RACE DEBRIEF

    The 2024 F1 season is almost here – half the teams have already launched their challengers while the remaining half will showcase their cars next week. Pre-season testing is also fast approaching – beginning on February 21 in Sakhir – with the Bahrain Grand Prix kicking off the season a week later. There's plenty to look forward to, whether it's battles or rivalries, so we've rounded up five battles that will certainly be worth watching in 2024...

    Mercedes vs Ferrari vs McLaren vs Aston Martin and the Red Bull challenge

    Following their dominant display in 2023, Red Bull arguably remain the favourites entering the new campaign. But their rivals are ready to challenge the reigning champions.

    Toto Wolff has cautiously expressed hope regarding the progress that Mercedes look to have made with their car, while Lando Norris is confident that McLaren can be in the mix for race victories in 2024. Ferrari will also hope to have made progress, and they did score the only non-Red Bull victory of last season when Carlos Sainz won in Singapore.

    READ MORE: From power unit usage to promotional events – 8 rule changes you need to know for the 2024 F1 season

    But even if Max Verstappen’s team still hold the upper hand in the year ahead, the battle amongst those looking to take the fight to them could also be one to relish. Signs emerged of the increasingly close scrap between Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin as last season progressed.

    ZANDVOORT, NETHERLANDS - AUGUST 26: George Russell of Great Britain driving the (63) Mercedes AMG
    Mercedes and Ferrari ended the 2023 campaign with just three points between them

    The Scuderia only just missed out on second place in the championship, having ended the season just three points behind Mercedes.

    McLaren, meanwhile, made dramatic gains throughout the year, and Aston Martin looked to be bouncing back in the latter stages after making a hugely impressive start to 2023.

    BUXTON: Hamilton's Ferrari move is the biggest driver signing in F1 history – and the prospects are delicious

    And with the recent bombshell news that Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes to join Ferrari in 2025, will this add an extra dimension to the scrap between his current team and his future one? Or could any sense of tension within those respective outfits give McLaren and Aston Martin the chance to capitalise?

    With all four teams determined to become Red Bull’s closest challengers, the duel at the top looks set to be thrilling.

    SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 17: Carlos Sainz Jr of Spain and Scuderia Ferrari celebrates his
    Sainz and Ferrari claimed the only non-Red Bull race victory in 2023 at the Singapore Grand Prix

    Hamilton vs Leclerc

    Bear with us here – we’re aware that it’s not yet 2025, the season in which Hamilton will become Charles Leclerc’s new team mate at Ferrari. But knowing that this partnership is impending could set the scene for an interesting dynamic between the two drivers this year.

    With Leclerc having recently signed a new contract extension keeping him at the Scuderia beyond 2024, the close bond between the Monegasque and his squad is clear. But Leclerc may want to show that he can outperform Hamilton ahead of the seven-time world champion’s arrival next year.

    READ MORE: Hamilton to make shock switch from Mercedes to Ferrari for 2025 season

    Hamilton, meanwhile, got the better of fellow Mercedes driver George Russell for much of 2023 and is unlikely to shy away from proving that he can beat his next team mate.

    The off-track relationship between Leclerc and Hamilton has often looked to be an amiable one – will this remain the case as the two prepare to race for the same outfit in 2025?

    MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 29: Second placed Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes talks
    How will the dynamic play out between Hamilton and Leclerc in 2024?

    Norris vs Piastri

    Over at McLaren, both drivers will enter 2024 after a successful year last time out. Lando Norris had the better of rookie Oscar Piastri for much of the campaign, but Piastri had an excellent debut outing in the sport, with highlights including his Sprint win in Qatar.

    Having now got that first season under his belt, the only way is surely up for the Australian. And as for Norris, the Briton will arrive into the year with a new long-term deal with McLaren locked in, which could offer him an additional boost as he looks to gain even more momentum on his 2023 season.

    ANALYSIS: Loyalty, title-winning ambitions and unwavering faith – Norris and McLaren is a partnership that just works

    The team’s driver pairing has often been hailed as one of the most exciting in the field, and they clearly seem to be working well together. But with Piastri now that bit more experienced, he might be able to take the fight to Norris even more in 2024.

    piastri-norris-qatar-portrait.png
    Can Piastri take the fight to Norris even more in 2024?

    Ricciardo vs Tsunoda (vs Perez)

    Yuki Tsunoda had no less than three team mates at AlphaTauri (now called RB) in 2023. Nyck de Vries was replaced after 10 races by the returning Daniel Ricciardo, who then subsequently had to sit out five rounds after breaking a bone in his hand during free practice at Zandvoort. Liam Lawson stepped in for those events before Ricciardo returned for the final five races.

    He might have only completed a total of seven race weekends last year but Ricciardo seemingly did enough to put his name back in contention for a possible Red Bull comeback in 2025, should Sergio Perez fail to impress in the season ahead.

    READ MORE: 10 years since Daniel Ricciardo’s first Red Bull spell – the Australian’s rollercoaster F1 journey since

    But Tsunoda is also in the mix for that spot off the back of what was his strongest campaign in F1 so far. The Japanese driver was a solid presence for the team throughout the changes on the other side of the garage in 2023, and bolstered their total points tally by scoring on several occasions in the closing stages of the year.

    Ricciardo has previously admitted that a Red Bull return would be his “dream”, but it is likely that Tsunoda feels exactly the same way about getting his own opportunity with the Milton Keynes squad.

    While it has been stated that Sergio Perez's Red Bull seat is his in 2025, should he perform this year, there could be an added sense of urgency at the newly-named RB for Ricciardo and Tsunoda as they look to outperform the other and put themselves in prime position should Perez fail to deliver.

    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 23: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Scuderia
    Ricciardo and Tsunoda will both aiming to put themselves in contention for any potential Red Bull vacancy in 2025

    Williams vs RB vs Kick Sauber vs Haas

    Much like the potential multi-team battle at the front of the field, the second half of the pack also ended 2023 with very little margin between them. While Alpine held a lonely sixth place – 160 points behind fifth-placed Aston Martin and 92 ahead of Williams in seventh – the final four were tightly packed.

    Williams ended the campaign on 28 points, with AlphaTauri just behind on 25, while Alfa Romeo and Haas had 16 points and 12 points in ninth and 10th places respectively. In the closing stages of the year, it appeared that most of those four teams were in with a shout of claiming that P7 spot.

    READ MORE: Albon insists he’s ‘ready to fight for a championship’ as Williams racer ponders F1 future

    It was ultimately Williams who held the edge, mainly thanks to the performances of Alex Albon. However, RB CEO Peter Bayer recently spoke of the “strong step forward” made by his team amid a flurry of new appointments, including Alan Permane as Racing Director and Guillaume Cattelani in the role of Deputy Technical Director. Could those staff changes help the squad to get ahead of their rivals?

    Kick Sauber, meanwhile, have also made progress back at the factory and will be keen to improve on their P9 result in 2023. And it’s all change at Haas, with Guenther Steiner being replaced as Team Principal by Ayao Komatsu.

    All of this suggests that these four teams will be in fighting spirit when 2024 gets underway. It will certainly be fascinating to see how it plays out…