Do Mercedes really have the pace to challenge Red Bull? What the numbers say

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and George Russell ran first and second in FP2 ahead of the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

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On a day of apparent Formula 1 revelations at the Bahrain International Circuit, ironically the biggest questions from the start of the day remains unanswered – who is Red Bull‘s closest challenger, and how big is their gap to the rest of the field?

We won’t have a full conclusion to that until Saturday evening, but free practice at least confirmed they’re not storming away at the front of the pack just yet.

While RB and McLaren led the way in FP1, it was Mercedes to the fore after sunset as Lewis Hamilton and George Russell secured a 1-2 in the only representative conditions ahead of qualifying, with Fernando Alonso third and Max Verstappen down in sixth, half a second behind.

“We’re not going to get carried away with ourselves,” Russell told F1TV. “The qualifying pace looked really strong. We still need to try and understand why it was so good.

“We made some changes from the test and it exceeded our expectations but ultimately in the long run pace, which is where it all happens, Max was still ahead of us.

“We’re really pleased with the day. The car is performing really well but we’re not getting carried away – it was very close with Fernando, Lando and the Ferraris, and Lewis and I were very similar. We’ve got a real fight on our hands in race pace.”

So who’s telling the truth – Russell or Mercedes‘ pace?

So can Mercedes challenge Red Bull?

Lewis Hamilton on track in 2024 F1 pre-season testing in Bahrain | Sam Bloxham / Mercedes F1

The FP2 results simply cannot be the full picture of the F1 pecking order ahead of qualifying – it feels inconceivable that the Red Bull of Max Verstappen is truly just 0.023 seconds ahead of Nico Hulkenberg and Haas.

However, it also seems like they’re not the full second ahead of the rest of the grid that was demonstrated on the first day of pre-season testing.

The most obvious solution to this paradox is that Red Bull have turned the engine down and aren’t pushing as hard as Mercedes, with Ferrari potentially employing a similar smokescreen.

Mercedes were quickest in the fastest two sections of the track – there’s only five real corners in sectors one and three and they’re all relatively slow-speed. However, Hamilton and Russell were both in the bottom half of speed trap figures at the high and low ends of 315km/h, while Verstappen and Sergio Perez were tenth and fourth in those timesheets at 316.4 and 317.4km/h respectively.

There’s also the elephant in the room that Verstappen is a much better qualifier than Perez – who missed five consecutive Q3 sessions at one stage in 2023 while the Dutchman secured pole on each occasion.

It does seem possible that Mercedes will be in the battle for the front row of the grid but don’t write Verstappen out of that fight just yet either.

Red Bull do certainly still seem to have the edge on race pace though. Verstappen lapped in the mid-1:36s for his long-run on the soft tyres which the Silver Arrows couldn’t get close to – both drivers started in the high 1:36s and quickly slipped up into the 1:37s.

It was a similar story for Alonso, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri… But curiously also for Perez. The Mexican didn’t look as comfortable in the RB20 even in pre-season testing so it could be a two-tiered race once again for Red Bull.

However, Mercedes certainly appear to be well in the fight for the podium, and if all goes smoothly it should be their best start to a new season under the current era of regulations.

“We need to sit down and understand where this increase in performance came from. Is it a one-off? Can we sustain this? What we need to do to fight for a serious position on Sunday?,” Russell added.

“As I said, our aim is to try and focus and fight for victory. After testing, Max looked a long way out in front but now that gap has reduced. He’s still out in front, I think he’s still got a healthy margin to the others rather than just a ridiculous margin.

“By no means does this mean we’re back or we can fight with them just yet but as I said, it’s a really solid day.”

Adam Dickinson
An international multi-award-winning journalist, Adam Dickinson has written for Total-Motorsport.com since June 2022 and also contributes to TNT Sports, Eurosport and the Rugby Paper. He's also had articles published in the Daily Telegraph and several local newspapers, previously worked for Last-Lap.co.uk and FeederSeries.net in motorsport, and graduated with a First-Class Journalism Degree from the University of Sheffield having also studied in Oklahoma. Adam started watching F1 by accident in 2007, catching the last race in Indianapolis, and attended his first race as a journalist at the 2023 British Grand Prix.
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