The 24-year-old lapped the 5.4km floodlit Sakhir track in one minute 31.936 seconds, beating Leclerc by 0.087 seconds. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was over half a second back in third.
“It’s been a positive day for us, really,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.
“Both in the warmer conditions earlier in the day and that last session, the short run and the long run both looked pretty decent … we’re pretty satisfied with today’s running.”
Verstappen, who sealed his first title at a controversial season finale in Abu Dhabi last year, had ended last week’s pre-season test at the same Sakhir track with the fastest time.
Number ☝️ under the Bahrain lights ?✨ https://t.co/m84nNM5sAj
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) 1647631320000
Ferrari have also been fast and reliable in pre-season running and, along with Red Bull, have been tipped as the early favourites.
Mercedes, gunning for a ninth consecutive constructors’ crown, have struggled to dial their car into the Sakhir circuit’s layout and appeared to be lagging behind.
New recruit George Russell was just over half a second off Verstappen’s pace in fourth, while team mate Lewis Hamilton was 1.2 seconds slower than the Dutchman’s time in ninth.
“As you can see, we’re a long way off,” said Hamilton, again adding that he did not expect Mercedes to be in the fight for victory on Sunday.
Fastest in FP2 ? Max tops the session with a 1:31.936 and Checo is P7 with a 1:32.958 ? #BahrainGP ?? https://t.co/tMNkI97xWh
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) 1647619481000
“We’re not bluffing like before like people assume we are. We’ll work as hard as we can through it and do what we can.”
Aston Martin’s Nico Hulkenberg, standing in for Sebastian Vettel, who has tested positive for COVID-19, ended 17th, only a tenth off his team mate Lance Stroll in 16th.
Haas’s F1 returnee Kevin Magnussen, replacing sacked Russian Nikita Mazepin, ended the day 10th behind Hamilton.
His team mate Mick Schumacher was eighth, marking an encouraging start to the season for the outfit.
Good first day back at the office, the car felt great today?Let’s keep this thing going into the weekend ?… https://t.co/Q8GkO7sND3
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) 1647626076000
Daniel Ricciardo, back in his McLaren after having recovered from COVID-19, completed just 12 laps in the second session to end the day 18th. His team mate Lando Norris was 11th.
Friday’s practice in Bahrain marked the start of a new era for Formula One, featuring cars that have been drastically redesigned in a bid to improve the racing spectacle as part of the biggest rules overhaul in decades.