SAKHIR (Bahrain), Feb 24 — Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc set the fastest time as Formula One’s winter testing ended yesterday on the same Sakhir circuit which will stage the season opener next week but he admitted world champion Max Verstappen and Red Bull have “a good head start”.

Leclerc was 0.046sec ahead of George Russell’s Mercedes while China’s Zhou Guanyu was a surprise third fastest in a Sauber.

Verstappen, the overwhelming favourite to make it four titles in a row in 2024, was only fourth fastest with Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda of Racing Bulls rounding out the top five.

However, Verstappen opted to drive on softer tyres, therefore making him relatively slower on the day.

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The new F1 season starts in Bahrain on March 2 and will feature a record 24 races.

“Everything we expected from this car, we got it on the track, so that’s a good thing,” said Leclerc, the day after teammate Carlos Sainz had also put a Ferrari on top of the charts.

Over the three days of testing Sainz, who will lose his seat to seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton at the end of the season, was the only driver to dip below 1min 30sec.

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“I think I can say that we are off to a good start, if only by looking at our own performances,” said Ferrari team chief Frederic Vasseur.

Leclerc was not getting too carried away with Ferrari’s chances of unseating Red Bull.

“For the moment, Red Bull still has a good head start,” he said.

Mercedes arrived in Bahrain with a 2024 car which is “very different” from its predecessor.

Hamilton, however, urged caution over a title charge in his final season with the team.

“We know we’ve got work to do and we’re not yet where we want to be,” he admitted.

“We knew that would be the case coming into the test though. We’ve got a great platform to build on. We’ll go away and work hard over the next couple of days to go through all the data from the test.

“I’m really excited for the start of the season next week and we’ll be heading into it in good shape.”

Testing times on Friday:

1. Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1min 30.322sec (74 laps), 2. George Russell (GBR/Mercedes) at +0.046 (67), 3. Zhou Guanyu (CHN/Sauber) +0.325 (85), 4. Max Verstappen (NED/Red Bull) +0.433 (66), 5. Yuki Tsunoda (JPN/Racing Bulls) +0.453 (53), 6. Alex Albon (THA/Williams) +0.662 (121), 7. Oscar Piastri (AUS/McLaren) +0.708 (91), 8. Fernando Alonso (ESP/Aston Martin) +0.837 (75), 9. Carlos Sainz (ESP/Ferrari) +0.925 (71), 10. Sergio Perez (MEX/Red Bull) +1.161 (53), 11. Nico Hulkenberg (GER/Haas) +1.364 (89), 12. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) +1.677 (49), 13. Lance Stroll (CAN/Aston Martin) +1.716 (46), 14. Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren) +1.786 (20), 15. Pierre Gasly (FRA/Alpine) +1.827 (47), 16. Kevin Magnussen (DEN/Haas) +2.731 (80), 17. Esteban Ocon (FRA/Alpine) +2.757 (55), 18. Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Sauber) +3.206 (28), 19. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/Racing Bulls) +6.693 (70) — AFP