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5 key questions that need answering after 2024 pre-season testing in Bahrain

F1 Correspondent & Presenter

Lawrence Barretto
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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull

The last three days of on-track action at the Bahrain International Circuit will be among the most intense of the year for Formula 1 teams, as they battle to run through as many tests and investigations as they can with their new cars before the season begins at the same circuit next weekend.

Over the course of eight hours each day, the teams fiddled with set-up changes, tried different configurations – Mercedes even experimented by moving part of the upper wishbone on the front suspension on Day 3, a change that would be impossible to do in the time they have on a race weekend – and put mileage on parts that they had yet to stress on a circuit.

POLL: Which team impressed you the most after pre-season testing in Bahrain?

Collectively, the teams clocked up around 20,000km – which is roughly a journey that’ll take you halfway around the world. They’ll spend the next four days crunching the numbers, with many personnel travelling back overnight from Bahrain to their respective European bases and starting work first thing in the morning and through the weekend to crunch the data.

It's unwise to read much into the final classification in testing. Zhou Guanyu went third quickest in the Kick Sauber in the closing stages of testing – but it is very unlikely he’ll be in that position the first race next weekend.

Similarly, Red Bull were fourth-best through Max Verstappen, with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc topping the timing table – but that is not a fair reflection of the pecking order.

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F1 pre-season testing 2024: Jolyon Palmer's Takeaways

All teams will have run different test programmes, using different fuel loads, running lower engine power levels and varying bodywork configurations. However, there are some trends that have emerged that can help us start to build a picture of what to expect in the early phase of the season.

Just how good are defending champions Red Bull?

It was a struggle to find anyone in the F1 paddock who wasn’t significantly impressed – and slightly worried – about the utter brilliance of Red Bull’s RB20, which is widely regarded as the most impressive interpretation of this current set of regulations. And its performance straight out of the box in testing did little to dampen that fanfare.

Reigning world champion Max Verstappen knew instantly that this was a very strong car, the Dutchman dancing the car around the Bahrain International Circuit with aplomb from very early on in the test.

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Given there are so many changes – both public facing and under the skin – there remains some work to do to understand the package. But even in the early stages of this project, the feeling inside the team – and from their rivals who will have data to show where they stack up relative to everyone else – is that it will take something special to knock Red Bull off their perch this year.

Our data shows Red Bull have a 0.22s advantage over the rest of the pack over a single lap. This is based on what they delivered across the three days, when they were not pushing the car anywhere near its limit. As has been the case over the last couple of years, Red Bull are the quickest of all in the medium-speed turns, so expect them to be mighty in sector two in Bahrain next weekend.

Verstappen also completed the fastest race simulation of all – however, intriguingly, our race plot showed that Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was only eight seconds behind. Of course neither driver will have been pushing the limit like they would in a race, but equally this does suggest that at this stage, from what we can see, while Red Bull remain top, their advantage may not be insurmountable.

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Have Ferrari shut the gap to make a fight of it?

Ferrari are trying not to get too excited, but their 2024 challenger is a step forward in terms of outright performance and more crucially, is more driveable and predictable than its predecessor, which in turn means Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz can have more confidence in finding the limits of the car without fear of it snapping out of control.

That was number one on the drivers' wish list heading into the winter, so it was naturally a boost for both of them that when they tried the machine in the simulator and then got behind the wheel of the real thing in Bahrain, the car was closer to what they had asked for.

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Another area they seem to have improved on is tyre degradation. Last year’s Ferrari was rapid in qualifying, Leclerc and Sainz taking seven pole positions between them – but they couldn’t deliver the same pace consistently in the race, largely because the car worked its tyres too hard, which saw the drivers fall back towards the end of each stint, or need more pit stops.

However, from the data gathered in testing, Ferrari have made giant leaps and are around 0.2s adrift of Red Bull in the race simulations – a significant improvement on last year. They appear to have given a little away over one lap, but they are still only 0.2s behind Red Bull in that metric.

So, based on what we can read into testing, it looks like Ferrari are second-best behind Red Bull and closer to them in race set-up, which is ultimately more important as it’s where the big points are handed out on Sunday.

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Are Mercedes finally going in the right direction?

It’s early days yet but Mercedes are cautiously optimistic they are back on the right track after two years of pain with a car that was simply no match for the dominant Red Bull team.

Whereas this time last year, both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell knew immediately that the car wasn’t good enough and that it would be near-impossible to correct the issues before the end of the season – this time around, they had a bounce in their step.

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Talking to technical chief James Alliison, he reckons the team are locked in a battle with Ferrari and McLaren in a best-of-the-rest pack behind Red Bull. And he added that whereas they knew they were limited to what they could do with the last car, the foundations of the W15 should give them lots of scope to add performance through the year.

Our data puts them second-best in terms of race pace, an area they put most of their focus on during testing, and a little further back in fourth when it comes to one-lap pace. It’s still not where they want to be, but there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG

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Where do last season’s surprise packages McLaren and Aston Martin stack up?

Bahrain testing was a much more pleasant experience for McLaren this time around. Last year, they were stuck with a car they knew was a compromise and had the prospect of a painful start to the year.

But ever since they introduced a stunning upgrade in Austria, the team haven’t looked back – and their performance in Bahrain suggests they have taken yet another step forward over the winter.

READ MORE: McLaren drivers expect to be ‘a chunk behind’ two teams as they share pecking order predictions after testing

There were a few niggles, such as a clutch issue that severely limited Lando Norris’s running on Day 3, but they found a fix and Oscar Piastri had time to do a race simulation that put the team as third-best on our race simulation plot.

Their qualifying pace was better than their race pace – but only by a fraction, and that left them third and fourth respectively in those metrics, adding weight to the argument they can expect to contend for podiums straight out of the box.

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Piastri 'feeling more comfortable' after 3 days of testing

It wasn’t such a strong test for Aston Martin, who blew everyone away last year with a stunning car that marked them out as Red Bull’s chief rivals. They ended last year P5 and it looks like that’s about where they are at the start of this campaign.

Lance Stroll’s race run wasn’t too much to write home about on Day 2, but Fernando Alonso’s race sim was worth a look on the final day, the Spaniard able to cut degradation on the C1 – the hard tyre for the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend – relative to what Stroll could do with the settings he had on Day 2.

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Where does everyone else sit?

RB – the F1 team formerly known as AlphaTauri – are pleased with their first test under their new name, as the car ran near faultlessly through all three days of testing – but senior management were keen to play down expectations, as was driver Daniel Ricciardo when he spoke to the media on the final day of testing.

According to our data, they are expected to be the fifth-fastest team next weekend, 0.12s clear of Aston Martin – however, given they had such a hard development push to the end of last season, it is anticipated that they will not be as strong in reality in the early phase of the season.

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Ricciardo reflects on being described as a 'dark horse'

Elsewhere, Williams had a bumpy test, encountering a series of mechanical gremlins that cost them running time. However, that is to be expected considering how much they have changed the concept of the car.

Last year in testing, they went quicker than in 2024 in sectors one and three, whereas this time around, they were more balanced across the three sectors. This suggests their plan to create a car that is more of an all-rounder, and thus hopefully more competitive across all races rather than a slippery beast, has worked.

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Albon’s race simulation on the final day was very encouraging, the Thai driver putting the team fifth among the teams who did a race simulation. There’s no doubt they have so much to learn about their new car – and thus there may be some growing pains – but the potential is big.

There was a fear that Haas might be in a bit of trouble heading into this year, after a tricky winter that saw them lose both their Team Principal Guenther Steiner and Technical Director Simone Resta. However, new boss Ayao Komatsu has moved to steady the ship – and they enjoyed one of the smoothest ever pre-season tests.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Haas F1 VF-24 Ferrari

Haas enjoyed a smooth test after a winter of disruption

The American team completed the most laps of all, and while their race simulation was the worst of anyone who did one – and they trail in both qualifying and race simulation data – they are at least hanging onto the pack, rather than cut adrift.

READ MORE: ‘The stars aligned’ – Hamilton reveals the key factors behind his shock Ferrari switch

Alpine are perhaps one of the hardest teams to read. They’ve been super-cautious through pre-season – the opposite approach to last year, when they were very optimistic but failed to meet that expectation – and look like they are mid-pack once more.

Kick Sauber had a disrupted test, with a few niggles to contend with, but look to be better than Haas and in a fight with Williams.

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