World champion Verstappen raring to go in F1's new era

Formula One has undergone its most radical rules overhaul in decades with new-look cars designed to create better racing and several teams eyeing an opportunity to upset the established order.

Max Verstappen was fastest in pre-season testing last week at the same Sakhir circuit that hosts the floodlit opener.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen has the number one on his car and the Red Bull driver intends to live up to the billing when he starts his title defence in Bahrain on Sunday as the early favourite for victory.

The Dutchman, who clinched his first title at a controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last December, was fastest in pre-season testing last week at the same Sakhir circuit that hosts the floodlit opener.

Verstappen will also want to do better than last year in Bahrain when he started on pole position but finished second after being forced to give up the lead to Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton for going off track to overtake.

READ: Covid-hit Vettel replaced by Huelkenberg for Bahrain GP

"I’m very excited to turn our attention to racing now, it’s a whole new era for the sport and anything can happen," said the 24-year-old.

"The car looks good and as a team we are in a good place."

Formula One has undergone its most radical rules overhaul in decades with new-look cars designed to create better racing and several teams eyeing an opportunity to upset the established order.

Ferrari in particular seem set to end a winless streak dating back to the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix but drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz have been keen to play down their car's potential.

"I feel we are still a bit behind Red Bull," said Leclerc.

"I don’t think we are speaking about a (gap of a) second like last year or even more the year before, so I feel it is going to be closer for sure and this is already a good sign."

CLEAN SLATE

Mercedes, which is tied with Ferrari as the most successful team at Sakhir having won there six times, is chasing a fourth consecutive win at the venue.

However, the team, beaten in Bahrain only twice since 2014, struggled to get its car dialled into the track's layout during testing, suffering more than others with bouncing on the straight.

Hunting for a ninth consecutive constructors’ crown, and with Lewis Hamilton now alongside youngster George Russell as the sport's most successful driver chases the eighth title he felt robbed of last year, Mercedes cannot be written off.

READ: Jehan Daruvala aiming for strong start in make or break season

"It’s a clean slate for everyone and all to play for,” said team boss Toto Wolff. "I’m excited to see what the weekend has in store."

The season-opening weekend will also see the return of experienced Dane Kevin Magnussen at Haas as a replacement for sacked Russian Nikita Mazepin.

Nico Hulkenberg stands in for Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin after the four-time champion tested positive for COVID-19.

Rookie Guanyu Zhou, meanwhile, becomes the first Chinese driver to race in Formula One when he lines up on the grid for Alfa Romeo.

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