Lewis Hamilton raised hope of taking the fight to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix after finishing fastest in practice.

The seven-time world champion led a Mercedes one-two under the lights of the Sakhir Circuit, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso third and the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz fourth.

World champion Verstappen finished sixth, nearly half-a-second back for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been regarded as the heavy favourite heading into Saturday’s curtain raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

But the Dutch driver bemoaned the handling of his machine in the first running and then failed to match the speed of the Mercedes drivers later in the day.

The Silver Arrows went under the radar at last week’s test in Bahrain, but they were quietly optimistic heading into Friday’s running – and the second session belonged to the team that once dominated the sport.

Hamilton, who has not won a race for two years, was back at the top of the order as the seven-time world champion enjoyed a two-tenth margin to team-mate George Russell, with Alonso 0.286 seconds off the pace.

Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by claims of “inappropriate behaviour” made against its team principal Christian Horner.

The 50-year-old was cleared to remain in his role on Wednesday following an investigation by the racing team’s parent company GmbH.

But the world champions were surprisingly off the pace in both sessions here. With Verstappen appearing to be in trouble, team-mate Sergio Perez was only ninth in the order.

“Everything is s***,” yelled Verstappen over the radio during the first session. “Like miles off.”

Earlier in the day, Daniel Ricciardo finished fastest.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032secs, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but he was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season. He finished 11th in the day’s concluding running.

Daniel Ricciardo was the surprise name at the top of the time sheet in Formula One’s first practice session of the new season in Bahrain.

The Australian – driving for the newly rebranded RB team – saw off Lando Norris by just 0.032 seconds, with Oscar Piastri third in the other McLaren.

Max Verstappen, who complained about the handling of his Red Bull throughout the one-hour practice session, finished sixth, with George Russell seventh and Lewis Hamilton ninth for Mercedes.

Verstappen heads into the curtain raiser here in the Gulf kingdom as the favourite to claim a fourth consecutive world championship.

But the Dutch driver appeared unsettled in the opening running at a gusty Sakhir circuit.

“Everything is s***,” he yelled over the radio. “Like miles off.”

Ricciardo was dropped by McLaren at the end of 2022, but was handed a lifeline by Red Bull’s junior team midway through last season.

And although times in testing have to be treated with caution as the teams trial varying fuel loads – indeed Ricciardo set his speediest lap on the softest tyre compound – RB could prove a surprise package. Ricciardo’s team-mate Yuki Tsunoda finished fourth, three tenths back.

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso took fifth spot and was the first of the drivers not to use the soft compound. Verstappen, Russell, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – who finished eighth – and Hamilton also did not post a lap on the speediest rubber.

Hamilton finished four tenths off Ricciardo, but the Mercedes camp are quietly optimistic that they could have the speed to perform at the sharp end.

At the other end of the grid, Alpine and Haas propped up the order with Nico Hulkenberg last of the 20 runners, five seconds off the pace.

The second practice session of the day takes place at 6pm local time (3pm GMT) and is more representative of the conditions the drivers will face in Friday’s qualifying and Saturday’s race.

Christian Horner said Red Bull has “never been stronger” after he was given the green light to remain as team principal.

Horner was in the Bahrain paddock on Thursday morning after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Speaking on Sky Sports ahead of the opening round of the Formula One season, Horner, 50, said: “I am pleased that the process is over, and I cannot comment about it.

“I am here to focus on the grand prix and the season ahead and trying to defend both of our titles.”

Horner added: “I can’t give you any further comment, but the process has been conducted and concluded.

“I am pleased to be here in Bahrain, and with the team, focused on the season ahead. Within the team it (the unity) has never been stronger.”

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and, on Wednesday, he was cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported. The complainant also has a right to appeal against the verdict.

Addressing the controversy on Thursday, Williams team principal James Vowles said he has to believe Red Bull’s process has been thorough.

Vowles said: “I have a responsibility for Williams, and if anything like that happens here, I would want to make sure we properly investigate it and do a robust process that is clear to the outside world what has happened and what we can do to rectify that.

“I trust that Red Bull have done a strong process and we have to in that circumstance.

“But what I want is us as a sport to be proud that we are sitting on a set of foundations that is one of inclusivity, one of openness and transparency and all I ask in that matter is that we make sure we have faith and trust that all of the organisations are working for the same standards.”

A statement from Red Bull GmbH on Wednesday read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

Team principal Christian Horner was with his Red Bull team in Bahrain on Thursday morning after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and the 50-year-old – who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the season – has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported.

Horner has made no public comment. The complainant also has a right to appeal against the verdict.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

During the internal probe, he continued to be present for official Red Bull activities – including a car launch in Milton Keynes earlier this month, where he insisted it was “business as usual”, and pre-season testing in Bahrain last week.

Horner flew back to England as he awaited his fate before heading back to the Gulf kingdom on a private jet on Wednesday.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

Team principal Christian Horner is expected to be on Red Bull’s pit wall for practice in Bahrain on Thursday after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour” towards a female colleague.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and the 50-year-old – who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the season – has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported.

Horner has made no public comment. The complainant also has a right to appeal against the verdict.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

During the internal probe, he continued to be present for official Red Bull activities – including a car launch in Milton Keynes earlier this month, where he insisted it was “business as usual”, and pre-season testing in Bahrain last week.

Horner flew back to England as he awaited his fate before heading back to the Gulf kingdom on a private jet on Wednesday.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours.

Christian Horner will continue as team principal of the Red Bull Formula One team after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour”.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation made against him by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim, and the 50-year-old – who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the season – has been cleared of wrongdoing.

Red Bull GmbH said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial”, but added that the report – understood to stretch to 150 pages – is “confidential”.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff had called for the investigation to be conducted with transparency – but no details of the allegations against Horner were reported.

Horner has made no public comment. He is expected to be on Red Bull’s pit-wall in Bahrain for practice on Thursday. The complainant also has a right to appeal the verdict.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete, and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner, who has protested his innocence throughout, was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location.

During the internal probe, he continued to be present for official Red Bull activities – including a car launch in Milton Keynes earlier this month – where he insisted it was “business as usual” – and also pre-season testing in Bahrain last week.

Horner flew back to England as he awaited his fate before heading back to the Gulf kingdom on a private jet on Wednesday.

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

He has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races – with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories as he wrapped up his third title.

Addressing the controversy surrounding Horner, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said earlier on Wednesday: “We always have to do more to try to make the sport and the environment for people to work in feel safe and inclusive.

“Any allegations have to be taken very seriously. We don’t know everything that has gone on but it needs to be resolved because it is hanging over the sport.

“It will be interesting to see how it is dealt with, and the effect that it may or may not have on the sport moving forward. It is a really important moment for the sport to make sure that we stand true to our values.”

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, was awarded a CBE for his services to motorsport in the New Year Honours list.

Verstappen said before Horner had been cleared of any wrongdoing: “He is very important otherwise he wouldn’t have been in that position for such a long time.

“Everyone is focused on what happens on track and we are in a good mood to get going again.”

Christian Horner will continue as team principal of the Red Bull Formula One team after he was cleared of “inappropriate behaviour”.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key questions surrounding the controversy which has rocked Horner, Red Bull, and the sport.

What were the accusations against Horner?

On February 5, Red Bull Racing’s parent company GmbH confirmed Horner was under investigation following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour”. The company said it “takes these matters extremely seriously and the investigation will be completed as soon as practically possible”.

Horner denied the claim – made by a female colleague – and remained as team principal and CEO of the Milton Keynes-based team. It is understood the complainant also continued in her role.

How did Red Bull react?

Horner was questioned by a lawyer for eight hours at a secret London location. There was no immediate resolution and Horner subsequently appeared at Red Bull’s car launch on February 15.

He continued to dismiss the allegations. Horner then headed to Bahrain for last week’s three-day test before returning to England, while Red Bull’s Austrian board met to discuss his future.

What was the verdict?

On the eve of this weekend’s curtain raiser – and 23 days after it emerged Horner was under investigation – Red Bull GmBH said the grievance against the 50-year old had been dismissed.

The corporation said it was confident the investigation had been “fair, rigorous and impartial” but added that the report, understood to stretch to 150 pages, is “confidential”.

Is this the end of it?

That remains to be seen. Red Bull said the complainant has “a right of appeal”. It is unclear at this stage whether she will pursue any further action. Horner is due to be on the Red Bull pit-wall for practice on Thursday.

What does it mean for Max Verstappen?

Despite the controversy, the Dutch driver will head into Saturday’s curtain raiser as the favourite to win his fourth world championship.

Speaking before it had been confirmed Horner would remain as team principal, Verstappen said: “He (Horner) is very important otherwise he wouldn’t have been in that position for such a long time.”

Christian Horner will remain in his post as Red Bull team principal.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and the 50-year-old, who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the Formula One season, will stay on as team principal of the British team.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete, and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal.

“Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Horner fully co-operated with the investigation, having been questioned by a lawyer for around eight hours earlier this month at a secret London location away from the team’s Milton Keynes headquarters.

During the internal probe, he continued to be present for official Red Bull activities – including the new car launch in Milton Keynes earlier this month, and also pre-season testing in Bahrain last week.

Asked whether he had considered temporarily stepping aside until the conclusion, Horner stressed it was “business as usual”.

He said: “Obviously, I fully deny any accusations that have been made against me, but of course I’ll work with that process, which I hope is concluded in the near future.”

Horner has been Red Bull team principal since they entered F1 19 years ago and is the longest-serving boss on the grid.

Under Horner’s leadership, he has overseen seven drivers’ world championships and six constructors’ titles at the British-based F1 team.

Red Bull have dominated the sport in recent seasons and last year won 21 of the 22 races – with Dutch driver Max Verstappen setting a new record for 10 consecutive victories.

Christian Horner will remain in his post as Red Bull team principal.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner was under investigation following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague.

Horner emphatically denied the claim and the 50-year-old, who arrived in Bahrain on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s opening race of the Formula One season, will stay on as team principal of the British team.

A statement from Red Bull GmbH read: “The independent investigation into the allegations made against Mr Horner is complete, and Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed.

“The complainant has a right of appeal.

“Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned. Red Bull will continue striving to meet the highest workplace standards.”

Lewis Hamilton has called the imminent verdict on Christian Horner’s Formula One future an “important moment for the sport to make sure that we stand true to our values”.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner is being investigated following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague. Horner denies the claim.

The embattled Red Bull team principal is due to arrive in Bahrain for the first race of the season on Wednesday.

A verdict on whether he remains as Red Bull team principal is expected to follow.

“We always have to do more to try to make the sport and the environment for people to work in feel safe and inclusive,” said Hamilton as he addressed the controversy for the first time ahead of Saturday’s curtain raiser in the Gulf kingdom.

“Any allegations have to be taken very seriously.

“We don’t know everything that has gone on but it needs to be resolved because it is hanging over the sport.

“It will be interesting to see how it is dealt with, and the effect that it may or may not have on the sport moving forward.

“It is a really important moment for the sport to make sure that we stand true to our values.”

“If Lewis were to leave,” pondered George Russell as he addressed the prospect of Hamilton joining Ferrari. “That would put Mercedes in a tricky spot. It would almost look like he’s lost faith in the team.”

Russell was speaking in an episode of Netflix’s newly-released Drive to Survive series – a chapter the Mercedes’ PR machine envisaged would celebrate Hamilton’s decision to stay with them.

Hamilton, after all, had signed a two-year contract extension last August to remain with the Silver Arrows until the end of 2025.

But following Hamilton’s shock decision to tear up his contract a year early in favour of a move to Ferrari, Russell’s remarks – too late to be pulled from Netflix’s sixth season – shed a very public spotlight on the awkward dynamic that faces the grid’s once-dominant team and its superstar driver ahead of the new season which starts in Bahrain on Saturday night.

Mercedes transformed Hamilton from a man with a single world championship to a one-man winning machine. He has seven world championships and 103 victories. No other driver in history can boast such an impressive resume.

But Hamilton is motivated by capturing the eighth title he believes he was robbed of in Abu Dhabi in 2021. And the 39-year-old no longer thinks he can achieve the record-breaking feat with Mercedes. As Russell would say, he’s lost the faith.

Can Hamilton be blamed? He has not tasted victory for two years. Mercedes did not win one of the 22 rounds last season. He heads into the new campaign as a 16/1 underdog to win the championship.

This year is being called Hamilton’s last dance with Mercedes. But do not expect it to be a samba.

Mercedes will remain at the sharp end of the grid this season. They have ditched the concept that has failed them so miserably for the past two years and introduced a new design philosophy – one that both Hamilton and Russell said is more predictable and easier to drive.

But will it possess the speed to knock Red Bull and Max Verstappen off their perch?

F1 works in cycles and, although Mercedes carried Hamilton to six championships in seven glorious years, this period in time belongs to the team from Milton Keynes, despite the on-going controversy surrounding its team principal Christian Horner and allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him by a female colleague.

Horner continues to deny the claims and a resolution is expected before Saturday’s curtain raiser.

Red Bull swept all before them in 2023, winning every race bar one, with Verstappen taking 19 victories as he waltzed to a hat-trick of titles.

Such was their superiority, Red Bull and their genius designer Adrian Newey could afford to start work on this year’s challenger long before the others.

And the finished product, unveiled in all its glory at last week’s test, sent shivers down the spines of their competitors. The fear, for those not in a Red Bull cockpit, is that Newey’s latest masterpiece is an improvement on its brilliant predecessor.

Given the sport’s rule book is largely unchanged and the budget cap means rival teams can no longer break the bank to discover a winning solution, Verstappen heads into this mammoth 24-round campaign as the favourite to become only the sixth driver in history with four world titles to his name.

Alarmingly for the neutrals, Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, has predicted this season will be “one long victory lap” for Verstappen and his all-conquering team – and that’s before a wheel has been turned in anger.

But all is not lost – and that is when we return to Hamilton.

While Verstappen could prove an unstoppable force on track, Hamilton’s agonisingly long goodbye with Mercedes – one that is set to stretch nine months and six days – will provide a fascinating subplot.

The new Formula One season begins in Bahrain on Saturday with Max Verstappen bidding to win a fourth consecutive world championship.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key questions heading into the 2024 campaign.

Who is the favourite to win the title?

Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by allegations facing team principal Christian Horner. Horner, who is fighting to save his career following a claim of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague, insists it is business as usual at Red Bull. Off-track it has been anything but for the team which has dominated the sport for the past two seasons. But on-track it has been precisely that.

Verstappen — in an upgrade of the machine which carried him to 19 victories from 22 rounds last year — set a blistering pace on the opening day of last week’s test, finishing 1.1 seconds quicker than anybody else.

Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, summed up the ominous feeling in the paddock. Writing about Verstappen on ‘X’ he said: “He’s gloating. He’s taunting us. He knows. This year is going to be one long victory lap. You cannot begrudge anyone their success. All we can do is watch and admire.”

So, can anyone challenge Verstappen and Red Bull?

Ferrari ended last year with five pole positions from the final nine races and Carlos Sainz secured the only non-Red Bull win of the season in Singapore. The Italian team have worked hard over the winter on translating their one-lap pace into race conditions, where they tended to struggle in 2023.

They will take solace from a trouble-free test and their pace appeared relatively encouraging, too. Sainz topped the time charts on the second day, while Leclerc ended the final day quickest – albeit on speedier rubber than Verstappen.

An upbeat Leclerc said: “We are in a much better place and it is an easier car to drive. The feeling was good. We have been consistent straight away and this will help us in the race.”

And what about Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?

Hamilton stunned the sporting world by choosing to quit Mercedes and join Ferrari in 2025. The news broke earlier this month and is likely to be difficult for those at Mercedes to digest. Hamilton took the decision – one he described as the hardest of his life – after two winless years with the Silver Arrows.

Mercedes are armed with a new design philosophy for the new campaign but – although both Hamilton and team-mate George Russell spoke of an improved, more reliable machine – there was little to suggest from testing that they have closed the gap to Red Bull.

Mercedes finished ahead of Ferrari in last year’s constructors’ championship but do not be surprised if the Scuderia start the new season ahead of them.

What about the other teams?

McLaren came alive in the second half of 2023, with Lando Norris scoring seven podiums. But the British team looked short of last year’s form in Bahrain last week – although it is a track which has not always suited them in recent seasons.

Aston Martin finished fifth in the constructors’ championship, with Fernando Alonso, now 42, leading their charge for a second season. Alpine are set to head the midfield, with Williams, the newly-rebranded RB and Sauber teams (nee AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo) and Haas likely to follow.

Have there been any driver changes?

No. This season’s line-up is the same as the previous year – the first time that’s ever happened. But with Hamilton already announcing his move to Ferrari for 2025 and 13 of the 20 drivers out of contract at the end of the season – next year’s grid is sure to have a whole different feel about it.

What else happened during the winter break?

Aside from Hamilton’s blockbuster transfer, his soon-to-be Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc penned a new deal which is expected to keep the 26-year-old Monegasque dressed in red until 2029. Lando Norris also extended his stay with McLaren until at least the end of 2026.

Andretti’s move to become the 11th team on the grid was blocked by F1 bosses. The British Grand Prix will remain on the calendar for another decade after Silverstone agreed a new long-term deal with F1’s American owners’ Liberty Media.

How does the calendar look?

There will be a record-breaking 24 races – the longest season in history – starting in Bahrain on March 2 and ending in Abu Dhabi nine months and six days later.

The Chinese Grand Prix returns after five years away, while the round in Japan moves from its traditional October slot to April. The roster features six sprint races in China, Miami, Austria, Austin, Qatar and Brazil. The format has been tinkered with, too. Qualifying for the sprint will now take place on Friday, with the grid for Sunday’s main event decided on Saturday, following the shortened race.

What else do I need to know?

The opening two races will both take place on a Saturday. The Muslim holy period of Ramadan starts on March 10. As such, the second round in Saudi Arabia has been brought forward by a day. FIA rules stipulate there must one week between races, meaning the Bahrain GP will also be 24 hours earlier than usual.

Lewis Hamilton said he chose to turn his back on Mercedes and join rivals Ferrari to write “a new chapter” in his record-breaking career.

The seven-time world champion was speaking for the first time at length since his shock blockbuster move to the Italian giants in 2025 was confirmed earlier this month.

Hamilton’s soon-to-be Ferrari team led the way on the concluding day of this week’s test in Bahrain, with Charles Leclerc seeing off Mercedes’ George Russell by just 0.046 seconds.

But it is Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team who head into next Saturday’s curtain raiser, also in the Gulf kingdom, as the favourites, despite the ongoing investigation into their embattled team principal Christian Horner. Horner continues to deny the claims against him.

Hamilton, who joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013, signed a two-year contract extension with the Silver Arrows only last August.

But over the winter he elected to terminate his £100million deal 12 months early to make the switch.

“Obviously in the summer we signed and at that time I saw my future with Mercedes,” Hamilton explained. “But an opportunity came up in the new year and I decided to take it.

“I feel like it was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I have had a relationship with Mercedes since I was 13. They have supported me and we have had an incredible journey together and created history within the sport. It is something I take a lot of pride in.

“But ultimately I am writing my story and I felt like it was time to start a new chapter.”

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven titles.

But last year marked a second straight season without a victory for the British driver – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

Ferrari have not won a drivers’ championship since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed for them in 2007.

And two decades will have passed since Michael Schumacher took his fifth consecutive title for the team in 2004 when Hamilton links up with Ferrari at the start of next year.

“All of us sit in our garages and you see the screen pop up, you see a driver in the red cockpit and you wonder what it will be like to be surrounded by the red,” added Hamilton.

“You go to the Italian Grand Prix and you see the sea of red of Ferrari fans and you can only stand in awe of that.

“It is a team that has not had huge success since Michael’s days and I see it as a huge challenge.

“As a kid I used to to play the Grand Prix 2 computer game as Michael in that (Ferrari) car. It is definitely a dream and I am really excited about it.”

Hamilton said the biggest transfer in F1 history would not have happened if Fred Vasseur – the Frenchman who played a prominent role in his formative career – had not been appointed as Ferrari team principal last year.

Hamilton continued: “I have got a great relationship with Fred. I raced for him in Formula Three and we had amazing success in Formula Three and GP2 and that is where the foundation of our relationship started.

“We always remained in touch. I thought he was going to be an amazing team manager at some stage and progress to Formula One. It was really cool to see him at Alfa Romeo and when he got the job at Ferrari I was just so happy for him. The stars aligned and it would not have happened without him.”

As for learning the lingo, the Stevenage-born racer, added: “In all these years I have not managed to learn other languages, but I will definitely try. I do remember when I was younger and karting in Italy I was able to pick up a few lines. Hopefully that will come back to me.”

Ferrari might have finished on top on Friday, but the consensus in the paddock is that Red Bull have significantly improved the machine which won all bar one of the 22 rounds last year.

“Our car is more enjoyable to drive and it is an improvement,” said Hamilton. “But we still have some time to find. Red Bull are out in the distance.”

Ominously, Verstappen, bidding to win his fourth straight title, said: “For sure, the car is better than it was last year.”

Lewis Hamilton said his Mercedes exit to join Ferrari is because he believes it is time to write “a new chapter” in his record-breaking career.

Hamilton was speaking for the first time at length since his blockbuster move to the Italian giants in 2025 was confirmed earlier this month.

The 39-year-old, who joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013, signed a two-year contract extension only last August.

But over the winter he elected to terminate his £100million deal 12 months early to make the switch.

“Obviously in the summer we signed and at that time I saw my future with Mercedes,” said Hamilton as he opened up on his decision to make the move to Ferrari.

“But an opportunity came up in the New Year and I decided to take it. I feel like it was the hardest decision I have ever had to make.

“I have had a relationship with Mercedes since I was 13. They have supported me, and we have had an incredible journey together, created history within the sport and it is something I take a lot of pride in.

“But ultimately I am writing my story, and I felt like it was time to start a new chapter.”

Christian Horner wants his Red Bull future to be resolved “as soon as possible” as the embattled team principal fights to save his Formula One career.

Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmbH announced on February 5 that Horner is being investigated following an accusation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague. Horner denies the claim.

Horner addressed the media alongside four other F1 team principals on the second day of this week’s three-day test in Bahrain on Thursday. The new season starts in the Gulf kingdom next Saturday.

Asked why he has not moved aside as team principal and chief executive of Red Bull Racing with the investigation under way, Horner replied: “As you are well aware there is a process going on which I form part of, and as I form part of that process, I am afraid I cannot comment on it.”

Horner was then asked if he could provided a timeline as to when the investigation might be over.

The 50-year-old added: “I am dreadfully sorry but I really can’t comment on the process or the timescale.

“Everybody would like a conclusion as soon as possible. But I am really not at liberty to comment about the process.”

Sources have indicated to the PA news agency that there could be a resolution before the opening race on March 2.

On Wednesday, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called for Red Bull’s probe to be transparent, and said the controversy is “an issue for all of Formula One”.

McLaren chief executive Zak Brown, speaking in the same press conference as Horner on Thursday, echoed Wolff’s comments.

“The allegations are extremely serious,” said Brown. “McLaren hold themselves to the highest standards of diversity, equality and inclusion.

“These are extremely important to us and our partners, and to everyone in Formula One.

“Red Bull Corporation has launched an investigation, and all we hope and assume is that it will be handled in a very transparent way, and as the FIA and Formula One has said, swiftly, because these are not the headlines that Formula One wants or needs at this time.”

Red Bull won all but one of the 22 races last year as Max Verstappen stormed to the world championship.

The Dutch driver, in his heavily upgraded machine, set an impressive pace on the opening day in Bahrain, finishing 1.1 seconds clear of anyone else.

Mercedes’ George Russell said: “Red Bull are definitely the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone here in Bahrain. They have had an impressive winter, no doubt.

“Hopefully Red Bull are already in that sweet spot, and we can close the gap, but it is going to take a lot of hard work to do so.”

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