By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent, Bahrain
Fernando Alonso raised the prospect of delivering a shock win at Formula One’s opening race of the season after he set the fastest time in practice at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull had been tipped as the team to beat heading into the new campaign but Alonso, the 41-year-old double world champion on his debut for Aston Martin, stunned the Sakhir paddock by topping the time sheets.
Alonso finished 0.169 seconds clear of Verstappen, who ended the one-hour running just two thousandths clear of Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull.
Friday belongs to Fernando Alonso 👏#BahrainGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/ROGUJZ1ZjS
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 3, 2023
Lewis Hamilton was only eighth as his fears that his Mercedes machine will not allow him to fight for victory played out under the thousands of bulbs that light up the Sakhir Circuit. George Russell was even worse off – finishing 13th of 20 in the black-liveried Mercedes.
Lawrence Stroll, Aston Martin’s billionaire owner, set his side the target of winning the world championship in an ambitious five-year project.
But after two underwhelming seasons back on the Formula One grid – finishing seventh of the grid’s 10 teams in both 2021 and 2022 – Aston Martin have suddenly created a machine to fight at the sharp end.
Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel headed for the hills after growing tired of making up the numbers.
It’s only practice. 👀#BahrainGP pic.twitter.com/S8YRJo2LNC
— Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team (@AstonMartinF1) March 3, 2023
But his replacement Alonso – who last won a race 10 years ago and made his debut in 2001 – suddenly finds himself in the right place at the right time.
Times in practice have to be treated with a pinch of salt, but Alonso will be fuelled with belief that he will be in contention to add to his tally of 32 wins, 17 years after he claimed the second of his back-to-back championships.
The same can not be said of his old nemesis, Hamilton, as the seven-time world champion struggled to make an impression.
Sundown and on track for FP2. 🌃 pic.twitter.com/tMivLT1JAs
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) March 3, 2023
The British driver, gearing up for his 17th season, finished six tenths back from Alonso, while Russell was almost one second slower than the Spaniard.
Mercedes might have solved their porpoising problems but their car remains an unruly one.
Elsewhere, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc finished fourth, four tenths off the pace, and one spot ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, back on the grid as a full-time driver for Haas following two seasons out.
Lance Stroll missed pre-season testing following surgery on his right wrist to repair damage from a road cycling accident. He finished sixth. British driver Lando Norris was ninth.