Bahrain GP Preview: Are Ferrari primed to surprise Verstappen?

Everything you need to know about the F1 season-opening 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

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New season of Formula 1, new hope, new storylines but there’s a feeling we will end up with the same champions – Max Verstappen and Red Bull. The season has not even started and the paddock feeling is we are in for a long year, which is actually true because there are a record-breaking 24 races to come.

Ferrari topped pre-season testing but Red Bull quietly went about their own business and a long run on the final day from Verstappen left many people scratching their heads.

Nearly everyone thinks Red Bull are clear of the field, it’s just a question of how much? However, we don’t know how much everyone had up their sleeves and it’s far too early to be handing out the titles to Milton Keynes again ahead of the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix.

All in on Red Bull?

As Charles Leclerc completed an impressive race simulation on the final day of testing, Verstappen was on a long run of his own which was very consistent and fast.

It wasn’t a full race simulation though, so fuel levels are not known but many believe it was a practice first stint. If that’s the case, Red Bull have a few tenths on Ferrari. But it’s a big if.

We also don’t know about the engine modes and it’s here where Red Bull may have had the engines turned right down. On a circuit like Bahrain, that could be worth several tenths.

“Time will tell if the others are fast or not or if we are fast enough,” said Verstappen, who won the 2023 Bahrain GP. “Bahrain is one particular track and there are lots of different tracks on the calendar where we have to perform.

“In general, it’s better not to think about it. Wake up, get to the track, see the result – if it’s good or bad, it’s not going to change anything. That’s how I approach it.”

Max Verstappen poses for a portrait during Red Bull Racing 2024 Season Launch RB20 in London | Will Cornelius / Red Bull Content Pool

Ferrari cannot be ruled out

Verstappen was 0.292 seconds ahead of the next best non-Red Bull in qualifying at the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix, which was Leclerc in third.

But, Ferrari have made big strides over the winter and tyre degradation is seemingly no longer a major issue for them. They have always been strong in slow-speed corners and are right up there with Red Bull in terms of straight line speed.

Leclerc and Carlos Sainz have both admitted the new 2024 car is easier to drive than its predecessor, so they should, at the very least, start the season where they left off in 2023 as Red Bull’s closest challengers.

“Honestly, from the first lap on the simulator, it felt like an easier car to drive whenever we drove with some wind and similar on the track from the very first laps here,” said Leclerc.

“Once we got here, the feeling was good, we managed to be consistent straightaway. And this will help the race runs. However, drivability and competitiveness are two very different things.

“Last year, we were struggling a lot to be consistent, because the car was just a bit all over the place whenever there was some wind. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, especially in qualifying, that doesn’t mean that we’ll win a lot thanks to that.

Charles Leclerc during F1 2024 testing | Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

“So, and that doesn’t mean anything compared to Red Bull. So we still have to work a lot. But I am confident that we definitely have stepped forwards in terms of tyre management, because whenever the tyres are more used, the weaknesses of the car are more apparent, you can feel them more. And with the characteristics of this car, it should be quite a bit better.”

Leclerc can get pretty punchy when he wants and out of every driver on the grid, he’s really taken it to Verstappen when it comes to wheel to wheel combat.

The 26-year-old came out on top in a brilliant battle against Verstappen at the 2022 Bahrain GP and fought hard in Saudi Arabia. Both times, he was exceptional and we badly need more of Leclerc vs Verstappen.

Where are McLaren and Mercedes at?

Mercedes had a solid test and the drivers also seem much happier with the drivability of their car after they went winless for the first time in 12 years in 2023.

Lewis Hamilton’s final year at Mercedes before joining Ferrari could be a strange one as the team may not always favour him and, behind the scenes, he will be kept out of some meetings.

Those games will begin from this weekend and the Bahrain International Circuit layout means teammates can get close and go wheel to wheel several times.

“Nothing really changes,” claimed Hamilton. “I was back at the factory on Monday. It’s full attack. Everyone is all hands on deck.

“I’ve been with this team for such a long time. There’s so much love within the team and I still, and always will, love this team.

“Everyone was incredibly understanding within the team and hugely supportive. Everyone knows I’m here to deliver for them this year. That’s the focus and it’s the same as any other year.

“There will be, or it is, emotional.  Every week will be emotional. The seat fit for example is the last seat fit with the team and you remember your first one.

“The winter test is the last winter test you do with the team, so there will be a lot of emotional experiences through the year but we will do it together.”

McLaren will be hoping to join Mercedes in the fight for a top five spot but they didn’t show much promise from testing and for whatever reason, Bahrain has not suited their car in recent years.

Lando Norris always plays down expectations but it genuinely seems they are not in the fight at the front yet, with team boss Andrea Stella already admitting Red Bull‘s car “wowed” him.

Norris, who signed a new long-term deal to stay at McLaren, is still searching for his maiden F1 win and surely it will come at some point in 2024.

“We have a rough idea of where we are at but we don’t know where we stand,” said Norris. “It’s clear there is a top two then a bunch behind with Mercedes, Aston Martin and us. We are in a much better position than last year and that’s the most important thing.”

John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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