Lewis Hamilton kicks off his bid for a record eighth Formula One championship in Bahrain on Sunday, but Red Bull rival Max Verstappen can strike an early blow at the floodlit Sakhir circuit.
The 23-year-old Dutch driver was the last winner of 2020 in Abu Dhabi, ending six years of Mercedes success at Yas Marina, and has a good chance of kicking off the new season where he left off.
"Now I have to deliver and the team has to deliver so we can try and mount a title fight," said Verstappen. "I like the Bahrain track and it will be exciting to see our performance. It's time to see who has got what."
Verstappen was fastest in practice on Friday as his Red Bull team immediately lived up to expectations that have soared since testing. He set a best time of 1 minute 31.394 seconds in the afternoon and 1:30.847 in the evening.
Verstappen was also quickest on two of three days of testing two weeks ago at Bahrain's Sakhir circuit while Mercedes looked strangely off-form.
Bahrain will be the first race of a marathon, record 23-race season — pandemic permitting — after 17 rounds last year confined to Europe and the Middle East.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on the podium at the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix. (Reuters)
More Friday practice results
Four teams -- Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Ferrari -- were within four tenths of a second in the more representative second practice with Mercedes-powered McLaren's Lando Norris second and 0.095 slower.
Hamilton was third for Mercedes in 1:31.082.
"It's been alright. A good feeling in the car," said Verstappen, who won the last race of 2020 in Abu Dhabi. "Overall I'm pretty happy.
"I still expect Mercedes to be the strongest Mercedes-powered car."
Valtteri Bottas, who has won F1's opening race for the past two years, was second fastest in that session but fifth in the later one when he complained the car was "undriveable."
The Mercedes drivers had struggled with the car's handling in pre-season testing, and particularly the skittish rear end, but seemed to have found more speed and stability in the two weeks since then.
"I think we have taken a step forward but we still have more to do," said Hamilton. "We still have a hill to climb, but we're staying positive."
New Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz was fourth fastest in session two, with teammate Charles Leclerc fifth in the earlier one.
Mexican Sergio Perez, Verstappen's new teammate, was sixth and 10th respectively and said he was still getting a feeling for the car.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, taking Sainz's place at McLaren, was ninth and sixth.
Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel was 12th and 14th for Aston Martin, after moving from Ferrari, with Canadian teammate Lance Stroll 13th and eighth.
"I feel there's still a lot left on the table just to get used to the car and being able to squeeze the limit," said Vettel.
Twice world champion Fernando Alonso returned after two years out for his first practice session since 2018 and was 15th for Alpine in the second session with the team focusing on aerodynamic developments.
"It felt amazing to be back and you feel different to testing. Racing is racing, and today I had that feeling, so I enjoyed the two sessions so much," said the 39-year-old Spaniard.
Rookie Mick Schumacher, son of Ferrari great Michael, ended the day 18th for Haas.
"I felt comfortable in the car, which is a good sign," said the German. "I know there’s a lot to improve from my side still, as a driver I know I have the tools to improve the lap time."
Threats to Mercedes
Bahrain will give some early indications of any change in the pecking order, with Mercedes winning five of the last seven races there on the regular grand prix circuit and Hamilton the last two.
Verstappen's new teammate Perez won the most recent race at Sakhir, however, on the outer layout used for the first time in December — meaning Red Bull's latest lineup have won the last two races.
The last time Mercedes lost three races in a row was in 2019 when Ferrari was its closest rival.
Hamilton's Finnish teammate Bottas has won the last two season openers, in Australia and Austria, and will be eager for a hat trick. This year's Australia race has been postponed to November because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mercedes is one of only three teams with an unchanged lineup — the others are Williams and Alfa Romeo — and Sunday will see a string of firsts.
The Schumacher name, and the screen abbreviation MSC, will be back for the first time since Ferrari great Michael's farewell in 2012 as his 22-year-old son Mick debuts for Haas.
Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin also lines up for Haas while Japan's Yuki Tsunoda makes his first race appearance for Red Bull-owned AlphaTauri.
Vettel will be racing for Aston Martin, making a return as a constructor for the first time since 1960 as the rebranded Racing Point, after leaving Ferrari.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo has switched from Renault to McLaren in place of Spaniard Carlos Sainz who has joined Ferrari as Charles Leclerc's teammate.
"This season looks like it’s going to be a competitive one, but I’m looking to hit the ground running, leave nothing on the table," said Ricciardo.
Renault have morphed into Alpine, with double world champion Alonso returning after a two-year absence from the starting grid to make his 312th start.