Lewis Hamilton’s ‘best possible scenario’ puts pressure on Max Verstappen at Bahrain GP

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Mercedes chief Toto Wolff says the “best possible scenario” for Lewis Hamilton is to be on the same pace as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying today – and that puts the pressure on the Red Bull driver to pull it out of the bag.

Verstappen only secured pole position once in 17 races last season, at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, having also only been the pole-sitter twice in 2019 in Hungary and Brazil.

Mercedes – be it Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas or Nico Rosberg – have started the first race of the new season on pole every year since 2013, before the sport’s hybrid engine era kicked in.

But this year could be different, with Verstappen having gone two tenths quicker than Bottas in FP1 and Hamilton in FP2.

The Dutchman set scintillating pace in pre-season at the same circuit and was the fastest driver in both the first and second practice sessions in the desert on Friday, first in the blistering sun and then in cooler conditions under the lights.

And Mercedes have made no secret of the fact Red Bull head into 2021 faster than them after the world champions endured problems with the balance of their W12 in testing which leave them lagging behind.

So much so, Wolff thinks that the best scenario for the Brackley-based outfit will today see them match the pace of Red Bull, rather than outpace their rivals.

“I think if we are behind, then we just need to catch up and do a good job,” team principal Wolff declared.

“If we’re just about on the same pace – which I would consider today maybe as the best possible scenario for us – then we’re up for the fight with another great team.”

That, then, offers the chance for Red Bull to lay a marker and front the grid for a season-opening race for the first time since 2013, the year Sebastian Vettel won the last of his four straight championships with the team.

It appears increasingly possible that Verstappen could match the German, now at Aston Martin, this season although there there are still another 22 races to go after Bahrain.

Speaking later on Friday, Wolff told Sky Sports F1 that the margins are fine between themselves and Red Bull, while McLaren also enjoyed a fine day as Lando Norris went third and second fastest in the two sessions.

The Austrian declared: “It’s just a real dogfight when you overlay the fastest laps and even the long runs, it’s just so very close.

“Every kg in fuel load can make quite a big swing. So we don’t really know. I think we’re definitely closer here than we’ve been in testing.

“But I wouldn’t know where to position us versus Red Bull.

“I think the tyres there’s not a lot you can do so it’s set-up work. You can see the long runs from many competitors are the McLarens, the Red Bulls, they’ve been pretty flat.

“There was not a lot of degradation. With Valtteri we’ve seen that we lost it a little bit but we know where to tune.”

Bottas at one point in the second session labelled the car “undriveable” and explained after: “The last long run we did was pretty inconsistent and I couldn’t really put any laps together.

“The car as I said was undriveable at times. A big puzzle but it’s Friday and that’s why we practice.

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“It felt better than in testing, in terms of how the car was feeling. That’s good but it felt like we’re still not yet there with the car balance.

“At least it was a trouble-free day and no big issues but the main thing in my mind is that we still have plenty of work to do if we want to fight for the pole and for the win.

“We’re definitely in the mix. McLaren looked really strong today and Red Bull as expected.

“I think we’re there. I don’t think we’re the fastest at the moment but we’re not far off. We have a clear target of where we want to be. We’ll see tomorrow.”

Mercedes clearly enter today’s qualifying with less confidence and momentum than Red Bull, so somehow sealing pole position would surely deal an early psychological blow to their rivals.

Verstappen will be desperate to avoid that happening as he seeks to put early pressure on seven-time world champion Hamilton in the fight for the 2021 Drivers’ Championship. Over to you, Max.

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