The Friday in F1 Sakhir GP had newness not only due to a different circuit layout but also with three drivers in new environment, where two made their debuts.

It was the first time in years that Friday in F1 started without Lewis Hamilton, who is missing his first grand prix in over 200 races. The Sakhir GP already got interesting with George Russell put up in his place and he did well to top both the sessions.

His one lap pace has certainly impressed everyone at Williams and it continued at Mercedes albeit Valtteri Bottas had his troubles but overall, Russell wasn’t too far behind. His race pace, however, wasn’t hugely impressive, which is what will be tested on Sunday.

Russell acknowledged Bottas’ troubles and didn’t want to take away anything from the Finn. “It was a good first day in the W11 but there’s definitely work to be done,” he said, as he continued to face some issues with the seat. “The new track layout is very different to the usual layout here and it’s not an easy track to say the least.

“It’s going to be very tight in qualifying and we can probably expect a dramatic race. It’s been good to be working with the team and I’m learning a lot every single lap I’m in the car. I think my lap times are a bit deceiving at the moment and not the true representation of the pace. I struggled on the high fuel runs in FP2 and ultimately that’s going to be key on Sunday.

“The Red Bulls were quick on the long runs and Valtteri was quickest in FP2 but had his lap time deleted. It’s going to be close, so we’ll get our heads down tonight. There’s still a lot of work to do to get comfortable in the car and with the set-up,” summed up Russel, as Bottas revealed what troubled in FP1 and why FP2 was better even if times not set.

He went over the kerbs at Turn 8 in FP1, which meant, he couldn’t improve on his time. In FP2, he felt better but couldn’t set a quick lap due to track limits. Like Russell, he conceded that Red Bull looked quicker on race pace. “There’s quite a bit of work to do on my side to get everything together for F1 qualifying,” he said.

“The new section of track is really technical and bumpy, so it’s quite challenging and really easy to lose a tenth. On such a short track, in qualifying that could make all the difference. It’s going to be intense with so many cars on track, too, so it’s going to be really important to get clean laps in and prioritise the gaps,” summed up Bottas.

Over at Red Bull, they weren’t thinking too far ahead. Max Verstappen is not hugely happy still with the set-up despite showing good race pace and finishing second in both practice sessions. “It was tricky out there and balance wise we haven’t quite found the optimum set-up, especially on the short runs,” he said. “The long runs were definitely an improvement and looked quite good this evening but even there we can do better.

“The track is not the most exciting to drive and because it is such a short lap the radio is constantly open with traffic warnings about other cars. The second sector it is quite blind for a lot of corners and it isn’t going to be easy when we need to cool the tyres before doing a second push lap and I think it could actually be quite dangerous.

“We never know exactly where we are on a Friday but Valtteri’s lap was cancelled so it looks like we are a couple of tenths off Mercedes,” summed up Verstappen, who noted about potential danger, which was echoed by McLaren’s Carlos Sainz. The Dutchman’s teammate Albon, meanwhile, had a decent run too, to be third and fifth.

He seemed closer to Verstappen in the one-lap pace but was off in race pace, even though, he was up there with Mercedes and also Racing Point. He felt he lost some grip in FP2 but overall feels positive about a good fight. The thorn for him will again be Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, who was up there with the pack after finishing third in FP2.

Perez feels confident as well, even though, he feels qualifying will be close. “I’m optimistic about our chances this F1 weekend after a positive day on track,” he said. I think we can aim for a strong result, but it has really shown just how close qualifying is going to be. The margins will be tight and that means putting everything together over a single lap is going to be crucial.

“It was a challenge taking on the new layout: the middle sector is particularly tricky because the kerbs are quite aggressive. It’s tempting to use them but it’s so easy to make a mistake if you misjudge it – so getting the middle sector right is very important,” he said as teammate Lance Stroll echoed his views after a Top 10 result.

The battle for third in the F1 constructors’ championship took take another step and AlphaTauri may be a hindrance, especially for McLaren after the Friday they had. The Renault looked in a better shape, where Esteban Ocon was ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the both the sessions and in fact, ended up fourth in FP2 – ahead of Albon even.

The Frenchman has shown glimpses of performances like these but has lost out to Ricciardo in qualifying and the race. “We found a bit more in FP2 where we made a step and we’re pleased with that,” said Ocon. “The long runs in FP2 were decent and I had some battles with some other cars, so that was fun. It’s promising for qualifying when we need to put everything together and make it happen.

“The new track is very technical and very different to last week. We’re on lower downforce and we’re arriving quicker into the corners, but I think we’ve adapted quite quickly to it,” summed up Ocon, as Ricciardo felt he would find some pace, seeing the quick laps from his teammate. While Renault were optimistic, it was a bit of gloom at McLaren.

Sainz was surprised how the pecking order changed from last F1 weekend to this but is taking confidence from the past races where McLaren has managed to come back stronger. Lando Norris, meanwhile, regarded it to be a ‘messy’ day as well, where he made a mistake to cause a floor damage and then had a power unit issue.

Regarding the F1 layout being dangerous, Sainz stated: “We need to find a way to make sure it doesn’t become dangerous, because at the moment, it’s a bit on the limit of dangerous. It’s tricky. I mean, we’re all trying to be as sensible and as safe as we can, but this track is offering us some challenges in terms of traffic management. I think that there’s some ideas that as teams and drivers we put out there to the FIA to make it easier around the chicane in the middle sector, but we need to find a solution because I think it’s on the limit of getting a bit dangerous.”

A similar gloom was at Ferrari side as well, where Charles Leclerc lost whole of FP2 due to driveshaft issue. Despite that the Monegasque feels to be in a good space but the same cannot be said for Sebastian Vettel, who had double spin and struggled to find the grip. He revealed that they tried something to make the car aggressive but it didn’t work. “We have had a mixed day: the first session was ok, the second was horrible,” he said.

“We tried some setting changes on the F1 car, but the result was a very aggressive car, which is not what we needed. I  we can close the gap and get back on the right track. This track configuration is maybe a bit too short, almost over before it begins, but it’s ok. Turn 4 is more or less as it was last week, a bit faster because it opens up, then it is bumpy between turn 7 and 8 where the kerbs are very aggressive.

“This part is quite tricky but it’s not bad. With 20 cars on track, Q1 will be very tight especially because of the traffic: we have to go very slowly on the cool-down laps to bring the tyre temperatures down and this complicates things. I hope all the drivers will manage to get a clean lap without being impeded, or having too much trouble with traffic. It will be very tight and a few hundredths will make the difference,” he summed up.

Aside from the foremost teams, AlphaTauri were also top performers on Friday, when both cars finished within the top ten in both FP1 and FP2. It was an uneventful day, bar a notable incident involving Pierre Gasly, when the Frenchman had a mirror failure in FP1 and his hand being struck by gravel from Bottas.

Gasly forecasted a chaotic F1 qualifying and encouraged others to ‘behave’, also saying of the car’s pace that “it was good,” echoing his teammate Daniil Kvyat’s message that the car’s balance was good. Alfa Romeo duo Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen enjoyed impressive pace, picking up 14th and 15th places respectively in FP1, before each picking up two positions in FP2 to come 12th and 13th in the same order.

The latter says he is hopeful that the team can further improve for Saturday, while the former expressed that he is confidence in strong pace they’ve displayed. At Haas, there was a revised F1 line-up with Pietro Fittipaldi driving in lieu of the injured Romain Grosjean. Although FP1 saw the Brazilian make a mistake and flat-spot his tyres on the way to 19th, he improved in FP2 to only be about half a second off his teammate Kevin Magnussen.

Personally, Fittipaldi improved from 57.077s to 56.110s from FP1 to FP2, which was indeed a good step. It was not only praised by Guenther Steiner but also Magnussen, who finished 14th in FP2 after a 17th in FP1. “It’s been a year since I’ve driven a F1 car, eight months since I’ve driven anything on track,” he said. “I took the day step-by-step, I just kept my focus and kept calm. I was really happy with the day.

“The team have helped me with everything, the engineers did a great job talking me through things, and the mechanics have done a great job as well. The only set-back was in FP1, we had a lock-up that damaged my tires, I couldn’t do any further running. I kept my cool and we just went into FP2 and got through our run plan. I’ll make another step, slowly turn up the volume, and push when it comes to qualifying.”

Similar to Fittipaldi, Williams’ Jack Aitken – another F1 debutant – filling in for Russell, had a good run despite an off moment in FP1. He went from 57.187s to 56.260s from first to second as he ended up only 0.476s off Nicholas Latifi in FP2. “We spent the first few laps in FP1 refreshing what I did during FP1 in Austria, so it was all pretty familiar, and I got up to speed quickly,” said the British-Korean driver.

“There is some work to be done on our one lap pace, but the race form was encouraging so I am pretty happy. We built some solid foundations, so I am looking forward to getting into qualifying. It will be tough in qualifying; keeping your wits about you and being aware and hopefully we can be on the right side of things,” summed up Aitken.

The FIA, meanwhile, released the COVID-19 update of the 6,770 tests undertaken between November 27 and December 3. There were a total of seven positive cases which included the already known case of Hamilton as Pirelli’s Mario Isola returned to the F1 track. The overall tally now sits at 91 from over 60000 tests done since the re-start of 2020.

Here’s how the F1 Sakhir GP FP1 panned out

Here’s how the F1 Sakhir GP FP2 panned out

Here’s last weekend’s COVID-19 news from F1