Technical

TECH ANALYSIS: Why Red Bull's dominant opening day of testing wasn't quite all it seemed

Special Contributor

Mark Hughes
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Max Verstappen’s best lap in the first day of pre-season testing around Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit was not only 1.1s faster than anyone else, but also around 1.5s faster than he went in the equivalent session last year.

In other words, Red Bull’s on-track preparations for the new season could be said to have gone well.

READ MORE: New Mercedes ‘feels nicer to drive’ than previous car as Russell assesses first day of testing

The Red Bull RB20 was naturally the focus of attention even before it took to the track on account of the world champion team having made an unexpectedly radical update to the most successful F1 car in history. Its bodywork secrets were slowly revealed as the car was finally exposed to the glare of rivals and the lenses of photographers.

The narrow horizontal letter-box slit beneath the sidepod top forms part of the radiator inlet area, added to the vertical slot below and the ‘bunny ear’ extensions around the back of the cockpit. The tiny sidepods and their enormous undercut are exactly as shown at the car’s launch.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull

Verstappen topped the times in both sessions during day one of pre-season testing

If anything, it went even better than it looked. Verstappen – who was in the car all day – ran the equivalent of more than two races distances without any mechanical problem.

There were a few wayward moments early in the morning on the dusty track with the hard compound tyres fitted, but as soon as the car was on the C3 compound (which will be the allocated soft for the race weekend) and on a grippier track surface it appeared to be beautifully balanced.

Over the circuit’s several bumps it was more composed than rival cars. The combination of balance and a stable mechanical platform suggests it should be very kind on its tyres, although the team didn’t conduct any significant long running on this first of three days.

READ MORE: Verstappen stays on top in Bahrain as first day of pre-season testing concludes

Verstappen’s 1.1s margin (over Lando Norris’ McLaren and Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari) does however probably exaggerate the real advantage, given that Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes didn’t make anything like as many low-fuel performance runs as Verstappen, who made five – two in the morning and three in the afternoon – when the track was significantly faster.

His first attack lap in the morning was around 0.3s faster than Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin had just lapped and only around 0.2s faster than Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari would subsequently go despite the Monegasque having done his time on his third flying lap, after having locked up on his first.

F1 pre-season testing 2024: Day 1 Highlights

Comparing that Leclerc lap with Verstappen’s best at that point around the lap, the performance profiles of the two cars is quite distinct, with the Ferrari (at that stage in their respective programmes) having a clear advantage into and through the low-speed turns, with the Red Bull much faster in the high-speed downhill sweeps after Turn 4. The straightline performance is very similar.

Mercedes concentrated more fully than anyone on long runs and made no serious low-fuel runs, so George Russell’s lowly place in the headline numbers is not representative. Lando Norris took over the McLaren in the afternoon from Oscar Piastri and on his second (and final) low fuel run, he shaded Verstappen’s morning benchmark – only for the Red Bull to then demolish that time on three subsequent runs.

WATCH: Take a look as the 2024 cars hit the track for pre-season testing in Bahrain

“It feels good to be back in an F1 car again and I had fun out on track today,” said Verstappen afterwards. “We covered a lot of laps and tried quite a few things with the car, which was important, so I’m happy overall with how it went. After the winter break, the first few laps always surprise you a little but then you get back into the swing of things pretty quickly.

“Overall, the car was responding well and considering this was only testing we had a nice day. Looking to tomorrow, we are speaking to our engineers about what the plans will be, but I am looking forward to getting into the car in the afternoon.”

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: George Russell of Great Britain driving the (63) Mercedes AMG

Mercedes concentrated more fully than anyone on long runs during the first day of testing in Bahrain

Sergio Perez will take over the car tomorrow morning, with Verstappen resuming his seat in the afternoon. As everyone goes through their varying programmes, so the true picture will become clearer. But at the very least we know already that the Red Bull is competitive at the very least.

Chief of trackside engineering Gianpiero Lambiase seemed very satisfied with progress, saying, “We came to Bahrain with a few unknowns around a relatively new car, but we have tested most of the fundamentals on day one and got the answers we needed to. Now we have a solid base to take onto days two and three.”

IN PHOTOS: Every 2024 F1 car on track during pre-season testing in Bahrain

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