest street circuit on the calendar and hauled his Ferrari into 11th. He needed to be 10th to make it into Q3.

With the clock ticking down, Bearman geared up for his final run, and rode his Ferrari on rails in a valiant attempt to force his way through. His father David, the millionaire founder and chief executive of an insurance company, was living every minute of his son’s adventure at the back of the Ferrari garage.

Hamilton, failing to improve, afforded Bearman a chance to beat him, only to come up agonisingly short. Berman finished less than six tenths behind Leclerc in the other scarlet machine.

“That was a messy session,” said a critical Bearman over the radio. “Sorry about that.”

But when he faced the media, his smile lit up the night sky.

“I didn’t have time to get nervous or to overthink it,” he said. “I was focused on what to do and didn’t have time to think about the gravity of the situation and that was probably a good thing.

“On Monday, I will feel it and I will be quite proud. I am sure when I step back, I will pinch myself.

“My phone is going crazy but I will have a look at it tonight.”

Following four victories in his rookie Formula Two season – the feeder series to F1 – Bearman was thrust into the spotlight in Mexico City last October, eclipsing Lando Norris as the sport’s youngest Briton to take part in a practice session, when he drove for Haas.

He was handed a second practice run-out in Abu Dhabi a month later. On Saturday, he will surpass Norris – who was 19 years, four months and four days when he made his debut in Australia in 2019 – as the youngest British driver to start a Grand Prix.

“The stars have aligned,” added Bearman. “It has been such a quick progression in my career.

“Three years ago I was still in Formula Four and I only did my first F1 test in October so it has been a really quick progression and to make my F1 debut in red is special. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come.

“There is a lot of analysis to go through tonight – things like starts and pit-stop procedures that I have not had time to work on – so it will be a busy evening but hopefully I will get eight hours of sleep in.”

Teenager Ollie Bearman celebrated becoming the youngest British driver in Formula One history by qualifying 11th in his Ferrari for Saturday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Bearman, 18 years and 10 months to the day, was thrown into the deepest of ends as a last-minute stand-in for Carlos Sainz, who was hospitalised with appendicitis.

But the Essex teenager, with just one hour of practice under his belt, and having never driven an F1 machine at night, came within 0.036 seconds of toppling Lewis Hamilton and progressing to Q3.

Max Verstappen put Red Bull’s continued off-track woes to one side by taking pole position, with Charles Leclerc second, three tenths back, and Sergio Perez third.

Fernando Alonso took fourth, with George Russell and Hamilton seventh and eighth respectively for Mercedes. Hamilton was nearly one second slower than Verstappen.

Probably to Christian Horner’s relief, all eyes were off Red Bull and on Ferrari as Bearman followed in the footsteps of Britain’s first F1 champion Mike Hawthorn, and John Surtees – the only man to win a world title on two and four wheels.

He is the 12th British driver to race for Ferrari – and the first Englishman since Nigel Mansell in 1990. Lewis Hamilton will become the 13th next year.

Bearman was just 18 months old when Hamilton made his debut in 2007, and was not even born when Fernando Alonso entered his first F1 race.

But here in Jeddah on Friday, Bearman took to the same asphalt as the men who share nine world championships between them. And, remarkably, he came within a hair’s breadth of beating Hamilton.

Forced to abort his first run in Q2, Bearman returned to the track and hauled his Ferrari into 11th. He needed to be 10th to make it into Q3.

With the clock ticking down, Bearman geared up for his final run, and rode his Ferrari on rails in a valiant attempt to force his way through. His father David, the millionaire founder and CEO of the (re)insurance Aventum Group, was living every minute of his teenage son’s adventure at the back of the Ferrari garage.

Hamilton, failing to improve, afforded Bearman, 21 years the Mercedes’ man’ junior, a chance to beat him, only to come up agonisingly short. The Ferrari junior finished less than six tenths behind Leclerc – a commendable effort – in the other scarlet machine.

“That was a messy session,” said Bearman over the radio. “Sorry about that.”

Raised in Chelmsford, and schooled at King Edward VI Grammar, Bearman joined Ferrari’s driver academy, aged only 16, after he won both the German and Italian Formula Four championships.

He quit school – despite initial resistance from his mother, Terri – left the family home in Chelmsford and moved to Modena, a dozen miles north of Ferrari’s headquarters in northern Italy.

Following four victories in his rookie Formula Two season – the feeder series to F1 – Bearman was thrust into the spotlight in Mexico City last October, eclipsing Lando Norris as the sport’s youngest Brit to take part in a practice session.

And, on Saturday, he will surpass Norris, who was 19 years, four months and four days when he made his debut in Australia in 2019, as the youngest British driver to start a Grand Prix.

Norris will line up in sixth for Saturday’s 50-lap race, and although the unstoppable Verstappen took his second pole in as many races, the night belonged to Bearman.

Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team were fined nearly £13,000 – and the British driver was slapped with a warning – following a near “serious high-speed crash” in practice for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Williams driver Logan Sargeant was forced to take evasive action to avoid hitting the back of Hamilton’s slow-moving Mercedes.

Formula One’s stewards said Mercedes should have informed Hamilton that Sargeant was approaching him on a quick lap. The Jeddah Corniche Circuit is the fastest street track on the F1 calendar.

Carlos Sainz, who Hamilton will replace at Ferrari next year and who witnessed the incident, said over the radio: “What Hamilton did there is super dangerous.

“He was in the middle (of the track). He could have got out of the way. Sargeant nearly crashed because of him.”

Hamilton, who finished eighth in practice, six places behind team-mate George Russell – and 0.677 seconds adrift of fastest driver Fernando Alonso – was summoned to see the stewards.

A report from the governing FIA read: “The stewards heard from the driver of Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), the driver of Car 2 (Logan Sargeant), team representatives and reviewed positioning/marshalling system data, video, team radio and in-car video evidence and determine that Car 44 impeded Car 2 at Turn 11.

“As a result, Car 2 had to take evasive action by going off the track to avoid a collision. Had that not been done, there would have been a serious, high-speed crash.

“Having listened to the team radio, it was clear to us that the team of Car 44 failed to warn their driver of the fact that Car 2 was arriving on a fast lap. That was a serious failure on the part of the team, particularly given the speeds on this circuit and the nature of Turn 11, which is at the end of a series of high speed corners where driver visibility is impaired.

“We therefore issue a warning to the driver and impose a fine of 15,000 euros (£12,818) to the team.”

Christian Horner said he is certain Max Verstappen will see out his contract with Red Bull, despite the ongoing controversy at Formula One’s world championship winning team.

Horner also insisted it is in “everybody’s collective interest to focus on the future” after Verstappen’s father, Jos, claimed Red Bull will “explode” if Horner remained in his role.

Verstappen, who won last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, has been linked with a shock move to Mercedes to replace Lewis Hamilton next season.

Hamilton said on Wednesday that the 26-year-old Dutch driver is on Mercedes’ “list”.

But when asked if he expected Verstappen to see out the remainder of his contract with Red Bull, which runs until 2028, Horner said: “I’m certain that he will. I mean, he’s got a great team around him, he’s got great faith in that team, and we’ve achieved an awful lot together.

“He’s committed to an agreement until 2028, and from a team side, and from Max’s side, we’re determined to build on the success that we’ve achieved already.

“His 55 victories have all come in Red Bull Racing cars and we are determined to build on that and add more wins in the future.”

Verstappen finished first in the opening practice session for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso topping the time sheets in the day’s concluding running.

George Russell was second with Lewis Hamilton eighth in the other Mercedes.

Verstappen ended the day in third, three tenths back from Alonso but such is the superiority of his Red Bull machine he remains the favourite to extend his winning run here on Saturday.

Verstappen Snr is absent from the second round of the championship as he competes in a Belgian rally.

Following his son’s victory in Bahrain, he said: “There is tension here while he (Horner) remains in position.

“The team is in danger of being torn apart. It can’t go on the way it is. It will explode. He is playing the victim, when he is the one causing the problems.”

Horner held clear-the-air talks with Verstappen’s manager Raymond Vermeulen a day after Verstappen Snr’s comments were published in the Mail on Sunday.

But Horner, 50, hinted he has not spoken to his star driver’s father since he was made aware of the incendiary remarks.

Horner continued: “I spoke to Jos following the grand prix and obviously congratulated him on his son’s performance. And I think it’s in everybody’s interest, collectively, that we’ve agreed to move on, to focus on the future.

“We both have a vested interest in his son, to provide the best cars for him and to get the best out of him, and he’s started the season in the best possible way. He’s an outstanding talent and hopefully we can continue to provide him with a very competitive car.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has urged Formula One and its governing body to “set the compass right” amid continued controversy surrounding Christian Horner.

Horner was earlier this week cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

But the 50-year-old faced subsequent scrutiny after a series of leaked WhatsApp messages –  appearing to be exchanged between him and his complainant – were leaked to all the major players in the sport.

FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem told the Financial Times on Friday that the turmoil is “damaging the sport on a human level”. F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali has not commented on the matter.

Earlier this week, Wolff called for greater transparency from Red Bull Racing’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, who conducted the investigation.

The Austrian corporation said it was confident the inquiry into Horner had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” and added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”. Horner has always denied the claims.

“Let’s see where it goes in the next days,” said Wolff on Saturday night. “I would very much hope that the governing body, the sanctioning body and the commercial rights’ holder sets the compass right.

“But the moment I start to continue to question how this has been handled, I am probably not doing any good to the whole issue, because then it could be seen as this just being about a power fight within F1.

“That’s why I think it’s not in the team’s hands. It’s a much bigger topic than that and I don’t want to diminish the whole situation by making it seem like the Mercedes guy is talking about the Red Bull guys.”

Wolff was speaking after a disappointing opening race of the season for his Mercedes team at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

George Russell started third and finished fifth – 47 seconds behind winner Max Verstappen – with Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag in seventh, 50 sec adrift.

Wolff continued: “Max is in a different league, a different galaxy. We just have to acknowledge his performance levels.

“But I believe that the group of Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes were probably in a similar ballpark. We just need to look at ourselves, get on top of our problems and if we are able to manage our race weekend better, we will be racing those guys.”

Christian Horner said he is “absolutely confident” he will ride out the storm of his life and remain as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season.

The build-up to the first round of the Formula One campaign here in Bahrain has been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

But the 50-year-old, who was joined by his wife Geri in a defiant show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Max Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz crossed the line in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes.

Asked if he is confident he will stay on as Red Bull team principal for the rest of the season, Horner replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

During an extraordinary week in the Gulf kingdom, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” made by a female colleague.

But hundreds of WhatsApp messages, appearing to be exchanged between him and the complainant, were then leaked to the F1 world.

Horner has remained steadfast throughout, and strode hand-in-hand with Geri along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, also joined the duo on the team’s terrace in a very public show of support for the embattled team principal.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to the Red Bull pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals. Geri later headed to the garage to watch the race.

The pair stood together smiling underneath the podium as Verstappen celebrated his 18th win from the past 19 races.

An emotional Horner continued: “I have the support of an incredible family, an incredible wife, an incredible team and everybody within that team.

“And my focus is going racing, winning racing and doing the best I can.

“It was a day about starting the season in the best possible way. My focus is on this team, my family, my wife and racing.”

Horner was also quizzed about the leaked Google file which was sent from an anonymous email account to 149 members of the F1 paddock – including FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem, F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali and the grid’s nine other team principals, as well as members of the media.

Horner said: “I am not going to comment on anonymous speculative messages from an unknown source. I am not going to comment on what motives whatever person may have for doing this.

“Obviously, it has not been pleasant with some of the unwanted attention, but the focus is very much on the cars and my focus has been on what is happening on track and the result today demonstrates where the focus is and we move onwards.

“There was a full, lengthy internal process that was completed by an independent KC and the grievance that was raised was dismissed. End of. Move on.

“You could see what it (the win) meant to the whole team. It is better to do your talking on the track.

“I have always been entirely confident that I would be here and my focus is on the season, and the races we have ahead.”

Horner is set to be back in the spotlight in just five days when the cars hit the track in practice for the next round in Saudi Arabia.

Max Verstappen delivered for Christian Horner’s crisis-hit Red Bull team by winning the opening race of the Formula One season in Bahrain on Saturday.

The build-up to the first round of the campaign here in the Gulf Kingdom has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Red Bull team principal Horner.

But Horner, who was joined by his wife Geri in a show of unity ahead of Saturday’s 57-lap race, can take temporary relief from seeing Verstappen lead a Red Bull one-two, with Sergio Perez second.

Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz took the chequered flag in third, one place ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton a disappointing fifth and seventh respectively for Mercedes. McLaren’s Lando Norris finished sixth.

During an extraordinary week in Bahrain, Horner was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, on Wednesday following an internal probe into allegations of “inappropriate made by a female colleague.

Hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were then leaked to the F1 world a day later.

Horner has remained defiant throughout and put on a show of unity with his Spice Girl wife Geri, as they strode hand-in-hand along the paddock one hour and 45 minutes before the lights went out.

Red Bull’s majority shareholder and Horner ally, Thai billionaire Chalerm Yoovidhya, joined the duo on the team’s terrace in another public show of support for Horner.

Horner planted a kiss on wife Geri before he headed to pit wall to watch his team blow away their rivals.

Verstappen has raced to the past three world championships and his crushing streak looks set to continue into 2024 following a commanding lights-to-flag win.

The Dutch driver saw off team-mate Perez’s challenge by 22.4 seconds to take his 18th win from the last 19 F1 races and, remarkably, his 36th victory since Hamilton last won a grand prix.

“Great start to the year, guys, a one-two finish, as well so fantastic,” said Verstappen over the team radio.

Horner replied: “As you say, Max, pole-position, one-two finish, fastest lap, a clean sweep. A brilliant way to start the year. Thanks very much.”

Such was Red Bull’s stranglehold on last season’s championship, that they were afforded the luxury of turning their attention to this year’s machine earlier than their competitors.

And revered designer Adrian Newey appears to have built a car which could take Verstappen to another stratosphere.

After holding off the challenge from Ferrari’s Leclerc on the run down to the opening corner, his victory never appeared in doubt. By the end of lap 11, Verstappen had already pulled 10 seconds clear.

Behind, Russell was on the move – taking second from Leclerc on the third lap in an encouraging start for the Mercedes man.

But that would be as good as it got for the Silver Arrows, with Perez moving ahead of Russell on the exit of Turn 4 on lap 14 before Sainz gazumped the British driver for third three laps later.

Hamilton started ninth and was making little early progress, complaining on lap 25 that his seat was broken.

He started to make his way through the field, getting past McLaren’s Oscar Piastri on lap 35 and then Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin for seventh on lap 39.

But the seven-time world champion, who will join Ferrari next year, made no inroads into Norris ahead before Mercedes’ poor evening was dealt another blow when Leclerc took fourth off Russell with 11 laps to run.

Hamilton finished 50 seconds behind Verstappen.

For Verstappen, it was another emphatic display, with fireworks exploding into the night sky as he cemented his status as the overwhelming favourite to march to another title – despite Red Bull’s ongoing off-track turbulence.

Lewis Hamilton believes Mercedes have delivered a car capable of putting him in the fight at the front – despite qualifying only ninth for Saturday’s opening round of the season in Bahrain.

Max Verstappen saw off Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc by two tenths to capture pole position, with Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell next up, a third of a second back.

Hamilton raised hope that he might take the challenge to Verstappen when he finished fastest in practice here on Thursday.

However, the 39-year-old, entering his final campaign for the Silver Arrows before he joins Ferrari, finished half-a-second adrift.

But an optimistic Hamilton said: “It is amazing to see how close everyone is, and George’s position is testament to how amazing a job all those working at the factory have done to give us a car to fight.

“The car is really fantastic, and a big improvement from previous years.

“It is stable and more fun to drive. For George to be three tenths off Max is incredible and it shows what is possible.

“We just have to add performance, but if that is our platform, we can definitely chase for the rest of the season.

“For the first qualifying session to be as poor as that when you put in so much preparation is disappointing, but that is racing.”

Verstappen is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the Dutch driver was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit.

Verstappen headed into his final run with less than a tenth in his pocket over Leclerc before extending his margin to the Ferrari driver.

Despite taking top spot, Verstappen apologised for what he perceived to be a scruffy lap.

“Don’t be sorry, Max,” said a weary-sounding Christian Horner – whose Formula One future is again in the spotlight after hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him to a female colleague were leaked. “You finished two tenths clear of Charles and three tenths ahead of George.”

Verstappen added: “It was a lot of fun. I am very happy to be on pole, and it was a little bit unexpected. The car came to us and I felt happier than I did in practice.

“The race is going to be close, too, but we will see tomorrow. I am confident we can have a strong race.”

While Verstappen qualified first, Sergio Perez was fifth in the other Red Bull, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

British driver Lando Norris will line up in seventh for McLaren, with Williams’ Alex Albon 13th.

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly will prop up the grid following a miserable qualifying session for the Alpine team.

Max Verstappen temporarily took the spotlight off team boss Christian Horner by putting his Red Bull on pole position for the opening round of the new Formula One season in Bahrain.

The build-up to the first race of the campaign has totally been overshadowed by allegations whirling around Horner.

The 50-year-old was exonerated by Red Bull Racing parent’s company, Red Bull GmbH, following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” against a female colleague on Wednesday – before hundreds of WhatsApp messages appearing to be written by him were leaked to the F1 world a day later.

However, Horner, who has always denied any wrongdoing and remains in his role, was on the world champions’ pit wall here in Bahrain to see Verstappen claim his first pole of a season in which he is expected to romp to his fourth consecutive world championship in his all-conquering Red Bull machine.

But the triple world champion was made to work for the 33rd pole of his career under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc second, two tenths back.

George Russell finished third for Mercedes, one place ahead of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz. Lewis Hamilton will line up in ninth on the grid.

Fernando Alonso's legacy in Formula One will be defined by questions about what might have been, according to former Force India driver Paul di Resta.

However, Di Resta hopes Alonso will not call time on his glittering career for some time yet, as the 42-year-old begins his second season with Aston Martin. 

Alonso impressed en route to a fourth-placed finish in the drivers' championship last year, securing eight podium finishes in his first campaign with the team.

The two-time world champion's future has been a subject of speculation throughout the offseason, with the Spaniard touted as a candidate to replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes when he joins Ferrari in 2025. 

Ahead of Saturday's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Alonso said he is yet to decide whether he will race at all next year, and Di Resta would be disappointed if F1 lost one of its biggest characters.

Di Resta also believes Alonso will look back upon his short-lived move to McLaren in 2007 – and his subsequent switch back to Renault – with a few regrets. 

"I've got a huge amount of respect for him. I wish he hadn't taken that [break] when he disappeared out of Formula One for a couple of years," Di Resta told Stats Perform.

"I think the biggest thing with Fernando is what could have been, with the championships he probably should have won and the ones he came close to. 

"Some of the choices he made, moving to teams… I'm sure he's not scared to talk about that. I think he's just a born racer, absolutely committed to it. 

"His spatial awareness, in race starts or on the first lap, wheel to wheel, there's probably not many people like it. 

"I will miss watching him. I hope he's around for a long time and I think he's showing that age is not a thing, he can still grab great results. 

"I think he's happier than he's ever been, less emotional, he sees the journey for what it is, he probably sees the end is closer in that sense and he's milking everything he can from it.

"I just love to see [Max] Verstappen, [Charles] Leclerc, Alonso, Hamilton in different teams going against each other, and I think people definitely respect what he's done, and he draws a lot of attention, and attention is a great thing for the sport."

While reigning world champion Verstappen is expected to dominate again in 2024, Alonso is among a group of drivers looking to take race wins off Red Bull. 

McLaren's Lando Norris is another with lofty ambitions for the new season, and Di Resta thinks the 24-year-old has a big future ahead of him.

"I'd be surprised if he doesn't win a world championship, given his ability," he said. "I think the key for him will be reading where the best place to be for the future is, whether McLaren are back to being a consistent team to deliver a world championship. 

"I think Lando definitely is up to that. Oscar [Piastri], he did a very good job for a rookie last year. He was a bit short of Lando in the races if you're being honest. 

"In qualifying, he definitely had the measure and had the speed, so I'm expecting him to push Lando even more and I'm expecting him to be even closer to Lando. 

"They've got great foundations and great team spirit to move forward. They will get into battles and you can see there's some frustration in their races with strategy and how it's going to play out, but Lando is very comfortable and I think he's probably in the top three picks within the grid."

Max Verstappen may be the clear favourite for a fourth straight Formula One championship, but Paul di Resta does not see Red Bull having it all their own way in 2024.

Verstappen has dominated the sport in the past two seasons after pipping rival Lewis Hamilton to win his first title back in 2021.

The Dutchman was champion by 146 points in 2022, then stretched that gap to a staggering 290 points last year as he won 19 of 22 races.

Di Resta, who drove for Force India, hailed Red Bull's "incredible job" as they "pulled out a couple of wins they shouldn't have", but he expects Verstappen to at least have some competition in the coming campaign.

"People will get closer this year, 100 per cent," Di Resta told Stats Perform. "It's not going to be a runaway like it was.

"But to get on top of that at every grand prix with the advantage that he had at some tracks last year, I don't see how they can lose the championship, to be honest, unless somebody's got something hiding in the wind tunnel that they're going to bring out and surprise everyone with.

"Over the course of the season, I think he'll get the job done.

"I think he'll have a harder time at it, and I'd like to see them more in battle. I'd like to see them up against Lando [Norris], I'd like to see them up against Lewis, Ferrari in there as well.

"The biggest thing is when it's closer, when you're having a bad day, you're having a bad day. When you're having a good day, you're having a good day. The swing was not big enough ever because he was always winning last year."

Mercedes did not win a single race in 2023, but Di Resta sees the Silver Arrows as Red Bull's biggest rivals again in what is set to be Hamilton's final season with the team before joining Ferrari.

"I think it'll be Mercedes," he said. "They've said they're coming out with a car that's very different, very different philosophy.

"They are undoubtedly still one of the best teams in Formula One, and I think just when you look at the last 10 years and how they've gone about their business, you have to believe in that."

Lewis Hamilton admitted he was shocked to finish fastest in practice for Saturday’s Formula One curtain raiser in Bahrain.

The seven-time world champion has not won a race for more than two years, but he led a surprise Mercedes one-two under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit on Thursday night.

Hamilton finished two tenths clear of team-mate George Russell, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third.

On yet another explosive off-track day for Red Bull, Max Verstappen bemoaned the handling of his machine. He finished sixth.

The Silver Arrows went under the radar at last week’s test in the Gulf kingdom, but they were quietly optimistic heading into Thursday’s running – and the second session belonged to the team that once dominated the sport.

“This has been a crazy Thursday,” said Hamilton, 39. “I don’t understand it, and it is a shock to see us where we are, but we will take it for now.

“We cannot get ahead of ourselves. We need to keep our head down and keep working on the setup.

“But I am much happier with the car. I have a better feel of it approaching the corners, and there are other areas that have been fixed and improved.

“It feels like a race car and the last two cars didn’t feel like that. It is a really good platform to work from. We have to keep our heads down and keep on chasing.”

Hamilton is gearing up for his final season with Mercedes after he elected to terminate his £100million deal 12 months early to join Ferrari in 2025.

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven titles. But last year marked a second straight season without a victory for the British driver – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

However, Hamilton, in his radically revised car – after the design concept which failed so spectacularly for the past two seasons was abandoned – will take faith from an encouraging day.

But Hamilton expects Verstappen, who has raced to the past three world championships, will still be the one to beat.

“I think we are going to be in the mix,” added Hamilton. “We are there or thereabouts with Ferrari and maybe Aston Martin and McLaren.

“It is going to be close, but if Max is out in front he will drive off as he has done for the past couple of years.”

Verstappen had been regarded as the heavy favourite heading into Saturday’s curtain-raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

But he struggled in the first running and then failed to match the speed of the Mercedes cars later in the day.

“Everything is s***,” yelled Verstappen over the radio. “Like miles off.”

However, the 26-year-old remained confident he would be in a strong position for the 57-lap Grand Prix.

“It is very close and maybe some people around us have turned up the engine in terms of top speed,” he said.

“I’m not too worried about the gap to first, for example. It is going to be close in qualifying. I was happier about the long run for the race.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has challenged Formula One and its governing body to demand greater transparency from Red Bull’s investigation into Christian Horner.

Horner has been cleared to continue as Red Bull team principal following an internal probe into “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Horner was on the Red Bull pit wall on Thursday for both practice sessions of the new season.

“I am pleased that the process is over and I cannot comment about it,” he told Sky Sports. “I am focused on the season ahead. Within the team it (the unity) has never been stronger.”

Red Bull Racing’s parent company, Red Bull GmbH, said it was confident the investigation into Horner had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

It is understood that neither Formula One’s owners, Liberty Media, nor its regulator, the FIA, has seen the report.

However, there were growing calls in Bahrain on Thursday night for Red Bull GmbH to share the details of their investigation.

“I just read the statement, which was pretty basic,” said Wolff. “My personal opinion is we can’t really look behind the curtain.

“There is a lady in an organisation that has spoken to HR and said there was an issue and it was investigated and yesterday the sport has received the message that it’s all fine, we’ve looked at it.

“I believe with the aspiration as a global sport, on such critical topics, it needs more transparency and I wonder what the sport’s position is?

“We’re competitors, we’re a team and we can have our own personal opinions or not. But it’s more like a general reaction or action that we as a sport need to assess, what is right in that situation and what is wrong.

“Are we talking with the right moral approach, with the values based on the speculation that is out there?

“As a sport, we cannot afford to leave things in the vague and in the opaque on critical topics like this, because this is going to catch us out.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown agreed with his Mercedes counterpart.

“It’s the responsibility ultimately of the organisers of Formula One, the owners of Formula One, to make sure that all the racing teams and the personnel and the drivers and everyone else involved in the sport are operating in a manner in which we all live by,” said the American.

“I don’t think it’s the teams’ roles and responsibilities. That’s up to FIA and Formula One to ultimately decide and ask what they feel gives them the level of transparency they need to ultimately come to their conclusion and we just have to count on them that they fulfil that obligation to all of us.”

The PA news agency has contacted Formula One and the FIA for comment.

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

He has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races, with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

Lewis Hamilton raised hope of taking the fight to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix after finishing fastest in practice.

The seven-time world champion led a Mercedes one-two under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third and the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz fourth.

World champion Verstappen finished sixth, nearly half-a-second back for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been regarded as the heavy favourite heading into Saturday’s curtain raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

But the Dutch driver bemoaned the handling of his machine in the first running and then failed to match the speed of the Mercedes drivers later in the day.

The Silver Arrows went under the radar at last week’s test in Bahrain, but they were quietly optimistic heading into Friday’s running – and the second session belonged to the team that once dominated the sport.

Hamilton, who has not won a race for two years, was back at the top of the order as the seven-time world champion enjoyed a two-tenth margin to team-mate George Russell, with Alonso 0.286 seconds off the pace.

Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by claims of “inappropriate behaviour” made against its team principal Christian Horner.

The 50-year-old was cleared to remain in his role on Wednesday following an investigation by the racing team’s parent company GmbH.

But the world champions were surprisingly off the pace in both sessions here. With Verstappen appearing to be in trouble, team-mate Sergio Perez was only ninth in the order.

“Everything is s***,” yelled Verstappen over the radio during the first session. “Like miles off.”

Earlier in the day, Daniel Ricciardo finished fastest.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032secs, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but he was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season. He finished 11th in the day’s concluding running.

Daniel Ricciardo was the surprise name at the top of the time sheet in Formula One’s first practice session of the new season in Bahrain.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032 seconds, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Max Verstappen, who complained about the handling of his Red Bull throughout the one-hour practice session, finished sixth, with George Russell seventh and Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes.

Verstappen heads into the curtain raiser here in the Gulf kingdom as the favourite to claim a fourth consecutive world championship.

But the Dutch driver appeared unsettled in the opening running at a gusty Sakhir circuit.

“Everything is s***,” he yelled over the radio. “Like miles off.”

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season.

And although times in testing have to be treated with caution as the teams trial varying fuel loads – indeed Ricciardo set his speediest lap on the softest tyre compound – RB could prove a surprise package. Ricciardo’s team-mate Yuki Tsunoda finished fourth, three tenths back.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso took fifth spot and was the first of the drivers not to use the soft compound. Verstappen, Russell, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – who finished eighth – and Hamilton also did not post a lap on the speediest rubber.

Hamilton finished four tenths off Ricciardo, but the Mercedes camp are quietly optimistic that they could have the speed to perform at the sharp end.

At the other end of the grid, Alpine and Haas propped up the order with Nico Hulkenberg last of the 20 runners, five seconds off the pace.

The second practice session of the day takes place at 6pm local time (3pm GMT) and is more representative of the conditions the drivers will face in Friday’s qualifying and Saturday’s race.

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