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Formula 1 Bahrain GP

10 things we learned at the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

The 2024 F1 season began in much the same way 2023 ended, with another Red Bull masterclass. Aside from the similarities at the sharp end, one team's progress on a critical flaw from last year remains hard to gauge, while the biggest off-track talking point still rumbles on. That and much more is what we learned in Bahrain

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Formula 1 racing returned with the new season finally kicking off for real with the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix. But there was so much similar from the overall story of 2023 it rather deflated the whole affair from early on in the 57-lap main event. Max Verstappen appeared to be as in command as ever, while his rivals had their own struggles and his team-mate offered no challenge.

Yet there remain some crumbs of comfort for a more interesting campaign possibly unfolding when viewing the Bahrain event as a whole, plus yet more intrigue into the massive off-track story currently casting a major cloud over F1’s leading team.

Here then, is the pick of what we learned from F1’s 2024 season opener.

1. F1 2024 is so far just like F1 2023

Verstappen pulling away at the front made for familiar viewing after Leclerc's brake problems dropped him back

Verstappen pulling away at the front made for familiar viewing after Leclerc's brake problems dropped him back

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

It all felt so familiar. Verstappen starting alongside Leclerc for the fourth race in a row (although the Monegasque never saw the 2023 Brazil GP start), seeing off the Ferrari at the opening turns, then rapidly dropping it and easing clear to a crushing victory. The new season has begun just how the last one ended.

There was also Ferrari Bahrain car drama, although admittedly nowhere near as bad as in 2023 and so Leclerc isn’t heading to the rapidly-following round two facing an early grid penalty. Plus, Mercedes ended up humbled after its confidence had risen somewhat ahead of the real action starting. And Perez underwhelmed in qualifying with the best car and had to battle back. Again, so 2023.

There were rather notable changes among the frontrunners, however. McLaren reckons it has gained “1.8 seconds”, year-on-year in Bahrain qualifying, per team boss Andrea Stella and it ended up sixth and eighth in the race. Aston Martin, meanwhile, never had the pace to threaten the podium places as it so famously did last season.

2. Horner scandal not as over as he’d hoped

The storm surrounding Horner has yet to blow away

The storm surrounding Horner has yet to blow away

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The Christian Horner scandal had dominated the 2024 launch season and testing, with the Red Bull team and several high-profile other entities – FOM, the FIA and Red Bull Powertrain’s strategic partner, Ford – wanting it wrapped up before the new season started.

That took a significant step towards being the case when Red Bull GmbH’s independent investigation cleared Horner on Wednesday. But the situation was blown to another level when an anonymous email was sent to top F1 figures, including the entire permanent F1 press corps, 27 minutes into Bahrain FP2 the next day, purporting to show evidence central to the case Horner was facing – that he had behaved inappropriately towards a female colleague.

Again, Horner issued denials and refused to discuss the situation, but there was no denying how it had put the spotlight’s harsh glare fully back upon him. This was set against a backdrop of a rumoured internal power struggle within the team.

Jos Verstappen’s assertions on Saturday night that “there is tension here while he remains in position” and “the team is in danger of being torn apart” demonstrates how far this situation is from being really resolved.

3. Perez already under pressure in title 'fight'

Although he recovered to finish second, Perez was again underwhelming in qualifying

Although he recovered to finish second, Perez was again underwhelming in qualifying

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Again, just like in 2023, it appears right now as if it’s up to one driver to inject life into the title battle Verstappen currently doesn’t have: Perez.

But the Mexican driver made his Bahrain race much harder when he “messed up Turn 1 and lost a tenth and a bit” at the very end of qualifying. He added: “And that was enough to take me from probably P2 or P3. We've seen the gaps.”

Perez did make a great start to the race from his fifth-place grid spot by jumping Sainz immediately and being unruffled by their light early contact, then he eased past the hobbled Leclerc before making a great Turn 4 pass on Russell early in the second stint.

But, by this point, Verstappen was gone – his position so strong the Dutchman could pit five laps after his team-mate and then so quickly and commandingly establish the eventual winning lead gap with a big tyre life off-set.

Yet, while the two Red Bull drivers had identical strategies, they did not deploy them in the same manner precisely because Perez was involved in early battles and had to pit earlier than he’d have liked in the penultimate stint to avoid a Sainz undercut.

While this flattered Verstappen in one respect, it showed just what Perez can’t do if he’s ever going to take the fight to his team-mate in 2024.

4. Ferrari's brake issue masks its tyre progress

Lead Ferrari runner Sainz was much closer to the Red Bulls than a year ago, but the red cars didn't have an entirely clean race thanks to brake troubles

Lead Ferrari runner Sainz was much closer to the Red Bulls than a year ago, but the red cars didn't have an entirely clean race thanks to brake troubles

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Ferrari had looked like being Red Bull’s ‘closest’ rival in testing before being somewhat usurped in considerations by Mercedes’ strong start in Bahrain practice. But it hit back in qualifying and should’ve had pole had Leclerc been able to replicate his Q2 speed.

In the race, it never really got a chance to show what it could do. Its lead driver was quickly hobbled by having “more than 100 degrees [temperature] split between from front right and front left”. This left Leclerc constantly locking up and regularly off the road at the Turns 9/10 double left complex and eventually out of the podium fight that Sainz superbly took up.

But the Spaniard was also struggling with “a lot of brake vibrations and the pedal at one point started to go long”. He suggested this was worse when running in traffic and put it down to how “in testing you never put yourself in 10 laps consecutive behind four cars getting all the hot air from the four cars in front and the brakes never cool down”.

This suggests Ferrari went too aggressive with its brake cooling allowances and it proved to be costly for both its drivers, ultimately masking its race pace potential.

Sainz also said: “To come to the most rear-limited track of the season, the highest degradation, and do an overtaking, attacking race for me is a relief.”

This indicates Ferrari’s improved long-run tyre wear from testing has been realised in actual competition, which theoretically makes it a threat in future races where tyres can be pushed longer and Red Bull’s natural advantage is minimised.

5. McLaren’s true 2024 potential is still concealed

McLaren was another team to improve year on year, but just how much it can threaten this season remains unclear

McLaren was another team to improve year on year, but just how much it can threaten this season remains unclear

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“It's no different to last year. Those things we've not been able to tackle, other things which make us so up and down every weekend, it's something I think that made us struggle so much today and the wind changed. Some corners just felt shockingly bad compared to [qualifying].”

Lando Norris was as honest as ever after finishing sixth for McLaren. But to have the same feeling behind the wheel at the McLaren’s Bahrain bogey track, where the team’s ongoing slow-corner weakness is highlighted in several places and produce the qualifying gains Stella mentioned and come away with a double points finish is a good return.

McLaren has reservations about Jeddah up next as “you want to have a good front at apex and this is something we don't have at all”, per Norris. But soon tracks such as Suzuka will put the team back into the higher-speed stuff where it excels.

If McLaren is strong and weak at different points in 2024, the season’s narrative again points towards the battle behind Red Bull swinging around several teams. Ultimately, though, this adds to the leading squad’s advantage as others take points off each other.

6. Mercedes’ cooling miscalculation part of a big Bahrain form swing

Lifting and coasting due to cooling concerns hurt Russell's bid for a podium

Lifting and coasting due to cooling concerns hurt Russell's bid for a podium

Photo by: Mark Sutton

Mercedes was left feeling quietly confident after it had enjoyed an FP2 1-2 with Hamilton ahead. However, it reckoned it had gone too far towards being good over a single lap and so its overnight work ahead of parc ferme coming into play after that session was focused on improving its long-run form given how good Red Bull had looked on Thursday in such stakes.

Russell produced a fine lap to start third, while Hamilton’s form disappeared and he started ninth. In the race, Russell had just started pushing forwards with that fine Turn 4 pass on Leclerc to chase Verstappen with “everything pretty much to plan”, per Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.

“And then, unfortunately,” Wolff added, “we had to start cooling the engine more than we expected.”

This was because “the bodywork was too tight” around the engine, according to Russell. And, from there on, Wolff estimated Mercedes was shipping around 0.5s a lap as it had to turn down its engines and have its drivers lift-and-coast a lot, with a battery issue on top to boot – plus Hamilton’s broken seat as he nevertheless pressed on late in the pack. All told, the team ended up 22s behind Sainz’s third place and was 47s behind the winner.

But, much like Ferrari, such a big problem – also witnessed at Mercedes’ engine customer squad Williams but not its others, McLaren and Aston – suggests the Silver/Black Arrows team should be able to do much better with a clean race run.

7. Hulkenberg's Turn 1 crash hides Haas’s tyre progress

Hulkenberg's clash with Stroll forced him to pit early and denied a potential points finish

Hulkenberg's clash with Stroll forced him to pit early and denied a potential points finish

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

In another 2023 echo, Nico Hulkenberg got a Haas through to Q3 with a superb effort in Q2 while his team-mate, Kevin Magnussen, struggled. But then Hulkenberg’s race from starting 10th was ruined by his Turn 1 contact with Lance Stroll and Valtteri Bottas, for which he must shoulder the majority of the blame given he couldn’t explain how the tangle had started.

Having to pit at the end of lap one for a new front wing meant Hulkenberg was set for a long evening from there, although he did at least recover past the Alpines at the back. But, critically, it all means any assessment on the progress Haas feels it has made on its extreme in-race tyre wear from 2023 remains incomplete.

“This circuit exposes that weakness, so I was pretty happy,” new Haas team principal Ayao Komatsu nevertheless insisted after Magnussen had ended up a battling 12th and Hulkenberg finished 16th.

“Of course, a different circuit, more medium-, high-speed corners circuits like Suzuka, that'd be different. I'm sure we're going to struggle more. And then next week, Jeddah as well, some higher speed corners, and also lower downforce, that'd be another challenge.

“But if I compare to where we are relative to the competition 12 months ago here, we are much more in the ballpark. We can race. So that's very positive.”

8. How much trouble Alpine really is in

The opening round was a bitterly disappointing one for Alpine as its cars brought up the rear in qualifying

The opening round was a bitterly disappointing one for Alpine as its cars brought up the rear in qualifying

Photo by: Alpine

Alpine had appeared to have a poor pre-season test in Bahrain, but that event’s massive deliberate pace-masking element meant it couldn’t be said definitively that it would start 2024 as the backmarker squad. Qualifying for the Bahrain GP, however, revealed exactly that.

Esteban Ocon ended up 19th, with Pierre Gasly behind – the A524 lacking downforce compared to its rivals and also apparently being overweight. To compound the team’s misery, it emerged on Saturday that technical director, Matt Harman, and head of aerodynamics, Dirk de Beer, resigned before the race team set off for its stint in Bahrain.

"We knew the start of the season was going to be difficult and that has been the case in Bahrain," said team boss Bruno Famin.

It’s only upwards from here, but 2024 has got off to an awful start for one of F1’s famously storied squads.

9. All is not smiles between the RB drivers

Tsunoda was not shy in revealing his frustration over the RB team's call to swap positions with Ricciardo

Tsunoda was not shy in revealing his frustration over the RB team's call to swap positions with Ricciardo

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

RB might be said to have the most charming off-track driver line-up in F1, with the ever-smiling Daniel Ricciardo and the ever-entertaining Yuki Tsunoda (he amusingly explained in testing his new winter training regime meant “I don't fit into the extra small size t-shirt anymore”).

But on-track at the end of the Bahrain race, things got ugly at Red Bull’s junior team.

Ricciardo had badly underperformed in qualifying, but his race came alive on new softs for the final stint and he closed up on his team-mate, who had been undone from his early position in the points by rivals undercutting. Ricciardo wanted a swift swap when he’d really arrived on his team-mate’s rear given “every lap counts when you are on this [fragile] tyre”, but RB rather dithered and then Tsunoda initially refused to cede position.

The drivers, naturally, disagreed over the situation.

Tsunoda said: “I was just about to overtake Magnussen [ahead in 12th], I was side-by-side on the main straight and got a driver swap [call for the] last few laps – to be honest, I didn't understand what the team thought”. Ricciardo claimed, "the call was quite expected" as “it was highly likely starting on the [used] soft meant I was going to finish the race on a new soft and have an attacking last stint”.

But Tsunoda’s cooldown lap driving – diving down his team-mate’s inside at the Turn 8 hairpin and locking up, before shoving his car needlessly close to the other VCARB 01 was utterly petulant. Given both have big career moments ahead in terms of where they might race in future years, it may well be that a fractious narrative to RB’s season has already been established.

10. New DRS rule welcomed

It made little difference to Verstappen's race, but the opportunity to use DRS sooner in the race improved matters

It made little difference to Verstappen's race, but the opportunity to use DRS sooner in the race improved matters

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Verstappen might’ve been able to quickly escape the hobbled Leclerc at the front on lap one here, but there was enough witnessed in Bahrain to suggest the only really significant sporting rule change for the new season (for non-sprint events) might mean racing is rather different in 2024.

This is how DRS is now activated on lap two, instead of lap three, following trials of this approach in the sprint events last year.

“I think it definitely changes the way you race,” Perez explained in the post-race press conference. “Especially with the cars around you, when you are in a fight and straight away you get DRS.

“The car ahead going straight into the clean air, it's basically going on its own, has to use more of its tyres, so it's a bit of a disadvantage. If you are fighting in places like Baku or even Jeddah, the racing is going to be different. It does create a difference to the car ahead in the first few laps. So, yeah, it's going to be interesting.”

Speaking alongside Perez, Sainz reckoned “it's going to be a very tricky season going 24 races like that” and “another interesting thing to think about”. Verstappen believes, “on some tracks it will be quite tricky because the DRS can be very powerful”.

“So, it might create some, let's say, interesting battles or situations,” concluded the reigning world champion.

If only, after that tepid start to the new campaign…

There were fireworks at RB, but the opener was a largely tepid affair

There were fireworks at RB, but the opener was a largely tepid affair

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

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