Ferrari may be closer to beating Max Verstappen and Red Bull than you think

Ferrari had a very promising final day of testing in Sakhir ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix

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For years, Ferrari have promised so much in Formula 1 testing and delivered an equal measure of disappointment in the races that followed. But after three days of testing and 416 laps of track data, the Scuderia can look forward to chasing down Red Bull and three-time world champion Max Verstappen at the front of the grid.

Expectations were set early on that the Austrian team would blow away the rest of the field after Adrian Newey‘s aerodynamic eighth wonder of the world, the RB20, left F1 fans in awe with its advanced design.

Day 1 of testing suggested those predictions were spot on, with Verstappen a whole second clear of the rest of the field. But Ferrari’s SF-24 looked radiant in the Middle Eastern sunshine, and on Days 2 and 3, it produced the performance everyone was hoping for.

Ferrari’s cautious optimism

Charles Leclerc bettered Verstappen‘s time by eight tenths in the morning session on Day 2, while Carlos Sainz – fired up ahead of his eventual exit at the end of the season – became the first driver to post a sub-90-second lap around the circuit on the C4 tyre with a 1:29.921 in the afternoon.

Then Leclerc ended Day 3 with a 1:30.322, which again was quicker than Verstappen and Sergio Perez. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to generate some optimism inside the Ferrari garage and indicate Frederic Vasseur‘s team are on the right track. At last, the Prancing Horse was living up to its name.

Charles Leclerc corners for Ferrari at the start of 2024 F1 pre-season testing in Bahrain | @ScuderiaFerrai/X.com

Even Christian Horner, who arguably does a better job than most public relations executives in boasting about his team’s strengths, was hesitant to suggest Red Bull would be so far ahead of their rivals.

“It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from times other than we don’t know what flow those competitors are running on, or how close they’re running,” Horner told the press in Bahrain.

“So we don’t know what [lap times] we’re doing. I think it would be fair to say that we can have a decent car, a good basis, the drivers’ feedback was encouraging.

Crunching the numbers

On Day 3, the final long runs would give the best view into what we can expect from the teams during the race in Bahrain. Sure enough, this is where Ferrari were slower than Red Bull, leading some to ponder if Red Bull were mischievously sandbagging to create a false sense of hope.

According to F1 telemetry data, Leclerc hovered between the 1:37.5 and 1:38.5 on average during his 18-lap stint on the medium tyre. By contrast, Verstappen completed 15 laps on the same compound and was comfortably inside the low 1 minute 37s. Sainz was even slower than Leclerc, dropping into the 1 minute 38s and 1 minute 39s on his nine-lap run.

While the times posted are genuine, it may not offer a fair and accurate measure of pace when the drivers return to Bahrain in eight days’ time. There is no indication how much fuel they had on board when they did those laps, and the fact George Russell and Yuki Tsunoda both knocked in quicker lap times than Verstappen on their long runs says a lot.

That’s not to say Mercedes or Visa CashApp RB won’t be quick this season, but typically their cars were not the fastest in a straight line across the three days of testing or in the individual sectors. Were they running less fuel than Verstappen? Was Verstappen running with a full tank thus giving him a realistic simulation of his pace in Bahrain on March 2?

Only the teams know – and they won’t tell us, so it’s still very much a guessing game. But it makes for an interesting spectacle. Last season, it was a depressing viewing for any F1 fan – aside from Red Bull – to see Verstappen and co. so far ahead of the rest of the pack, but Ferrari may have offered a glimpse into their potential. Just like in 2022, it could be close.

Are Red Bull just sandbagging?

Of course, Red Bull may be biding their time before they continue their dominance at the Bahrain International Circuit on March 2. That was the view of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who gave a bleak assessment of the rest of the grid’s chances when asked about his own prospects.

Max Verstappen makes his final preparations in the Red Bull garage on day one of 2024 F1 pre-season testing before driving out onto the Bahrain International Circuit | Mark Thompson/Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

“We are 19 drivers who think that we are not going to win the world championship,” he told Dutch press. “Max is the champion and Red Bull dominates the sport now, even the design this year has been a surprise.

“So we have to see how they go and for now, take our hats off. After seeing the car [Red Bull‘s RB20], I think there is less chance of winning a race this year, that’s how it is.”

After preventing Red Bull from taking a clean sweep in 2023 in Singapore last year, Ferrari might have a bigger say when the Bahrain Grand Prix comes around this Saturday.

Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan
Joe Krishnan is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who has worked for a number of media organisations, including the Daily Express, The Mirror, Evening Standard, The Independent and Bleacher Report. Joe has been following F1 since when he watched Mika Hakkinen clinch the 1999 drivers' championship, and his first taste of real-life racing action was watching David Coulthard spin off into the gravel at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2001.
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