Formula One: Champion Verstappen sets the pace in Bahrain practice

Red Bull's Max Verstappen drives during the second practice session ahead of the Bahrain grand prix. PHOTO: AFP

MANAMA (REUTERS) - Red Bull's Max Verstappen got his Formula One title defence off to a strong start by edging out Ferrari rival Charles Leclerc to the fastest time during Friday's (March 18) practice for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old lapped the 5.4km Sakhir track in one minute, 31.936 seconds, beating Leclerc by 0.087 seconds.

Carlos Sainz was half a second adrift in the other Ferrari in third.

Verstappen's benchmark time was set in the floodlit evening session and knocked Frenchman Pierre Gasly, fastest for AlphaTauri in Friday afternoon's first session, off the top of the timesheets.

The Dutchman, who sealed his first title at a controversial season finale in Abu Dhabi last year, had ended last week's pre-season test at the same Sakhir track with the fastest time.

Ferrari have also been fast and reliable in pre-season running and both teams appeared to be living up to their billing as early favourites after Friday's first day of in-season action.

Reigning champions Mercedes have struggled to dial their car into the Sakhir circuit's layout and appeared to be lagging behind with new recruit George Russell once again leading the team's charge half-a-second off Verstappen's pace in fourth.

Lewis Hamilton was 1.2 seconds slower than the Dutchman's benchmark in ninth.

Nico Hulkenberg, standing in for Sebastian Vettel, who has tested positive for Covid-19, ended 17th, only a tenth off his team mate Lance Stroll in 16th.

F1 returnee Kevin Magnussen, replacing sacked Russian Nikita Mazepin, ended the day 10th behind Hamilton.

His team mate Mick Schumacher was eighth, marking an encouraging start to the season for Haas.

Daniel Ricciardo, back in his McLaren after having recovered from COVID-19, completed just 12 laps in the second session to end the day 18th.

His team mate Lando Norris was 11th.

Friday's practice in Bahrain marked the start of a new era for Formula One, featuring cars that have been drastically redesigned in a bid to improve the racing spectacle as part of the biggest rules overhaul in decades.

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