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FIA post-qualifying press conference - Bahrain

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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 01: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle

DRIVERS

1 – Max VERSTAPPEN (Red Bull Racing), 2 – Charles LECLERC (Ferrari), 3 – George RUSSELL (Mercedes)

TRACK INTERVIEWS
(Conducted by Jolyon Palmer)

Q: Max Verstappen, pole position, starting off 2024 like you finished ‘23. Look, a pretty routine session for you out there. It was very close, but how was it for you?

Max VERSTAPPEN: Yeah, it was a lot of fun, actually. The track had a lot of grip, but with the wind, you know, the last two days, it's been quite tricky to get the whole lap together. And it was the same in qualifying. Q1, Q2, of course, you naturally go a bit faster with the track ramping up, but then to really get everything out of it in Q3 was a little more difficult. But, of course, very happy to be on pole. To be honest, it was a little bit unexpected. But luckily in qualifying, I think the car came to us and I felt a bit happier with the whole car.

Q: You mentioned it was unexpected. Through practice, you haven't been right at the front. We all expected maybe the Red Bull this year looks different, looked like it might be spectacular. It's not been so easy on one lap pace, but you came into this genuinely thinking that this was really a fight on.

MV: Yeah, I said already yesterday, you know, we just needed to fine-tune a few little things on the car to try and get that, let's say, perfect balance, even though with the wind that was not possible today. But luckily, I think we went in the right direction today and we could really push a bit more with the car. And luckily, another step in qualifying.

Q: You're very used to starting from the front now. Another race tomorrow to try and win, take the lead in the championship and start a new campaign. Your race pace looks good. Are you feeling comfortable? Are you worried about any threat from somewhere?

MV: I think the race is going to be close as well. We do look good in the race, and that's, of course, the most important thing. But, yeah, we'll see tomorrow. I'm confident that we can have a strong race.

Q: OK, good luck and well done, Max. Charles Leclerc, second place, a very good qualifying, but in the end, not quite enough for pole, but a good front row.

Charles LECLERC: Yeah, I'm a bit disappointed, but yeah, we did a good qualifying. I mean, it's been a tricky weekend until now. We were trying quite a few things in FP1, FP2, FP3, and then I found the sweet spot in qualifying. Q1 was a bit tricky. Unfortunately, we put two new sets of softs, which compromised a little bit the Q3. But all in all, it's quite a good qualifying, a good start of the year. We are in a better place compared to a year ago, so that is good. Now we have to see the race pace tomorrow.

Q: And a couple of tenths today between yourself and Max out front. When you look back and you go into the data, can you see how that might be possible? It looked really close until that point.

CL: Oh, yeah. I mean, in Q2, I think I did a 0.1, which was more or less the lap time that Max did in Q3. So it was there in the car. I think we lost a little bit the rhythm with the used set of C3 in Q3. Then you have to re-adapt to the new tyres, and I lost a little bit there, but all in all, it's been a positive qualifying.

Q: And from the end of last year, you're very used to starting alongside Max at the front, both of you qualifying so well. What can we expect from Ferrari in the race? It wasn't necessarily a strong point last year. Are you confident you can take the fight to him?

CL: I'm confident we did a step forward, but we have to wait and see tomorrow how much of a step forward we did. We really think that Red Bull is still ahead by quite a bit in the race. I mean, so we'll see. But if there's an opportunity, as always, I'll go for it and we'll see what happens tomorrow.

Q: All right. Well done, Charles.

CL: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Q: George, Russell, well done. Top three to start the year. You've got to be pleased with that for Mercedes after where you've been the start of the last couple of seasons. Looks like a big step forward.

George RUSSELL: Yeah, absolutely. Everybody at the factory have done an amazing job to give Lewis and I a car that we feel much happier with, a base that we can build upon. But ultimately, you know, Max is still out there in front. We've still got some catching up to do. But I think when we look at our qualifying performances of the last two years in Bahrain and our race pace, starting P3 for tomorrow is a great place.

Q: Yeah, it looks a big step forward. Even from last week, people were saying the race pace was strong for the Mercedes, but the qualifying pace may be a bit of a weakness. You look like you've turned that round in the space of a week. Has there been a lot of work gone in in between testing here and racing here?

GR: Yeah, huge amount of work. We've had some really great drivers back at base doing the work on the simulator. Lewis and I have been back on the simulator as well, you know, fine-tuning the set-up, making some improvements. Time will tell tomorrow if we've obviously made a big step forward in single lap in the qualifying pace. We hope we haven't compromised the race pace at all. I think it'll be a close fight between everybody other than Max.

Q: What's the goal then? A podium or dreaming of the win?

GR: I think obviously Red Bull is so strong at the moment. Max is doing a really great job. He's got the new tyres as well. I think if there's an opportunity to take the lead, we'll go for it. But ultimately, I think the race is, for all of us, is for second. But as I said, nobody knows. It's the first race of the season. So excited to be back. And let's hope for some craziness.

PRESS CONFERENCE

Q: Max, the speculation and rumour of testing is all over and here you are again, on pole. Just how good does that feel and how was that session for you?

MV: Testing was very good but then it was very windy so far, I think this weekend, and it was just a bit more difficult to get the balance of the car together and yeah it was just continuous work all the way to qualifying. and I do think that we made some good improvements on the car and I think that made us then do the lap in qualifying.

Q: You made quite a jump on that second run of Q3, where did you find the time?

MV: I just had a bit more grip somehow. The first run, it just didn't really feel that great. The tyres never really switched on. And then on the final lap, yeah, it just felt better from Turn 1.

Q: And Max, there's been so much talk about the gap between Red Bull and Ferrari. Just what do you make of the distance between you and Charles, just under 0.3 of a second?

MV: I think it was just a very tight qualifying and I think it was just also very tricky conditions with the wind this whole weekend. So, yeah, if you can get the lap together immediately, you can find one, one-and-a half-tenths in a corner. And I think it was just good for us in Q2, Q3, especially Q3, I would say. It all just improved a little bit more. But yeah, I think throughout the whole of qualifying, you could see the gaps were super close and I think you never really knew who was going to be on pole heading into Q3. So I think that was very exciting to see.

Q: So 57 laps tomorrow. Just how much of a step into the unknown is the first race of the season?

MV: I mean, we have done quite a few long runs now, to the point where you almost get bored of it. Yeah, I'm confident that we have a good race car, but I think also what you saw already yesterday in the long runs, the gaps are small and it's about attention to detail and that will make the difference also tomorrow.

Q: Do you feel it’s closer than it was here last year?

MV: It feels like it, because all the way until qualifying I didn't have a good feeling, where last year I think it was a bit better, we were a bit stronger throughout the whole weekend. So yeah, we'll see how that will evolve.

Q: Very well done. Thank you, Max. Charles, coming to you. Very well done to you as well. How was the lap?

CL: The car felt good. The last lap wasn't the best lap I've done. I think the best lap was in Q2, where I put everything I wanted in that lap. In Q3, I didn't really find the grip straight away out of the box, which was a bit strange, so we'll look at that. And yeah, having a scrubbed set also at the beginning of Q3, I think, put us a little bit on the back foot, because the track is evolving and it's a bit more difficult to read how much front flap you need to put for that last run. And there I think we lost a little bit the rhythm.

Q: Tell us about the decision to run the new tyres earlier in the session?

CL: I'm not really happy about it, but it's something we'll discuss with the team. I thought there was quite a lot of margin, but obviously being the first qualifying of the year, the team didn't want to risk it. So we had to run again with another new soft, which again, it puts us a little bit on the back foot for the rest of qualifying.

Q: So on the back foot, do you feel that you could have been closer to Max in Q3 if you'd had two new sets? And what is your reaction to that, just under three tenths?

CL: I mean, if we could have done lots of things, but at the end we are P2 and three tenths off. I think it's closer than what it looks on the timesheet. But this is a good thing. We were expecting Red Bull to have a bit more margin than what there was today. So we are a bit closer than what we thought, but the biggest question mark is obviously tomorrow in the race. And I'm pretty sure they have a bit more margin than what we've seen today. But again, let's wait and see.

Q: But the messaging from Ferrari is that you have made progress with the longer runs. That is still the case?

CL: Yeah, the feeling is much better compared to last year. Last year, whenever we had used tyres, the car would become very, very difficult to drive. The balance would be completely out of place compared to the short runs. This year, we are a bit more… I mean, we are in the right window now in the long runs. So it feels quite a lot better. It helps us to be more consistent. However, again, for the competitiveness, we'll see tomorrow.

Q: We will see tomorrow. Very well done. Thank you, Charles. George, coming to you, very well done to you as well. How confident were you coming into the session? Is this third place a little bit unexpected?

GR: I think after testing last week, we wouldn't have expected to be qualifying third. And then yesterday, driving, we made a lot of set-up changes over the course of the weekend. And as I mentioned before, Lewis and I were back at the factory and the team have been doing a really great job to find these small improvements and we were really fast just in FP2, Lewis and I, P1 and P2, which caught us by surprise. But as we saw, it was so close out there. You know, if you take Max out of the equation, I think it was two tenths between P2 and P8 or something. And I don't think we've seen F1 like this for a long, long time. So, you know, we only dream and wish that was fighting for pole position and victory. And I think we're going to have a great battle on our hands for the next spot.

Q: Are these unseasonably cold conditions helping Mercedes?

GR: No, I'd probably say the opposite, to be honest. We historically have always struggled when the temperatures have been a little bit cooler and that was always the case last year. But we know that with this W15 car, it's a totally different beast, a car that we're much happier with and probably the lessons we've learned over the last two years we need to put aside and go in with a totally open mind. Time will tell when we go to the future races, but I'm feeling really happy in the car. I think the race is going to be really close with Charles, the Ferraris, with Checo tomorrow, and we can see what we can do about Max, but right now he's doing an incredible job.

Q: How is the long run pace? Do you feel you're going to be really close with Charles, and do you think Max is out of reach?

GR: I think what we saw in testing was our qualifying pace being a little bit offset and our race pace probably being next best to Max. Now we've improved the qualifying pace, we hope it hasn't hindered our race pace. It's uncharacteristically cold here in Bahrain at the moment. I think tomorrow it's going to be about 16 degrees by the time we go to the race and we're normally talking 30s or mid-30s here in Bahrain. There's a lot of unexpected things to come. The Soft tyre is performing well around this circuit, in the race maybe people will do two sets of the Softs, two sets of the Hards, a Medium. But it's the first race of the season and I think we're all just excited to get going.

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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 01: Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing talks with Second placed qualifier Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari and Third placed qualifier George Russell of Great Britain and Mercedes in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 01, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR

Q: (Fred Ferret – L'Equipe) Question to Max. You said that you've been struggling this weekend with the car. Was it only about the shifting, we were hearing you were complaining about that, or did something else on that?

MV: I mean, that is something that has been around for quite a while, but you always try to optimize these things. But that was not really the balance problem of the car. It was just trying to get it in the right window with the front axle and the rear axle. You tried to tackle the front axle, then it shifted to the rear, other way around. It was all about just trying to find that middle way to feel a bit more comfortable. And also, around a track like this, which is quite hard on tyres, the tarmac is very aggressive and one little slide or a lock up can cost you quite a lot of lap time. So it's about small little things that can improve the car quite a bit.

Q: (Christian Menath – Motorsport-magazin.com) First part of the question for Max, and then for Charles and George, please. Max, it seems like a trend that you are not on P1 until Q3. You haven't been P1 in all practice sessions last year here. You haven't been for this weekend. And then in Q3, suddenly you make the jump. A few years ago, we probably would have said it's ‘party mode’ or whatever in the engine. But why would you say is it always that you then come alive when it really matters? And then to the other two drivers, why do you think Max is becoming alive?

MV: It's just trying to improve, you know, every run that you do, there are always things that can be done better. Of course, in qualifying, you're very limited what you can improve, but still little details can help you a bit. And yeah, just try to follow the track, which was not easy in qualifying to understand. But for sure, we improved the car from yesterday to today and then FP3 to quali again, a little step. And that made me just a bit more comfortable and you can then attack the corners a bit better.

CL: Yeah, I mean, I cannot speak for Max, but on my side as well, when you have a competitive car in Q1 and Q2, you are not pushing the car to its limits. In free practices, you are trying different things as well. And then it's all about putting everything in Q3. And once you do so, then you really understand what is the real competitiveness of everybody. So that probably plays a part as well. GR: Yeah, as Charles said, I think when you've got that competitive car, you can afford to be a little bit more cautious in Q1 and Q2 – make sure you don't get any track limits. You're preserving your tyres for the following day. Here in Bahrain, you'll probably be seeing a lot of soft tyres being used in the race, so you don't want to damage them too much and then just pull it together for Q3.

Q: (Tim Hauraney – TSN) Question for Max. Congratulations on the pole. Saw you got a tow from Oscar at the end in Q3 there. When did you make that decision to jump into his tow? And was that the difference between P1 and P2? MV: I had to let him by because there was not enough space. So then, yeah, I followed him to Turn 1 a little bit, which, yeah, definitely gave me a little bit of lap time, but not as much as what the gap was.

Q: (Ronald Vording - Motorsport.com) A question to all three, starting with Max, please. Last year, we talked a lot about maximum times and cars stopping in pit lane. And then there was kind of a consensus that we could maybe find a fix for 2024. Yet today, we heard multiple drivers talking about cars queuing up in the pit lane again. So what do you think of the current situation and how the rules are at the moment? Thank you.

MV: I think this is the safest way to go about it. I mean, it's probably not ideal, but I prefer that the cars are stopping in the pit lane than on the straight, you know, or in the last corner. So at the moment, this is, I think, the best solution. But we keep on trying to look at things to make it better.

CL: I completely agree. I think the FIA came up with a new system yesterday, which I think wasn't exactly what we wanted. So we all asked to come back to the system of last year. So it's an ongoing process where we try to find the best solution. But as Max said, I think you have to slow down at one point and it's much better to do it in the pit lane than on track. So I think it's the best solution we have at the moment.

GR: Yeah, I agree with the other two.

Q: (Phil Duncan – PA) A question for Max. Max, the spotlight's obviously been on Red Bull this week for reasons away from racing. I mean, how has that been for you to deal with and the team to deal with? And are you confident that Christian remains the right person to lead Red Bull Racing?

MV: From my side, and I think what I can see also from the mechanics and the engineers, we are fully focused on the car and the performance here during the weekend. And that's how it should be, I think. And that's what we continue to do. Because it's not our business. We're not particularly involved in that. And we are here. We are paid to do our job. And that's what we are doing. And that's also what we love doing. So that's what we focus on.

Q: (Lawrence Edmondson – ESPN) Question to George and Charles and Max if you've got an opinion on it. Given how testing went, where did you guys honestly think you were compared to the Red Bull? How many tenths of a second off them and how big a surprise is today?

CL: I think it's pretty in line with what we expected. If anything, it's a bit better than what we expected. Because again, today there's three tenths in Q3, but I think we could have, realistically in the car, I think we could have gone closer to Max. So a bit more, a bit better than what we expected. But yeah, let's see tomorrow.

GR: Yeah, I agree with Charles. I think it was better than expected. I think we all knew it was going to be very, very close between ourselves, Ferrari, Aston, McLaren and Checo. And I think, you know, the gap in qualifying today was probably slightly closer to Max than we all expected. I think race pace is the important one. We're expecting probably a half second deficit. That's what we thought after testing. We'll see tomorrow, I think. You don't agree? MV: Half a second!

GR: Is that too small?

MV: No, no, I think it's way too big. But if you say that now, then if it's better tomorrow, then you can say, ‘oh, it's unbelievable, the car is unbelievable’.

GR: Exactly. Under-promise, over-deliver!

Q: (Luke Smith – The Athletic) Max, to follow up on Phil's question, do you still have full faith in Christian Horner's leadership of Red Bull Racing?

MV: Listen, when I look at how Christian operates within the team, he has been an incredible team boss. So absolutely, from the performance side of things, you can't even question that. So that's what I'm also dealing with. I speak to Christian a lot. And also, of course, throughout the weekend here, he's fully committed to the team. He's also here for the performance, of course. probably a little bit distracted. But like I said before, we just focus on the performance side of things. And that's how we all work together.

Q: (Sanarth Kanal – The Race) Max, you say you can improve lap by lap and run by run. But how much input do you get from your engineers on where to improve? I mean, do they tell you which corners you can improve on or where you can improve? Or is that all from you?

MV: It depends a bit on the weekend. But yeah, I mean, in general, you always look at competitors as well, if they are better in a certain corner or not. So there's always a discussion going on throughout, you know, the whole of qualifying. You have to find a bit more time or just by yourself as well. You know, maybe you have a feeling in a particular corner, you're still not finding the right balance and you try to correct that.

Q: (Ronald Vording – Motorsport.com) A question to all three again. As George pointed out, it was really close, especially behind Max. I think in Q1, maybe the entire field was almost within a second. At least over one lap, is this a sign of things to come in 2024? And the second part of the question, do you think it shows that leaving the regulations stable for quite a long time is actually the best way to close up the field?

GR: I think history has definitely shown that even the regulation stable for a number of years always closes the field. I think the aero regs, that the team who finishes last gets more time in the wind tunnel, the team who's first gets the least amount, is naturally going to close the field. So from a driver's perspective, we want to all compete on a level playing field. And I think that is going to bring us closer. Yeah.

Q: (Sonarita Chauhan Mehta – Life and Style Magazine) To all three of you, how big a part is the wind factor going to play in the race tomorrow and how excited are you for Bahrain to begin the new season?

CL: Yes, these cars are quite a lot wind sensitive, so whenever there's a slight change of direction or intensity, then it makes a big difference. But it's the same for everybody, so I don't think we should see anything very different tomorrow. Or at least if we see anything different, I don't think it's because of the wind. And yeah, it's a good track. It's normally an exciting race where it's quite easy to follow the cars and to overtake with the tyre difference, especially as it's a high degradation track. So I'm excited for the first race of the season tomorrow.

MV: Yeah, like Charles said, I do think that tomorrow is a little bit less windy. So maybe that's a bit nicer to drive. But yeah, it's always exciting here with the high deck and plenty of opportunities to pass and race in general.

GR: Yes, similar to what the guys said, and just on Bahrain, I think it's a really great place to start the season. It's always a good race here. Exciting, it's a beautiful part of the world, and we will enjoy coming here to do the testing at the start of the season. So, excited for what's to come tomorrow.

Q: (Christian Menath – Motorsport-magazin.com) Question for Max and for Charles. It looked like in the first sector, Max had always the upper hand, was a lot faster. Second and third sector, it was the other way around. Do you already have an idea why it was the case?

MV: Second sector, maybe not so much. But the last sector, yeah, the whole weekend that has been about our weakness. So, yeah, I just couldn't really go faster. It was what the car was giving me.

CL: It's actually the same answer for me, but for the first sector. We've been struggling all weekend and we cannot really find the answer to it. But hopefully it will be different for the race run tomorrow. Probably it's due to tyre preparation, as we've seen slight differences along the field and that might play a role into it. But yeah, we've tried and we are just struggling quite a bit in Turn 1, 2, 3.

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