Lewis Hamilton writes off Bahrain chances after disappointing practice showing

Lewis Hamilton said he will not be able to win Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix after he finished a distant ninth in practice.

Hamilton arrived for the opening round of the Formula One season fearing his Mercedes machine would not be a contender for victory.

And, while times in practice are treated with caution as teams trial different tyres, fuel loads and engine settings, Hamilton’s concerns became reality.

The Briton, seventh in the first action of the day, then finished an eye-watering 1.2 seconds behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – the man who denied him a record eighth title at last season’s contentious decider in Abu Dhabi – and six tenths adrift of his new Mercedes team-mate George Russell.

Ferrari followed up their encouraging pre-season form, with Charles Leclerc second and Carlos Sainz third in the other scarlet car. Russell finished fourth.

“I am just realistic, and at the moment, like I told you last week, we are not going to be in the race for a win,” said Hamilton.

“If you look at the Red Bulls, they are a long, long way ahead, in the region of eight to nine tenths, and Ferrari are half a second to six tenths ahead.

“So we are a long way off, and we are not bluffing like people assumed we were.

“We have had small problems in the past, but we are faced with much, much bigger problems this year, and everything we do to try and fix it doesn’t really change that.

“It appears as though this will be a long-term fix and not one for the short term.

“The mindset is still to be the best we can be. It is not ideal but we will pull together and try and fix it.”

Ninety-six days on from the final race of last year’s gripping and controversial title duel, Hamilton was back on track for his 16th campaign on the grid.

The sport has undergone its biggest rule change in a generation, with the cars radically revised in a bid to provide closer racing.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team might have dominated in recent times, winning the past eight constructors’ championships, but there is a growing feeling they will not start the new campaign anywhere near the top of the tree.

The Silver Arrows have struggled with ‘porpoising’ – the phenomenon seen this year when the car violently bounces on its suspension at 200mph.

Early on in Friday’s second running under the lights, and amid a flurry of sparks, Hamilton said: “It’s still bouncing a lot.”

He later complained that there was something wrong with his front brakes.

For Verstappen, there were no such concerns as his bid to defend his crown started in the best possible fashion. And there was good news for Ferrari, too.

Leclerc, the 24-year-old from Monaco, finished just 0.087sec behind Verstappen as Ferrari go in search of their first drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed in 2007.

Niels Wittich is in the referee’s chair here after Michael Masi was axed as race director and he was called into action in the opening moments of the day’s first action as bodywork fell off Esteban Ocon’s Alpine.

Wittich deployed the red flag for 13 minutes as the debris was removed from the main straight.

Ocon’s team-mate, Fernando Alonso, finished fifth, ahead of Hamilton’s former team-mate Valtteri Bottas, now of Alfa Romeo, in sixth.

Lando Norris was 11th for McLaren, with the returning London-born Alexander Albon propping up the back for Williams.