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Formula 1 Pre-Season Test

The Ferrari race sim offering clues to its Red Bull-beating potential

Formula 1 teams and fans well know that it is not single-lap pace that counts when it comes to working out who has won the pre-season testing war.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

It is why Ferrari duo Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc coming out on top of the overall timing sheets over the course of this week’s Bahrain test has barely registered in conversations.

Sainz’s overall test-topping time of 1m29.921s, set on the second day, was around seven tenths faster than the Red Bull benchmark of 1m30.679s set by Sergio Perez on the same afternoon.

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However, no one is suggesting that it has any resemblance to the true picture of performance (even taking into account a 0.6s time difference in the tyre compounds they used).

Indeed, the consensus among the paddock is that Red Bull is clearly going into next weekend’s F1 season-opener as the team to beat.

What is not so sure, though, is exactly how big its advantage is, because there is another Sainz element to the Bahrain test that has offered F1 plenty of food for thought about where the competitive picture lies between his Ferrari team and Red Bull.

As teams crunched through the data, it was a race-sim run from Sainz on the second evening, running in similar but not identical conditions to Perez on the same programme, that offered some intrigue about just how good the new SF-24 may be.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

In pure lap time, the timing sheets suggested it was advantage Ferrari in fact. Over the three race stints, Sainz proved to be quicker than the Red Bull.

The Spaniard’s advantage on the C3 averaged just more than 0.4 seconds – and stretched to more than one second on their final stints, which were both on the C1 hard compound.

The scale of that advantage was so extreme that it almost certainly points to Perez having run heavier on fuel. With it widely accepted that 10kg of weight equates to around 0.3 seconds of lap time around Bahrain, there is quite a high degree of variability to be exactly sure of how much of a realistic picture their two runs offered.

But one thing is not in doubt from the Sainz race sim – that the high tyre degradation which derailed much of Ferrari’s 2023 campaign appears to have been cured.

Sainz’s form was incredibly consistent. Looking at his final stint on the C1 in particular, it was a world away from how things played out in last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, when both he and Leclerc struggled massively with tyre degradation.

His run on the C1 played out like this: 35.5, 35.7, 35.5, 35.6, 35.3, 35.4, 35.5, 35.2, 35.3, 35.1, 35.2, 35.2, 35.1, 35.1, 34.9, 35.3, 35.8, 35.5, 35.6.

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

For team boss Fred Vasseur, it is this consistency – and the fact that both drivers can feel the improvement with the car – that has been a more important signal from the test than any number comparisons between Ferrari and Red Bull.

“Before the long stint, the most important was the feedback from Carlos and Charles that they are in a much better place with the car,” he said. “It is much more consistent with less degradation.

“I think this is important for the race for sure. But now it is a bit more difficult to know exactly where we are in terms of pure performance, because with the level of fuel we can play a lot, and I think nobody knows exactly where we are relatively.”

Indeed, teams are well versed in the art of misdirection in testing, to try not to alert rivals as to what they are up to.

Verstappen in particular did several long runs on Friday, but each time was filled up quite a bit in a bid to not show off the full potential of the car. He was fast and super consistent – indeed there was even an element of negative deg in terms of lap times dropping over the stint as the fuel came off.

Interestingly, he was also relatively slow through the speed traps while doing this, which hinted that engine modes may well have been turned down too.

Watch: Time for the Debrief - F1 2024 Pre Season Testing Day 3 Reaction

For now, Ferrari is encouraged by what it has heard from its drivers and what it saw from that Sainz long run on Thursday. But deep uncertainty remains over what Red Bull was really up to in the test with its fuel loads.

As Vasseur explained about whether he thinks Red Bull is miles clear: “If they run with 20 kilos we are in a good shape, but if they run with 80kg we are nowhere. Nobody knows except them.

“But if you start to get too much focus on the others, you are losing a little bit the paths of your decisions.

“We had a long list of items to tick and the testing to cover and we were focused on this. In one week’s time now, we will have a big answer!”

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