ANALYSIS: Who's winning the midfield battle after Day 2 of testing in Bahrain?
Friday testing was every bit as intriguing as the opening day and with so many wildly fluctuating variables very few things about the competitive order are absolutely clear. Except one: Red Bull look in terrific shape.
Sergio Perez completed an extremely impressive long run before lunch. Max Verstappen took over the car in the afternoon and even with the track at 37 degrees C went over half-a-second faster than Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin would subsequently manage on a cooler track and on the same C3 tyre.
For the purposes of comparison we can ignore the session-heading time of Zhou Guanyu’s Alfa Romeo and Nyck de Vries’ fourth-fastest time in the AlphaTauri. These were set on the much faster C5 and C4 tyre respectively (neither of which will be in use at next week’s race) and later in the day when the track was much cooler.
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But that does bring a sharp focus on the prospects of some teams which last year were well behind Ferrari and Mercedes but which might not be this year. Neither Ferrari nor Mercedes appeared to prioritise fast, low-fuel runs but Ferrari did at least complete plenty of long running. Mercedes, still working on the balance of its W14, had only just begun a serious long run late in the afternoon with George Russell when they were curtailed through hydraulics failure.
It is therefore impossible to realistically assess where the second and third place finishers in last year’s constructors’ championship currently stand in the competitive order. But with Aston Martin, Alfa Romeo, Williams and Alpine all completing decent long runs, there is at least some tentative comparison to be made using Red Bull as the gold standard.
HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the action from day two of pre-season testing as Zhou leads Verstappen in Bahrain
The AMR23 - in the hands of Fernando Alonso all day – continued to turn heads with its apparent speed and composed behaviour on track. But there’s nothing to suggest yet that it is a Red Bull beater. As recalled, Alonso’s best lap on the same C3 tyre was around 0.5s adrift of Verstappen’s despite being set on a track around seven degrees cooler and therefore likely grippier.
Between 0920-1000, with the track still relatively cool, Perez, Alonso and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz each completed comparably long stints. Perez may have been flattered by using the tougher C2 tyre compared to the C3s of Alonso and Sainz and was comfortably the fastest.
But Alonso’s 14-lap run averaged around 0.3s faster than Sainz’s run of 12 laps. The Aston may have been running more aggressively regarding engine settings and fuel levels; we cannot know. But on the evidence only of the pace they showed, at the very least the Aston Martin seems to be in quite different territory to last year.
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Putting aside the significance of Zhou heading the session, if we are to take Pirelli’s estimates of the lap time difference between the tyre compounds, the Alfa is within around 1s of the Red Bull over a single lap.
That would make it only a couple of tenths adrift of Ferrari, albeit only on the evidence of today’s running and knowing that the picture could change dramatically when everyone is running the same programme at the same time. But the early signs for the team are encouraging.
WATCH: 'Always good to be top' - Zhou Guanyu after setting Friday's fastest lap
Although Williams are flattered in the headline times by Logan Sargeant’s use of the C5 tyre to set his low fuel time (his 1m 32.5s splitting the C3-shod Ferraris), the rookie’s long runs suggest the car is currently further up the pecking order than its predecessors of the last few years have been.
Alex Albon reports that it has much better through-corner balance than the 2022 car, with a bigger window between low-speed understeer and high-speed instability. The traits are still there, he reports, and over the last two days both he and Sargeant have suffered many lock-ups and visits to the run-off area into the awkward Turn 10. But it’s less extreme.
Its 0.9s deficit to the Alfa on the same tyre is misleading, as Sargeant set his time on a track of 44 degrees C, around 16 degrees hotter than when Zhou did his lap.
Run for run, it looked roughly on par with the Haas and faster than the AlphaTauri and was able to maintain a respectable enough long run average to suggest the team could be running in the super-tight midfield rather than hanging off the back of it.
READ MORE: Most running 'ever in a day' for rookie Logan Sargeant on Friday in Bahrain
Alpine had shown very little underlying speed until Pierre Gasly was finally ready to try for a long-run evaluation after the Mercedes-induced red flag near the end of the day.
On the C3 tyre he put together a super-consistent sequence of laps which bettered those of Williams, McLaren and Haas which were running similar programmes at the same time. It suggests we have not yet seen a representative low fuel time from the car.
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