How will thrilling battle behind Verstappen unfold at Bahrain GP?

Cool track conditions will see the soft tyre play a crucial role in Saturday's 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

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It was a punch to everyone’s stomach when Max Verstappen took pole position from Charles Leclerc for the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix, unless you are part of Red Bull of course.

Leclerc had actually set the fastest time of the day in Q2 but was limited to just one run on new tyres and went the wrong way with a wing adjustment, which Verstappen took full advantage of.

That explains why the reigning world champion apologised to his engineer Gianpiero Lambiase that he thought his lap time wasn’t enough for pole.

The big concern for everyone else is Red Bull‘s race pace is usually much better than their qualifying pace. We shouldn’t forget that Verstappen is going for his eighth consecutive race win, so could be just two victories away from his own record of 10 on the spin after Saturday.

Pirelli possible 2024 Bahrain GP race strategies | Pirelli
Pirelli possible 2024 Bahrain GP race strategies | Pirelli

Can anyone stop Verstappen?

In the only representative practice session, on Thursday, Verstappen had a few tenths in hand on the rest of the field on the long runs and he was very confident afterwards too about his race pace.

Verstappen is the only front-runner with a new set of softs available and that is the preferred race tyre due to the cooler conditions.

In 2022, Verstappen was on a three-stop strategy before he retired, such was the pace of the softs and the drivers wanted to maximise its performance. We should see a similar theme in this year’s race.

Even if Verstappen doesn’t lead after the opening lap, you can overtake at the Bahrain International Circuit thanks to its long straights and three DRS zones.

Max Verstappen speaks to George Russell and Charles Leclerc after qualifying at the 2024 Bahrain GP | Mark Thompson / Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

“We have done quite a few long runs now, to the point where you almost get bored of it,” said Verstappen, who has won once in Sakhir in 2023.

“I’m confident that we have a good race car, but I think also what you saw already in the long runs, the gaps are small and it’s about attention to detail and that will make the difference.”

Ferrari favourites in battle for second?

Fancy an nine-way fight for the podium? You might just get one because the Ferrari, McLaren, Aston Martin, Mercedes drivers and Sergio Perez could be nose to tail for much of the 57 laps around the Bahrain International Circuit.

Leclerc may start as favourite simply because of his track position and Ferrari have improved their race pace significantly.

Tyres sets remaining for each driver at 2024 Bahrain GP | Pirelli

If you think Ferrari will struggle with tyre wear, get ready for a new mindset about them when it comes to Sundays in 2024, or Saturdays for these opening two events, because they may have finally cracked their biggest weakness.

“The feeling is much better compared to last year,” said Leclerc. “Last year, whenever we had used tyres, the car would become very, very difficult to drive.

“The balance would be completely out of place compared to the short runs. This year, we are in the right window now in the long runs. So it feels quite a lot better. It helps us to be more consistent. However, again, for the competitiveness, we’ll see.”

George Russell starts third and Carlos Sainz is fourth, so Ferrari could have two cars very close on track. That in itself will be fascinating given Sainz is leaving at the end of this season.

As for Mercedes, Russell was delighted to be less than a tenth away from the front row and their race pace was also strong in testing and practice.

“I think what we saw in testing was our qualifying pace being a little bit offset and our race pace probably being next best to Max,” said Russell.

“Now we’ve improved the qualifying pace, we hope it hasn’t hindered our race pace. It’s uncharacteristically cold here in Bahrain at the moment. I think it’s going to be about 16 degrees by the time we go to the race and we’re normally talking 30s or mid-30s here in Bahrain.

“There’s a lot of unexpected things to come. The soft tyre is performing well around this circuit, in the race maybe people will do two sets of the softs, two sets of the hards, a Medium. But it’s the first race of the season and I think we’re all just excited to get going.”

Russell is correct that two sets of softs and one hard is probably the way to go, so Verstappen having just one set of hards from pole shouldn’t be an issue.

For everyone else, whether you use a soft in the final stint and go for a charge to the chequered flag could be the deciding factor for finishing on the podium or not.

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell during 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix practice | Mercedes / LAT Images

What can Hamilton do from ninth?

Lewis Hamilton was disappointed to qualify ninth but the Mercedes driver revealed he went for a different setup compared to Russell. The setup should help Hamilton for the race though but has he left himself too much to do?

Overtaking is easy but you can lose so much time or tyre performance by battling another driver. Hamilton will need to be very aggressive and get moves done clinically if he wants to challenge for the podium.

“Thursday, was really good,” Hamilton told Sky Sports F1. “Me and George were on the same setups but he went ‘left’ and I went ‘right’. ‘Right’ was definitely not good for a single lap but I felt more comfortable with more fuel, so I hope that reflects in the race.”

“I’ve definitely sacrificed more than I hoped to and I hope it pays off. It’s a lot of work to do to get past all those quick cars ahead of me but it will be fun.”

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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