Formula 1 preview: Max Verstappen aims title hattrick at start of new season
Max Verstappen has yet to win a Formula One season-opener or the Bahrain Grand Prix but Red Bull's double world champion can tick both boxes at Sakhir on Sunday and start where he left off last year. The Dutch 25-year-old won 15 races in 2022 including the final one in Abu Dhabi and showed in testing last week that he again has the car to beat. There will be no complacency, however, after starting on the front row in Bahrain last year but retiring three laps from the finish while in second place.
In 2021 he led all three practice sessions and started on pole position -- only to end up second to Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton after having to hand back the lead late on for exceeding track limits.
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Verstappen was also second in the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix and crashed out of the Sakhir Grand Prix that followed at the same circuit.
He retired in three of the five previous Bahrain Grands Prix.
Verstappen led the championship last year from the sixth round in Spain, which means another win on Sunday would stretch his run as championship leader to 18 races in a row.
Red Bull fully expect Verstappen to be even better this season as he chases a third title in a row and starting off on top of the podium is one immediate way to do it.
"He's been in a great place for the last few years now and I think he's at a stage in his career now where his confidence is obviously very high, he's got that experience and he just gets in and turns it on," said team boss Christian Horner.
"Physically he's in great shape and excited to start the season."
Charles Leclerc won in Bahrain last year in a Ferrari one-two from pole position with Carlos Sainz, and with fastest lap thrown in. Repeating the feat would be the perfect start for new team boss Fred Vasseur.
Ferrari could be Red Bull's closest rivals, with Mercedes fixing the bouncing that tormented the team early last year but seemingly still lacking some performance.
Just how much remains to be seen, with Sunday's floodlit race the real test after weeks of car launches and fighting talk.
"We've got to go in with a bit of an open mind," said George Russell, who took the team's sole win last year while seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton -- a five-times winner in Bahrain -- drew a blank for the first time in his career.
"Red Bull look very, very strong but everybody is working flat out to get Mercedes back on top."
The evidence from testing suggests Aston Martin could be challenging for the podium although they have yet to say who will be partnering new recruit and double world champion Fernando Alonso.
Lance Stroll is still dealing with the effects of a cycle crash in Spain and the team, owned by his billionaire father Lawrence, have said Brazilian reserve Felipe Drugovich will race if the Canadian cannot.
Aston Martin have given Stroll as much time as possible before deciding, with Alonso still settling in after joining from Renault-owned Alpine at the end of last season.
U.S. rookie Logan Sargeant, at Williams, and Australian Oscar Piastri at McLaren, will be making race debuts while AlphaTauri's Nyck de Vries prepares for his second race start after filling in for Alex Albon at Williams for Monza last year.