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Who is the real threat to Red Bull in Bahrain?

Max Verstappen was nearly a second quicker than the pole lap from 2022 in qualifying for the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. But with Charles Leclerc electing to save tyres, Fernando Alonso close and Mercedes optimistic about scoring a podium, who is the real challenger to the Red Bull?

It looked like business as usual for Formula 1 World Champion Max Verstappen after he set a benchmark time in Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying, which was nearly a second quicker than the 2022 pole from Charles Leclerc. In reality it has taken Red Bull a while to build up to this point over the weekend and produce two blistering lap times out of their runs in Q3. On Friday their drivers complained about a problem that was not an issue during testing the week prior, which was largely where they haemorrhaged lap time to Fernando Alonso during the initial qualifying simulations in FP2. Verstappen admitted that he had to change the car "a lot" over the weekend and make a compromise with the team to extract the best performance from the RB19. "I went left and right and back to the middle and found a bit of a compromise," explained Verstappen. "So that's a bit unusual that you make such big changes. But luckily in qualifying that's probably the best balance I've had throughout the weekend so far."

Perez on qualifying

Once they did their final Soft runs in FP3, Verstappen was still 0.005s off Alonso. Between FP3 and qualifying the biggest factor was the track temperature, which went from a scorching 40°C down to 28°C at the beginning of Q1. Sergio Perez believes the "relative temperature" was one of the main factors that made car set-up less straightforward for the team this weekend. "We found quite a different car to what we had in testing and we don't understand what's the reason behind it: could be wind; the relative temperature; many variants that I think after the weekend, we will have a bit more of an idea," the Mexican said. "But for now, we’ve got a focus for tomorrow."

Leclerc not confident about Ferrari long run pace

For a moment it looked like those issues were going to spill into qualifying when Leclerc had potential to beat Perez and threaten Verstappen on the evolving track. It was to everyone's surprise that he elected to climb out of his car and concede that his lap time – which was eventually beaten by Perez and bumped him to P3 – was as good as it was going to get for Ferrari. Leclerc later confirmed that it was a tactic to save a set of Soft tyres for the start of the race, but he was cautious to say if it would make any meaningful difference. "A bit more grip. That's it," he said when asked about the tactic. "I don't know if it will be a game changer." The long run times during FP2 appeared to show Red Bull were still on top relative to Aston Martin – who took a different approach to their runs – and Ferrari, who were more evenly matched but did shorter runs. The fact that Leclerc is saving the extra set of Softs suggests Ferrari still have underlying problems with tyre degradation that plagued them during race stints last year.

Leclerc on Ferrari's tyre degradation 'step'

Add to that the Bahrain track surface being one of the most abrasive of the season – having not been resurfaced since the debut race in 2004 – and it makes this a particularly tricky area for some teams to get on top of with the sensitive Pirelli tyres. Leclerc did not sound convinced: "If I look in FP2 we are still quite a bit slower than Red Bull in terms of pace and tyre degradation, so we still need to see tomorrow and see where we are exactly. "But if we focus on ourselves, I feel like we have done a step forward [taking care of tyres], but I'm not sure it's enough."

Mercedes expect 'dark horse' Alonso to play a role

George Russell is optimistic about being able to challenge Ferrari after Mercedes found a significant lap time gain "overnight" but believes "dark horse" Fernando Alonso will play a role in the fight up front . But even with the changes, Lewis Hamilton suggested that Mercedes are still in the dark about knowing their performance on the long runs, which could hinder their chances to stick with Ferrari and Aston Martin. "We don't know if we have the pace that we had in long runs last year," he told media, including RacingNews365.com . "Our long run pace was good last year, I don't know whether we have that with this car. But I'm hoping we can fight amongst the group that we're with."

Alonso ready for an 'opportunity'

Alonso thinks Aston Martin no longer need to downplay their chances after they qualified P5 and P7, having improved significantly from P17 and P19 last year. "I think now there is there is not much more [need] to downplay anything, because this is qualifying all in the same conditions and we are in the mix with Ferrari and Mercedes," said Alonso. He also highlighted the team's historical ability to understand the complex Pirelli tyres, which benefitted Perez during his days at the Silverstone-based squad. He added: "What we saw so far on our car, and also historically from Aston Martin, is a very good tyre management. So if we have an opportunity for sure we will take it." With Alonso setting his sights on a podium , Ferrari cautious about tyre degradation and Mercedes lacking confidence in their race pace, it appears Red Bull chasing their car set-up to extract ultimate lap time might pay them off with victory at the season-opener.

RESULTS 2024 F1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix - Free Practice 3