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 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.

“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.

Max Verstappen put Red Bull’s off-track troubles to one side by setting the pace in the opening testing session in Bahrain.

Red Bull’s preparations for the new campaign have been overshadowed by allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” against team principal Christian Horner.

Horner, who is in Bahrain for this week’s three-day test ahead of the opening round, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2, emphatically denies the accusations made by a female colleague.

Verstappen won 19 of the 22 races last season as he wrapped up his third world championship, and the Dutch driver laid down an early marker by topping the time charts in his heavily revised Red Bull.

The 26-year-old ended the running nearly seven tenths quicker than Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in third, eight tenths back, and the only other driver within one second of Verstappen.

McLaren’s Oscar Piastri finished fourth, while George Russell was sixth for Mercedes, 1.68 secs off the pace.

Lewis Hamilton gets his first taste of the last Mercedes he will drive on Thursday ahead of his blockbuster switch to Ferrari next year.

Although headline times in testing have to be treated with a degree of caution – as the teams trial different fuel loads and tyre compounds – Verstappen appeared settled in the machine he hopes will carry him to a fourth consecutive title.

His lap count of 65 was more than a race distance in Bahrain. Alonso (77 laps) managed the most miles of the 10 drivers on track.

During a relatively trouble-free first session for the majority of the field, Alex Albon broke down in his Williams following a reliability failure with 20 minutes remaining.

The final four hours of the opening day begins at 1500 local time (1200GMT).

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner will be in Bahrain for Formula One’s first day of testing on Wednesday.

The 50-year-old is fighting to save his career in the sport following an allegation of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague. Horner categorically denies the claims.

The PA news agency understands Horner, who remains under investigation by the racing team’s parent company Red Bull GmbH, is due to arrive in the Gulf kingdom on Tuesday evening.

Max Verstappen will take to the wheel of the Red Bull he hopes will carry him to a fourth straight world championship on Wednesday – the first of three days of testing – and Horner is set to be in the paddock to oversee his superstar driver in action.

Horner is also due to speak at an F1 press conference alongside four other team principals a day later.

The opening round of this season’s championship takes place in Bahrain on March 2.

Speaking at Red Bull Racing’s car launch in Milton Keynes last week, Horner insisted he would be in his position for the first race.

Horner said he was unable to provide a timeline as to when the investigation will be completed.

It is understood both Red Bull and Horner are keen for a swift resolution, but sources have indicated that a conclusion is not imminent.

F1 bosses have called for the controversy to be “clarified at the earliest opportunity”.

Last season Red Bull won all but one of the 22 races, with Verstappen taking his third world championship in as many years.

Speaking last week, a defiant Horner said: “The process has been going on in the background.

“Obviously, there’s been a day job to be getting on with, which is gearing up for the season ahead of us.

“I am confident in the process, which I have fully complied with and will continue to do so, and absolutely deny any of the allegations that have been made against me.

“For me, it is business as normal. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

A defiant Christian Horner said he will not be forced out of Red Bull – and vowed to be in his post as team principal for the first Formula One race of the season.

Horner broke his silence on Thursday after an investigation was launched into an allegation of “inappropriate behaviour” against him by a female colleague.

The 50-year-old, speaking at Red Bull’s car launch in Milton Keynes, revealed he had been “overwhelmed” by messages of goodwill from within the sport, and said his wife, former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, has been “very supportive”.

He also continued to emphatically deny the allegations made against him.

Asked if he will be in Bahrain for the first round of Max Verstappen’s championship defence on March 2, Horner replied: “Yes. I will be in Bahrain.

“The process has been going on in the background. Obviously, there’s been a day job to be getting on with, which is gearing up for the season ahead of us.

“I have a hugely supportive family, a very supportive wife. I have felt the support from within the business and our partners, and the support from within the industry has been overwhelming, too.

“I am confident in the process, which I have fully complied with and will continue to do so, and absolutely deny any of the allegations that have been made against me.

“For me, it is business as normal. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

Direct questions relating to the internal investigation launched by Red Bull Racing’s parent company Red Bull GmBH – which leaves Horner’s career in the balance – were strictly off-limits.

Horner has been in charge of the F1 team for two decades, but he insisted the investigation has not forced him to ponder resigning.

“Not at all, absolutely not,” said Horner when asked if he had considered his role as team principal and chief executive of the racing team.

“I am fully committed. I built this team. I convinced people to come and work here.

“I’ve been here since the beginning. There have been highs and lows along the way. We have won 113 races. We have won seven drivers’ world championships. We’ve won six constructors’ world championships in 19 seasons, and that’s in the history books.

“But it’s about what lies ahead, because that’s what’s important. So my focus is on the future.”

There had been a strong desire for Horner’s future to be concluded before Thursday’s presentation which marked the 20th anniversary of Red Bull’s involvement as a constructor in the sport.

Horner, who was quizzed by a lawyer for eight hours last Friday, said he did not know when the probe will be concluded.

There will be three days of testing, starting next Wednesday, in Bahrain ahead of the first race, also in the Gulf kingdom. And sources have indicated Horner could face further rounds of questioning as he bids to prove his innocence.

The investigation against Horner has undoubtedly overshadowed the world champions’ preparations for the forthcoming campaign.

Last year, Red Bull won all but one of the 22 races, with Verstappen taking his third world title in as many years.

But the Dutch driver, 26, said: “I don’t feel it (the investigation) has been a distraction.

“Everyone is very focused and very motivated. The spirit in the team has been fantastic. It’s been honestly better than ever.”

Pressed on his relationship with Horner, the triple world champion added: “It is very good.

“We’ve seen each other quite a few times. We’ve achieved a lot of things together so that doesn’t change suddenly.

“My contact with Christian has been the same as on the first day. It’s been like normal.”

Max Verstappen believes Lewis Hamilton’s swansong season with Mercedes will be “awkward” following his rival’s 2025 transfer to Ferrari.

Hamilton stunned the sporting world by ditching Mercedes – the constructor which has carried him to six of his record-equalling seven world championships – in favour of a move to Ferrari next year.

On Wednesday, the 39-year-old Briton made his first public appearance since news of his shock transfer broke. Hamilton said he is determined to fire Mercedes back to former glories before he trades silver for red.

But speaking at Red Bull’s car launch on Thursday, reigning world champion Verstappen believes Mercedes will be forced to omit Hamilton from some meetings during the forthcoming 24-round campaign.

“For the rest of the year, I would say it’s a little bit awkward,” said Verstappen.

“It’s not like they are suddenly enemies. He has achieved so many great things with them. They are still behind him, and for sure he has a great relationship with everyone, especially (Mercedes team principal) Toto (Wolff).

“But he knows at one point, and Toto for sure will tell him: ‘Look, I know we’ve had all this success, but you can’t be part of certain meetings any more’.

“That is normal in F1. It’s probably a bit weird. But you are professional enough to deal with that. And once he’s sitting in the car, they will of course go flat out for him.”

Verstappen, who last year claimed 19 victories from 22 rounds as he secured his third successive title, also believes Hamilton and Ferrari were forced to reveal the tie-up sooner than they would have wished.

The Red Bull star added: “It must have been leaked to announce something that big that early in the season.

“Him going to Ferrari is not really shocking. It’s not a surprise they were talking. I just think the announcement was a bit rushed.”

Verstappen, who gets his first taste of this season’s Red Bull when testing begins in Bahrain next Wednesday, opens his bid to become a four-time world champion at the first race, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2.

Lando Norris insists he can take the championship fight to Max Verstappen after declaring the Dutchman’s Red Bull team as “beatable”.

McLaren emerged as the closest contender to Red Bull last year following an impressive mid-season turnaround with Norris scoring seven podiums.

The 24-year-old, gearing up for his sixth season on the Formula One grid, last month committed his future to McLaren by signing a contract extension which will keep him with the British team for at least the next three seasons.

Red Bull won all but one of the 22 rounds last season, with Verstappen cruising to his third world title in as many years.

But speaking at McLaren’s car launch on Wednesday, Norris said: “If you were to ask, ‘are Red Bull beatable?’ I am going to have to say ‘yes’.

“We have to believe that because we were very close at times last year and at certain times we did beat them.

“Can we beat them over a season? That is going to be a challenge and very difficult to do because of how well they performed, but I am optimistic.”

Norris and team-mate Oscar Piastri, who impressed in his rookie campaign last season, were provided their first taste of this year’s machine at a Silverstone shakedown test on Wednesday.

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella added: “At the start of the season my expectation of Red Bull is that they will enjoy an advantage.

“I say this because they didn’t develop the car very much last year and I would think it is reasonable to expect that they will have accumulated knowledge and development from last season and bring that to the 2024 car.

“If, and I say if, we continue the development rate from 2023 into 2024, then we can be in a strong position. But whether that is enough to challenge Red Bull and the other top teams who have made improvements, we will find out.”

F1’s sole pre-season test gets under way in Bahrain on February 21, ahead of the opening race, also in the Gulf kingdom, on March 2.

Fernando Alonso could be the ideal 'short-term fix' for Mercedes as they look to replace Lewis Hamilton, particularly after Lando Norris signed a new long-term contract with McLaren.

That is according to former Force India and Williams driver Paul di Resta, who even believes an ambitious swoop for three-time world champion Max Verstappen is not out of the question.

Seven-time drivers' champion Hamilton has activated a break clause in the two-year contract extension he signed with Mercedes last year, and the 2024 season will be his last with the team before he makes a blockbuster move to Ferrari.

For Mercedes, attention has turned to the candidates to replace Hamilton. Carlos Sainz – who will leave Ferrari to make room for Hamilton at the end of this year – has been touted as a possible target, though other names are also in the frame.

Norris was long thought to be a natural fit if either Mercedes or Red Bull found themselves with an empty seat, but the 24-year-old penned a "multi-year" extension with McLaren last month.

Di Resta thinks Norris would have been the go-to name for Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, but with his future seemingly secure, long-term options appear thin on the ground.

"Where do they go? They found themselves a bit stuck because I think it was unexpected," Di Resta told Stats Perform of Mercedes' driver hunt. 

"When you look at the driver market, I was surprised to see Lando sign with McLaren for as long as he did, given there were Red Bull seats and potentially a Mercedes seat coming up. 

"The obvious choice for me, if I was Toto, would have been to go for Lando. Last year, I actually think he was next-best to Max in terms of the performance and where he was. 

"I think he was a step up even from Lewis over the course of the year, in what he was able to achieve. He had it under control, so that would have been where my attention went. 

"You can see Lando doesn't turn up to odd events and excel, he is very consistent over the course of the year and I think he's ready to fight for championships, but obviously that's gone." 

Some believe Mercedes could promote 17-year-old Andrea Kimi Antonelli from their junior team, but Di Resta thinks it is too soon for the teenage prodigy, suggesting two-time world champion Alonso – who is contracted to Aston Martin until the end of this year – as an alternative. 

"They need a short-term fix, they probably need a good name," he continued. "I wouldn't be surprised if Fernando fit that bill for the next year or two, until they reassess where they are if they're bringing through some young guys. 

"I've heard people talk about Antonelli, I can't see how he's ready, I can't see if somebody like that is ready to go up against Max and Lewis. 

"With the weight of a manufacturer like that on top of you, you don't want to hit that too hard too soon, you want to build the foundations of how you go about your Formula One racing first."

Di Resta does not expect Mercedes to rush their search for a successor, and he even suggested they could enquire about Verstappen's availability, pondering whether the Dutchman has a similar break clause to that recently activated by Hamilton.

"They've got some time. I don't think it's a decision they can rush into," Di Resta said. 

"At the start of the season, we're already talking about next year, but you never know, you could go and chase Max!

"I'm sure somebody like Max could equally have an option like Lewis had got, because when they are like Lewis, Max and Fernando, they mean as much as the team does."

AlphaTauri have been rebranded as the Visa CashApp RB team ahead of the new Formula One season as part of a partnership between Visa and Red Bull.

Red Bull and Visa announced a new, multi-year global partnership on Wednesday afternoon which will see new livery appearing on the cars of reigning world champion Max Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez.

The agreement will also see Visa become the named sponsor of the rebranded AlphaTauri team, Red Bull’s sister marque.

The Visa CashApp RB team will make their debut at the 2024 season opener in Bahrain in March, with Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda behind the wheel.

Previously known as Toro Rosso, AlphaTauri was introduced onto the F1 grid in 2020 in order for Red Bull to promote their fashion brand of the same name.

While known as AlphaTauri, the team managed one win in 83 race entries as Pierre Gasly took the chequered flag at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Future Red Bull world champions Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel both raced under team’s guise of Toro Rosso, with the latter taking the sole victory of the previous incarnation.

Mercedes clung on to second place in the constructors’ championship by the skin of their teeth – and a £10milllion cash boost – as Max Verstappen ended the most dominant season in Formula One history with another victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Verstappen failed to triumph at just three of the 22 rounds staged, and his latest win takes him to 54 for his career, leaving only Lewis Hamilton (103 wins) and Michael Schumacher (91) ahead of him.

The Dutchman finished 17 seconds clear of team-mate Sergio Perez but the Red Bull driver was demoted to fourth following a five-second penalty for a collision with Lando Norris.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was promoted to second with Mercedes’ George Russell third. Lewis Hamilton finished ninth in the other black-liviried machine with Mercedes three points clear of Ferrari in the standings to land a £105million reward, rather than £95m.

However, it marked a second straight season without a victory for Hamilton – a losing streak of 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

Norris finished fifth for McLaren, one place ahead of team-mate Oscar Piastri.

Verstappen has been in a class of one this season and Sunday’s 58-lap race round the Yas Marina Circuit never looked anything other than a Red Bull triumph – the team’s 21st of their all-conquering year – after he resisted a first-lap attack from Leclerc.

Leclerc tried and failed on three occasions to fight his way past Verstappen only for the triple world champion to keep him at bay on each occasion.

Behind, and Norris was on the move, making his way up to third ahead of Piastri and Russell.

Further back and Hamilton, who started 11th, was up two places to ninth, but by the end of the third lap he was in 10th as Perez swept by.

With Leclerc in second, and Russell and Hamilton fifth and 10th, Ferrari held second spot. But Russell was soon on the move to hand the initiative back to Mercedes.

On lap 11 he got ahead of Piastri after sling-shotting ahead of the Australian’s McLaren, and then three laps later, he took advantage of a slow pit stop for Norris to take third.

But in the other Mercedes, Hamilton feared he had sustained damage to his front wing after he biffed Pierre Gasly’s Alpine.

A check from Mercedes suggested otherwise, and team principal Toto Wolff was on the intercom to provide his star man with a pep talk.

“Lewis, you were the second quickest car on the last lap,” he said. “You are quick.” Moments later, the Austrian was back on the radio to tell Hamilton he was the speediest out there.

Wolff’s encouragement seemed to work. On lap 25, Hamilton was up to eighth after he passed Daniel Ricciardo before a second stop dropped him back down the order and in a duel with old foe Fernando Alonso.

Hamilton made his way ahead of Alonso only for the Spaniard to fight back past. Hamilton then accused Alonso of brake-testing him.

Carlos Sainz’s poor qualifying session left him 16th on the grid, but a desperate one-stop strategy saw him exposed to Alonso and then Hamilton as they moved by for eighth and ninth.

Advantage Mercedes. But Perez then threatened to provide a sting in their tail by hunting down Russell in the battle for third. If Perez finished ahead of Russell, the Silver Arrows would lose second spot.

With four laps to go, Perez fought his way past the English driver.

Perez took Leclerc on the last lap, but finished only 3.9 sec clear of Russell – dropping Perez to fourth – as Mercedes breathed a sigh of relief.

Lewis Hamilton said he could not wait for the season to end after he qualified only 11th for Sunday’s finale in Abu Dhabi – leaving Mercedes on the backfoot to salvage second in the Formula One world championship.

As Max Verstappen put his Red Bull on pole position for the final race of his all-conquering campaign – with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc runner-up and McLaren’s Oscar Piastri third – Hamilton was left staring at another abysmal performance in his underperforming machinery.

Indeed, Hamilton, six tenths behind Verstappen and a third-of-a-second back from team-mate George Russell, who qualified fourth, even claimed there was something wrong with his car.

His failure to progress to Q3 means the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship, worth nearly £10million, hangs in the balance.

The Silver Arrows head their Italian rivals by just four points ahead of Sunday’s race in the desert. And Leclerc finished ahead of both Russell and Hamilton to hand Ferrari the initiative.

“I don’t have any answers,” said Hamilton, who gloomily predicted his Q2 demise here 24 hours previously.

“It is just a very unpredictable car and it has been all year. I wouldn’t say I am relieved, but I am definitely happy it is nearly over.”

Hamilton’s comments were echoed by Toto Wolff.

“I’m fed up with having explanations as to why it didn’t go well,” said the Mercedes team principal.

“I’m happy that this was the last qualifying of the season and we will be back with a new car.”

Hamilton’s poor result came after it emerged that his father – and one-time manager Anthony – had enquired about a seat for his son at Red Bull.

Hamilton has recorded just one podium in his last six appearances following Mercedes’ tumble down the grid and he faces an uphill task to salvage a respectable result at the Yas Marina Circuit.

“There is something not right with this car, mate,” said the 38-year-old on the radio as he shook his head.

“The car is more inconsistent than ever before,” he later explained. “It is up-and-down from the moment you hit the brakes, the moment you turn, the moment you hit the apex, it is massively out of balance and hard to predict what is going to happen.

“George and I set our cars up the same, but they don’t read the same so there is something not right on our side. I have been off all weekend and struggled. Eleventh…it takes some good going for me not to get into Q3.”

Hamilton is third in the individual standings, 317 points Verstappen, with the Dutchman the overwhelming favourite to claim a remarkable 19th victory from the 22 rounds.

Mercedes are a staggering 430 points behind the Dutchman’s Red Bull team, who have won every race bar one this year.

Mercedes were handed a minor boost after Carlos Sainz was a surprise eliminated in Q1. Sainz bemoaned traffic for his lowly 16th grid slot.

But Leclerc’s improvement on his final run, to finish just 0.139 seconds behind Verstappen, provides the Prancing Horse with a spring in their step.

“The target is to beat Mercedes, so I hope Carlos gets a good start and joins me in the fight,” said Leclerc.

“Let’s look to put both of our cars in front of Mercedes because finishing second in the constructors is all that matters to me.”

Elsewhere, Lando Norris qualified a disappointing fifth after he got out of shape on his last lap.

“I don’t know why it happened,” he said. “I’ve not done that all weekend so it’s frustrating. I’m just doing a s*** job on Saturday.”

Asked if he was being too hard on himself, the 24-year-old replied: “Not at all. I was fighting for second and I end up fifth because of a stupid mistake. I’m too soft on myself.”

Lewis Hamilton said there was something wrong with his Mercedes after he qualified only 11th for Sunday’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

As Max Verstappen put his Red Bull on pole position for the final race of his all-conquering campaign – with Charles Leclerc second and Oscar Piastri third – Hamilton was left starting at another poor performance in his underperforming machinery.

The seven-time world champion, facing up to a second season without a victory, finished six tenths behind Verstappen and a third-of-a-second back from team-mate George Russell, who qualified fourth.

Hamilton’s failure to progress to Q3 – as he gloomily predicted here on Friday night – leaves the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship firmly in the balance.

The Silver Arrows head their Italian rivals by just four points ahead of Sunday’s finale in the desert. And Leclerc finished ahead of both Russell and Hamilton to hand Ferrari the initiative.

However, Mercedes were handed a minor boost after Carlos Sainz was a surprise eliminee in Q1.

A day after he crashed out in practice, Sainz bemoaned traffic for his lowly 16th grid slot.

It emerged earlier this week that Hamilton’s father and one-time manager Anthony had enquired about a seat for his son at Red Bull.

Hamilton has recorded just one podium in his last six appearances following Mercedes’ tumble down the grid, and he faces an uphill task to salvage a respectable result at the Yas Marina Circuit.

“There is something not right with this car, mate,” said the 38-year-old as he headed back to the pits shaking his head.

Hamilton is third in the standings, an extraordinary 317 points Verstappen, with the Dutchman starting Sunday’s 58-lap race as the overwhelming favourite to claim a remarkable 19th victory from the 22 rounds this year.

Verstappen finished 0.139 seconds ahead of Leclerc, while McLaren’s Lando Norris was a disappointing fifth. The British driver got out of shape on his final lap in the last sector, losing him considerable time.

“The whole weekend has been a struggle,” said Verstappen. “But we improved the car for qualifying so I am very happy to be on pole.”

Quizzed about Ferrari’s battle against Mercedes, Leclerc said: “I hope it is going to go well.

“The target is to beat them, so I hope Carlos get a good start and joins me in the fight.

“Let’s look to put both of our cars in front of Mercedes because finishing second in the constructors is all that matters to me.”

Elsewhere, Yuki Tsunoda impressed to take sixth spot for AlphaTauri, one place ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso. Sergio Perez’s final lap was deleted for exceeding track limits, leaving him in ninth.

Lewis Hamilton fears Mercedes could lose second spot to Ferrari in the constructors’ championship after he admitted it will be a scramble to qualify in the top 10 for Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topped practice at the Yas Marina Circuit, seeing off McLaren’s Lando Norris by just 0.043 seconds, with world champion Max Verstappen third.

But George Russell and Hamilton finished only sixth and eighth respectively for Mercedes, with the latter half a second behind Leclerc.

Mercedes, who are facing up to their first winless season since 2011, hold only a four-point lead over Ferrari heading into Sunday’s finale in the desert.

And Hamilton said: “It was not the greatest of days. We have had difficult qualifying sessions this year, and getting out of Q1 and into Q2 has always been a tough battle, and getting into Q3 is a challenge.

“The work tomorrow is to try and get into Q3. But it is going to be close.”

Hamilton completed only four timed laps on Friday. He made way for the team’s Danish junior driver Frederik Vesti in the opening running, before a combined 30-minute delay wiped out half of the one-hour second session after Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg both crashed out.

Russell fared better than Hamilton, but he still finished three tenths behind Leclerc.

However, it was not a day without incident for Ferrari following Sainz’s crash.

A week after a loose drain cover tore through his Ferrari in Las Vegas, Sainz was in the wars again, but on this occasion it was through driver error.

Sainz – who appeared to be put off by another car arriving from the pits – lost control of his machine through turn three and ended up in the barrier.

Although the Spaniard was unharmed in the high-speed smash after just eight and a half minutes, he sustained significant damage to his car, with the sidepods, floor, rear suspension and front wing of his Ferrari all destroyed.

Sainz’s impact also left the barrier in a mess, and a 22-minute delay ensued as the tyre wall was repaired.

But only moments after the running restarted, the red flag was out again – this time after Nico Hulkenberg crashed on the exit of turn one.

On cold tyres, the German was too hasty on the throttle, sliding into the barrier before pulling up in his wounded machine.

The stoppages arrived as a blow to half the grid who sat out the opening session as 10 rookie drivers – including three Britons – were earlier blooded at the Yas Marina Circuit.

British drivers Zak O’Sullivan, 18, and Jake Dennis, 28, made their Formula One weekend debuts for Williams and Red Bull respectively, while Ollie Bearman, 18, who in Mexico became the youngest debutant from Britain at a Grand Prix, was handed his second practice appearance by Haas.

Dennis, in Verstappen’s Red Bull machine which Hamilton has described as the fastest ever seen in F1, finished 16th of the 20 runners, 1.1 secs off the pace.

O’Sullivan was 18th – seven tenths behind Williams’ Logan Sargeant – with Bearman 20th and last, albeit only a tenth slower than Kevin Magnussen in the other Haas.

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