Perez puts Red Bull fastest in final testing

SAKHIR, Bahrain — Sergio Perez put Red Bull comfortably clear at the top of the order to round off winter testing for F1’s 2023 season and reinforce the feeling the world champions have a strong advantage going into the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5.

Perez’s lap of 1:30.305 in the final hour, as teams slashed away at the benchmark time on low fuel laps on Pirelli’s softest and quickest tyre compound, was 0.359s clear of the next quickest time, set by Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton.

Outright times are not the be all and end all in testing but Red Bull’s test has looked ominously good, with impressive mileage and good pace across all three days.

While fuel loads and engine mode settings are among the unknown variables to consider when looking across the timing order, the consensus across the paddock is that Red Bull and Perez’s teammate Max Verstappen come in to the season as strong favourites to defend their respective titles.

Proving how misleading times can be was that Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas finished the test as the next quickest behind Red Bull and Mercedes’ quickest time, with a strong lap in the closing portion of the day after the sun had set and the temperature had dropped.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz split duties either side of the lunch break to finish fourth and fifth in the final order, although the Italian team looks well placed to be Red Bull’s nearest competitor at the opening race.

Mercedes will be buoyed by Hamilton’s impressive late lap after a nightmare second day, which saw it lose a chunk of running time due to a hydraulics issue. But the jury is still out on where the former world champions are in the pecking order.

The midfield still looks too tight to call. AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen finished sixth and seventh ahead of the quickest time George Russell set in the day’s first session, with Aston Martin pair Fernando Alonso and Felipe Drugovich rounding out the top ten.

Alonso and Drugovich might well line up as teammates next Sunday if Lance Stroll does not recover from the injury sustained in a training accident on a bicycle, which looks like the most likely outcome given the mileage the team gave to F2 champion Drugovich over the three days.

Lando Norris finished the day in 11th with just 37 laps to his name as McLaren had a low mileage day relative to its rivals — rookie teammate Oscar Piastri accumulated just 44 laps in the other session. Piastri recorded the only televised spin of the session in what has been a remarkably uneventful three-day test in terms of driver mistakes or reliabilty gremlins for teams.

Pierre Gasly was 12th for Alpine while Alex Albon completed 136 laps for Williams. F1 returnee Nico Hulkenberg rounded out his first preseason for Haas with 77 laps behind the wheel, while rookie Nyck de Vries rounded out the order in the other AlphaTuari.

The day’s running finished with some fun, as the drivers took part in two mock starts from the grid of the start-finish straight, which helps the FIA test out its restart start procedures. Sadly, the starts did not reveal too much about what to expect on March 5 as the drivers were not racing, although several did appear to take the run down to Turn 1 semi-seriously.

Saturday times:

1. Sergio Perez – Red Bull – 1:30.305 – 133 laps
2. Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes – 1:30.664 – 65 laps
3. Valtteri Bottas- Alfa Romeo – 1:30.827 – 131 laps
4. Charles Leclerc – Ferrari – 1:31.024 – 67 laps
5. Carlos Sainz – Ferrari – 1:31.036 – 76 laps
6. Yuki Tsunoda – AlphaTauri – 1:31.261 – 79 laps
7. Kevin Magnussen – Haas – 1:31.381 – 95 laps
8. George Russell – Mercedes – 1:31.442 – 83 laps
9. Fernando Alonso – Aston Martin – 1:31.450 – 80 laps
10. Felipe Drugovich – Aston Martin – 1:32.075 – 77 laps
11. Lando Norris – McLaren – 1:32.160 – 37 laps
12. Pierre Gasly – Alpine – 1:32.762 – 56 laps
13. Alex Albon – Williams – 1:32.793 – 136 laps
14. Esteban Ocon – Alpine – 1:33.257 – 76 laps
15. Nico Hulkenberg – Haas – 1:33.329 – 77 laps
16. Oscar Piastri – McLaren – 1:33.655 – 44 laps
17. Nyck de Vries – AlphaTauri – 1:38.244 – 87 laps

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