Motor Sports

Bahrain could end Verstappen's run at the top

MANAMA: Max Verstappen has led the Formula One standings since May 2022 and while Red Bull's triple world champion remains favourite for Saturday's Bahrain season-opener, there is always the possibility of the record 39-race run coming to an end.

The 26-year-old and Red Bull enjoyed the most dominant campaign ever last year, the team winning all but one of the 22 races.

Verstappen, who started 2023 by leading Sergio Perez to a one-two victory at Sakhir, won 19 of them and surpassed Michael Schumacher's 2000-02 record of 37 successive races in the championship lead.

The Dutch driver signed off with seven wins in a row and the evidence from last week's pre-season testing in Bahrain suggested the streak was set to continue as the sport heads into a record 24-race championship.

"We had a good few testing days and learned a lot from the car," said Verstappen. "Of course, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves and we still need to make sure we do everything right to have a strong first weekend.

"All in all, I am excited to get the season underway and start racing again."

Red Bull are celebrating their 20th season but the anniversary comes with a question mark over team principal Christian Horner, who is under investigation for undisclosed allegations of misconduct toward a female colleague.

Horner has denied the allegations and his future is expected to be decided imminently.

Rivals will be keen to seize on any weakness but are likely to be engaged in a battle to be best of the rest.

Ferrari have shown encouraging speed and put in impressive mileage, with Carlos Sainz going fastest on the second day of testing and team mate Charles Leclerc topping the final day's timesheets.

Testing timesheets are notoriously misleading, however, with teams running different programmes and fuel levels.

"We can be pleased with what we've achieved during this test," said team boss Frederic Vasseur, heading into his second season at the helm of the Italian team.

Mercedes are also quietly confident, having redesigned their car to make it less 'spiteful'.

The team endured their first winless season since 2011 last year and George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who last won in 2021 and is heading to Ferrari next year, will be looking for signs the car is a potential winner.

"The drivers are much happier with the overall balance," said team boss Toto Wolff. "It's a good foundation that we can build on."

McLaren, who made huge strides last season, will be keen to keep the momentum going while double-champion Fernando Alonso is hoping to add to his podium tally for Aston Martin.

The rebranded Visa Cash App RB team will also be eager to make its mark as a sister team to Red Bull, as will Sauber who will run under the Stake and Kick names in different races this season.

The grid for the 20th Bahrain Grand Prix will feature an unchanged driver line up.

The race and the following round at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia a week later are being held on a Saturday to allow the Middle Eastern kingdoms to host races before the start of Ramadan.--REUTERS

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