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Red Bull and Ferrari also appeared to be closely matched when the teams simulated race fuel loads later in the session, with Verstappen and Leclerc lapping at a similar pace, albeit on a very small sample of laps.

The evidence of the day seemed to confirm that Mercedes are struggling for pace at the start of this season, in which Formula 1 has introduced the biggest regulation change for 40 years in an attempt to close up the field and make the racing more competitive.

The Mercedes car did not look comfortable to drive. The drivers were suffering from “porpoising” on the straight – the consequence of an aerodynamic phenomenon to which these cars are prone in which the downforce level fluctuates at high speed, causing the car to bounce.

Hamilton was also complaining of problems with his front brakes and his DRS overtaking aid.

Russell’s lap suggests the Mercedes have the potential to be third fastest team but they look to be a significant margin behind Red Bull and Ferrari, although a definitive picture will not be seen until after qualifying on Saturday.

Russell said: “We are not where we want to be. We have made a bit of progress solving some issues but the pace is just not there at all at the moment.

“We’re a long way off the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari and even Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo seem to be on our pace or even quicker.”

Hamilton added: “It appears as if it is going to be a longer term fix.

“It’s the balance and the bouncing and the loss of downforce we have compared to others. We are a long way off. We’re not bluffing like people assumed we were. It is what it is. We will work as hard as we can through it and do what we can.

“I am just realistic. We are not going to be in the race for a win here. The Red Bulls are a long way ahead. It is in the region of 0.8-0.9secs ahead of us and Ferrari are something like 0.6secs ahead of us. We are fighting with whoever is behind them.”

Analysis of the practice data suggests that the Red Bull is the quickest car, with the Ferrari close behind, while Mercedes will be battling with the group some margin behind that, with McLaren, Alpha Tauri and Alpine.

Hamilton said at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on Friday: “There will be some sort of fine for missing the gala but we have worked together to make sure the money will be put towards youth from underprivileged backgrounds getting into motorsports engineering.”

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Hamilton, who lost out on an eighth world title after the FIA race director failed to follow the rules correctly in Abu Dhabi, has launched a foundation to support students from minority backgrounds into science, technology, engineering and maths courses as part of his drive to increase diversity in motorsport.

And last year he created a commission to look into the reasons for the lack of representation of minority ethnic students in such areas.

An FIA statement said Hamilton and Ben Sulayem had met to “discuss the work done by the FIA and key motorsport stakeholders to build greater diversity in the motorsport industry”.

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