Sport

FIGHTING TORQUE

‘This is not sustainable’ — F1’s long season has unhappy drivers sputtering

‘This is not sustainable’ — F1’s long season has unhappy drivers sputtering
Carlos Sainz of Spain in the Ferrari SF-24 on day three of F1 testing at the Bahrain International Circuit on 23 February 2024. (Photo: Clive Mason / Getty Images)

‘Drive to Survive’ gets a new meaning for racers as an extended F1 series takes to the grid in the Middle East.

Triple Formula 1 champion Max Verstappen (26) is unimpressed with ever-lengthening Grand Prix seasons. He said in the build-up to the 2024 season opener in Bahrain that the sport was “way over the limit” of races on the calendar. It will be a record 24-round season.

The Red Bull driver is the clear favourite to win the world title for a fourth successive time. But, even with this streak, he says calendar expansion is wearing thin.

“I’ve said it before – this is not sustainable,” Verstappen told reporters at the Bahrain International Circuit. “I love racing a lot and I do it a lot, also outside of Formula 1.

“But if people in the sport start shortening their careers because it’s too much, I think that’s a shame. Hopefully we can have a look at that for the future.”

Formula 1’s popularity has soared in recent years, driven in part by the success of the Netflix documentary Drive to Survive.

Formula 1 commercial rights holder Liberty Media has capitalised by adding new venues in the Middle East, some returning classics in Europe and three races in the US, with Miami and Las Vegas joining the long-time fixture in Austin.

Alonso is also unhappy

Teams have begun to rotate personnel to cope with the demands of the calendar, and preseason testing this year was reduced to just three days.

Spain’s double world champion Fernando Alonso (42), a veteran who made his debut in 2001, echoed Verstappen and recalled the days when there were fewer than 20 races.

“When I started, we had 16 races. Then it was 18 at some point, and then I think when Liberty came it was… 20 one season, and that was absolutely the limit: 20 races,” said the Aston Martin driver.

“And now we are up to 24 and this is not sustainable. Even the world champion thinks this [season] is a little bit long.”

Verstappen has led the Formula 1 standings since May 2022 and, though he is the favourite in Bahrain, there is always the possibility of his record 39-race run coming to an end.

F1 Verstappen

Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing at the Bahrain International Circuit. (Photo: ANP via Getty Images)

He and Red Bull enjoyed the most dominant campaign yet in 2023, with the team winning all but one of the 22 races. Verstappen, who started 2023 by leading Sergio Perez to a one-two victory, won 19 of them and surpassed Michael Schumacher’s 2000-02 record of 37 successive races in the championship lead. The Dutch driver signed off with seven wins in a row and the evidence from last week’s preseason testing in Bahrain suggested the streak would continue.

“We had a good few testing days and learned a lot from the car,” said Verstappen. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and we still need to make sure we do everything right to have a strong first weekend.

“All in all, I am excited to get the season under way and start racing again.”

Under a cloud

Red Bull are celebrating their 20th season, but the anniversary comes with a cloud after team principal Christian Horner survived an inquiry into allegations of misconduct towards a female colleague.

Red Bull issued a statement after an independent investigation, over which the team had no control.

“Red Bull can confirm that the grievance has been dismissed,” a spokesperson said.

“Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.”

Horner, who is married to former Spice Girls singer Geri Halliwell, had denied the allegations against him and continued to lead the team during the investigation in what he said was business as normal.

“The investigation report is confidential and contains the private information of the parties and third parties who assisted in the investigation, and therefore we will not be commenting further out of respect for all concerned,” the statement said.

Rivals will be keen to seize on any weakness, but they are likely to be engaged in a battle to be the best of the rest.

Ferrari have shown encouraging speed and put in impressive mileage, with Carlos Sainz going fastest on the second day of testing and teammate Charles Leclerc topping the final day’s timesheets.

Testing timesheets are notoriously misleading, however, because teams run different programmes and fuel levels.

F1 Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes looks on during previews before the Bahrain Grand Prix on 28 February 2024. (Photo: Eric Alonso / Getty Images)

Rivals are all quietly confident

“We can be pleased with what we’ve achieved during this test,” said Frederic Vasseur, heading into his second season at the helm of the Italian team.

Mercedes are also quietly confident, having redesigned their car to make it “less spiteful”. The team en­­dured their first winless season since 2011 last year and George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who last won in 2021 and is heading to Ferrari next year, will be looking for progress with the car.

“The drivers are much happier with the overall balance,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “It’s a good foundation that we can build on.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Let’s get ready to grumble’ – Formula One drivers complain about showbiz elements, but the sport is thriving

McLaren, who made huge strides last season, will be keen to keep the momentum going, whereas Alonso is hoping to add to his podium tally for Aston Martin.

The rebranded Visa Cash App RB team will also be eager to make its mark as a sister team to Red Bull, as will Sauber, who will run under the Stake and Kick names in different races this season.

The grid for Bahrain will feature an unchanged driver line-up.

The race and the next round at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia a week later are being held on a Saturday to allow the Middle Eastern kingdoms to host races before the start of Ramadan. Reuters/DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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