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IT’S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we’re excited about ahead of the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

Special Contributor

Chris Medland
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Start of F1 Bahrain Grand Prix of 2023 Formula One World Championship at Bahrain International

A news-filled winter gave way to three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain last week, and the first hints of what we can expect on track in 2024. As the new season prepares to get underway, here are a few of the talking points heading back to Sakhir...

Racing is BACK!

There might have been multiple big news stories throughout the off-season, but by the time the lights go out on Saturday night it will have been 98 days since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the last time the Formula 1 grid raced in anger.

Kicking off the 2024 season is a milestone race weekend as the opener marks 20 years since the very first Bahrain Grand Prix. In that time, there have been a few notable special editions, with the long layout used to mark 60 years of Formula 1 back in 2010, the first night race marking 10 years since the race made its debut, and the Sakhir Grand Prix using the outer loop in 2020.

READ MORE: 20 years of the Bahrain Grand Prix: David Tremayne looks back at F1’s first visit to the Middle East

This time around, Bahrain marks the start of the biggest ever season in the sport’s history, with a further 23 races to follow, starting with the short hop to Jeddah a week later. Get ready, the action is going to come thick and fast this year.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally retouched) As Formula 1

Racing is about to get going for the 2024 Formula 1 season!

What’s the gap to Red Bull?

There’s a real sense of deja vu when it comes to judging Red Bull after the three-day test last week. The consensus among all of the teams in the paddock is that the defending champions remain the team to beat, but there’s not total agreement on what the gap looks like.

Some believe the margin is significant, but others are less convinced that it’s any bigger than 12 months ago, when there was also confidence that Red Bull were out in front. And that’s because fuel loads can have such an impact on pace, and it’s not just Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez who might have plenty in reserve for the coming weekend.

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

“It’s very difficult to know [Red Bull’s advantage] because we don’t know if they are running the car with 20 kilos or 80 kilos,” Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur said on the final day. “This is 2.5s difference and it means it is very difficult to draw any conclusions.”

As much as Red Bull might have been running higher fuel loads that mean aspects of their pace isn’t seen, so too could anyone else, backing up Vasseur’s point that a combination of high fuel for one and low fuel for another can drastically change how things look on the timing screens.

This weekend, we get the first conclusive answers.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Sparks fly behind Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1)

The defending champions could be the team to beat in 2024 once again

A stronger chasing pack

One of the themes that appeared to emerge from testing was a feeling of progress from all of the teams trying to close the gap to Red Bull. Whether Red Bull have moved further ahead or not, there were encouraging signs for many when viewing their own situation.

Charles Leclerc called last year’s test the worst of his career, but says this time around was much better as Ferrari have improved drivability and consistency with the SF-24, allowing them to build from a better baseline.

It’s a similar theme at Mercedes, where both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell reported being much happier with the W15 and how it feels to drive compared to last season’s troublesome W14. For both of those teams, there were no signs of major issues that needed addressing following testing, and that should mean being able to focus solely on improvements and car development rather than problem solving.

TESTING DEBRIEF: How the field stack up after the final day of pre-season running in 2024

12 months ago, McLaren were in a lot of trouble, with a car that was uncompetitive and having suffered reliability issues. It was the second year in a row they had struggled in pre-season, but they were confident in their development plan and produced an excellent mid-season turnaround.

This year, they appear to still be very much in the mix behind Red Bull in much the way they ended last season, so McLaren too start from a stronger position. Only Aston Martin haven’t shown clear progress compared to a year ago, but that’s mainly because of how big their 2023 step was, and they’ve maintained their competitive position while their main rivals have addressed obvious problems.

It all adds up to four teams that are well-placed to kick on, even if they might start the year with another gap to Red Bull to close. And that could mean more races where there are different challengers at the front.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Yuki Tsunoda of Japan driving the (22) Visa Cash App RB VCARB 01

All of the teams trying to close the gap to Red Bull feel they've made progress

Fine margins between the rest

The progress mentioned above means it was hard for the rest of the field to join the fight for podiums, but on the whole there have still been improvements up and down the grid.

What testing has shown is that it’s going to be another extremely competitive year in most positions, with the podium fight being between so many teams, and then a number capable of reaching Q3 and challenging for points with regularity.

IN NUMBERS: Who was the fastest and who recorded the most laps at Bahrain’s 2024 pre-season test?

RB appears to have carried the momentum from late last season into a better starting spot this year, and even Haas were encouraged by their testing programme. In between those teams are Alpine, Kick Sauber and Williams, all of whom showed they can target being the sixth-quickest team at different stages.

Perhaps the biggest question mark that needs answering relates to Alpine, who took a slightly different approach to testing compared to their rivals. Where they emerge in the pecking order feels slightly less certain than the rest of the general picture.

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

Silly season has already started

OK, enough about the unanswered questions in terms of car performance and relative competitiveness, there’s a whole other bunch of permutations when it comes to driver line-ups.

The announcement of Lewis Hamilton’s 2025 move to Ferrari at the start of the month quickly started up the driver market, as there is now a very competitive seat available at Mercedes that had not been expected.

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

George Russell has already joked about how he and Toto Wolff are getting regularly contacted by multiple drivers, but they are not the only team with a vacancy and, after the stability between last season and this, so many could end up in a different seat next year.

With some exciting young talents coming through the ranks, too, it could be that drivers want to resolve their futures as early as possible rather than wait until later this season and potentially run the risk of not getting a seat they’re happy with.

The first race is unlikely to be a place where deals are done, but it will provide the first hint of the teams that are set for a strong year this year, and therefore could be even more attractive to join in 2025.

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