World champion Max Verstappen saved his best for last, vaulting to the top of the timesheets in his Red Bull on the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain as teams pulled out all the stops ahead of next weekend’s season-opener in the island kingdom.
The 24-year-old lapped the floodlit Sakhir track in one minute 31.720 seconds going 0.521 seconds quicker than Mick Schumacher who put Haas second during the extra running granted to the team to make up for time lost to freight delays.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was third.
“The car felt alright and we completed the programme we set out to do, so that’s always positive,” said Verstappen.
“No one gives full beans or goes to qualifying spec at testing, so we can’t read too much into the timing screens,” he added, playing down his speed.
Reigning constructors’ champions Mercedes ended the pre-season a second off the pace with new recruit George Russell fifth while Lewis Hamilton was down in 17th.
The team, which showed up in Bahrain with radically shrunken sidepods, have struggled to dial their car in but have also been suspected of running their engines in a lower power mode, costing them speed on the straights.
Earlier on Saturday, Hamilton warned fans not to expect him to be in the fight for the win at the start of the season, marking Ferrari and Red Bull out as the favourites.
“There is potential within our car to get us there, we’ve just got to learn to be able to extract it…,” said the 37-year-old. “We have some hurdles to overcome.”
Saturday’s running concluded six days of pre-season testing split across Barcelona and Bahrain ahead of the first race of the season on March 20.
The pre-season action was even more important than usual this year with teams and drivers getting to grips with cars designed to the most radical rules overhaul in decades.
While lap times are notoriously difficult to read, with teams running different fuel loads and engaging in a great deal of gamesmanship and ‘sandbagging’, in which they hide their true speed by deliberately running slower, rivals have hyped Ferrari up as the early favourites.
The Italian team have been consistently fast and reliable, chalking up the highest lap count of the pre-season ahead of Mercedes.
On Saturday, Red Bull, who unveiled a revised sidepod design and also led the timesheets at lunch with Sergio Perez, confirmed their presence in the fight at the front.
The lap times tumbled on Saturday as teams, having fettled their cars over the first two days of running, began pushing their limits.
Action was halted by two red flag stoppages but there were not any major incidents.