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F1 starts longest season with Red Bull still the team to beat in 2024

F1 starts longest season with Red Bull still the team to beat in 2024
Dutch driver Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing during the pre-season testing for the 2024 Formula One season at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, on 21 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER)

The 2024 Formula One season starts in Bahrain this weekend. Will it be business as usual for the dominant Red Bull team, or are there surprises in store?

The longest season in Formula One history, a record 24 races, revs up for a Saturday start in Bahrain. What could be a long haul for rivals hoping to close the gap and beat Max Verstappen’s dominant Red Bull team.

The evidence from the three days of testing at Sakhir circuit last week was that the champions, winners of all but one of the 22 grands prix last year, were set to pick up where they left off. 

Despite team principal Christian Horner fighting for his future in the face of allegations, which he denies, from a female employee about his conduct, Red Bull have looked untroubled. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Verstappen seals third F1 title and 14th grand prix win of season

Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin all made the right noises about their new cars, confident gremlins had been removed and performance improved, but the real proof has yet to come.

The suspicion is that when the flag drops on Saturday night, with the first two rounds of the season in the Middle East held a day earlier than usual to accommodate Ramadan, Red Bull will be first across the line. 

As McLaren team principal Andrea Stella told reporters in Bahrain: “There’s one car that seems to have found a big step. Unfortunately, (that’s) the car that was already the quickest last year.” 

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is aiming for a fourth straight world title in 2024. (Photo: Michael Potts / Gallo Images)

Panic buttons

The hope, for fans wanting closer racing at the front and yearning for change after Red Bull’s run of 38 wins in the last 44 races, is that the gap — if as feared — will close as the season progresses.

The regulations have been stable for a while and that in itself usually sees a tightening of the field. 

“There’s more races now so there’s more track time, more data, more understanding, more looking at other cars and seeing what developments they bring,” Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo told Reuters. 

“I don’t think anyone’s pressing any panic buttons. It’s a long season and developments can make big changes.” 

Ferrari, the only team to beat Red Bull last year, lapped fastest in testing, but Mercedes were also buoyed by a much less “spiteful” car than its predecessor. 

“We’re looking alright,” Mercedes technical director James Allison said after testing. “I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that (Red Bull) have got their noses and perhaps a bit more of their face in front of those of us that are chasing. 

“But I think we’ll make a good fist of the chasing and hopefully just develop strongly through the year.” 

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is in his final season with Mercedes. He will join Ferrari in 2025. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER)

Driver Speculation

The season will be seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton’s farewell to Mercedes, before the sport’s most successful driver heads to Ferrari in 2025 as replacement for Spaniard Carlos Sainz. 

Who takes over Hamilton’s seat will be a talking point for months to come, as will uncertainty over Verstappen’s future teammate, with Mexican Sergio Perez out of contract at the end of this year. 

Speculation is swirling around before a wheel has turned in anger and, with more than half the grid coming to the end of contracts, will run and run.

China returns for the first time since 2019, and Italy’s Imola is back after last year’s race had to be cancelled due to flooding. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lewis Hamilton in shock move to Ferrari from 2025

There will again be six sprint weekends, with Miami and Shanghai new to that, and a revised format with the 100km race held on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix. 

There are no rookie drivers and, remarkably, no changes to lineups since the end of 2023. 

There are new team bosses, with Netflix Drive to Survive favourite Guenther Steiner replaced by Ayao Komatsu at Haas, and Laurent Mekies now in charge at the rebranded Visa Cash App RB (previously AlphaTauri). 

Sauber-run Alfa Romeo are now racing as Stake F1, where gambling laws permit. 

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner walks at the paddock during the pre-season testing for the 2024 Formula One season at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, on 23 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER)

Talking Points

Red Bull domination

The champions enjoyed the most dominant season ever last year, with 21 wins in 22 races and triple world champion Max Verstappen winning 19 of them. How far ahead will Red Bull be this year and when will rivals close the gap, if at all?

Horner investigation

Horner has denied allegations against him, which have not been revealed, but will he stay or go? The departure of the longest serving team boss, and one of the most successful, would be seismic and have serious implications for the champions.

Hamilton’s Mercedes farewell

Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton is starting his last season with Mercedes before donning the red overalls of Ferrari for at least two years. Has the 39-year-old made the right call, can he win again with Mercedes? Have Mercedes finally got it right after two years of struggling? 

Silly season

This one is likely to run and run, with more than half the grid out of contract at the end of 2024, and some top seats available. Who replaces Hamilton? Where will Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz end up? Will Daniel Ricciardo take Sergio Perez’s place at Red Bull Racing? Is Williams’ Alex Albon set for a move? Who is going to end up without a seat for 2025?

Fernando Alonso

The double-world champion turns 43 in July. How much longer will the Spaniard go on for, can the most experienced driver of all time add to his tally of 32 wins, and where will he be driving next season?

F1 driver Charles Leclerc of Ferrari during the pre-season testing for the 2024 Formula One season at Bahrain International Circuit on 23 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ALI HAIDER)

B Team

AlphaTauri’s morphing into Visa Cash App RB has also come with new leadership and closer ties with sister team Red Bull Racing. McLaren’s Zak Brown has questioned Red Bull’s ownership of two teams and the advantages that brings.

Burnout

With 24 races to get through, some team members including mechanics could be feeling the strain as the months go by. Expect this to become an increasingly discussed subject.

Sprint races

A new schedule this season so that Saturday is no longer a standalone sprint day. The sprint qualifying “shootout” is now on Friday, and the 100km race on Saturday morning before qualifying for the grand prix later that day.

FIA and F1

Relations between the sport’s commercial rights holders and the governing body were combative at times last year. Expect more of the same in 2024. 

Andretti

Turned down by F1 as a potential 11th team for 2025, but with a door held open for 2028, the General Motors-backed Andretti Cadillac bid is not about to go away. What will be the next steps? 

First win

Is this the year that McLaren’s Lando Norris takes his first win after six second places in 2023? Or will he claim the outright record for most podiums without a win, one he shares with retired German Nick Heidfeld (13).

New bosses and names

Ayao Komatsu has taken over at Haas and Laurent Mekies at RB. Sauber-run Alfa Romeo are now competing as Stake F1, where betting laws permit, or the alternative name of Kick. Expect many fans to just refer to them as Sauber. Reuters/DM

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