What we learned from Day 1 of F1 2024 pre-season testing in Bahrain

Max Verstappen finished the first day of F1 pre-season over a second ahead of the rest of the pack, but is Red Bull's advantage really that big?

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A third of Formula 1 pre-season testing is in the books for 2024, and it’s time for drivers and team principals to explain that it’s too early to read into the numbers and they’re not making any judgements just yet.

But don’t fear, by the second half of the season those same people will be giving interviews about how they knew how the season would roughly pan out from their first few laps on the Bahrain International Circuit.

Max Verstappen topped the timesheets on day one, we’ll see him again on Thursday afternoon but Sergio Perez will get his first go tomorrow morning and then have the full day on Friday – the Mexican finished top of the pile 12 months ago.

Verstappen‘s benchmark time today was still well over a second slower than Perez‘s best lap on the final day of 2023 but it’d be a surprise if no one has gone quicker by close of play this week, then teams have just five days to make their changes before free practice for the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix.

The flying Dutchman was 1.140 seconds ahead of Lando Norris – who briefly held the quickest time in the afternoon – and 1.240 ahead Carlos Sainz, with Daniel Ricciardo and Pierre Gasly the only other drivers within a second and a half of the Dutchman.

Red Bull picked up where they left off

Max Verstappen on track in Bahrain for pre-season testing | Red Bull Content Pool

Let’s start with the obvious. Even after their dominant 2023, it feels inconceivable that Red Bull will be over a second quicker than the rest of the field in qualifying for the 2024 Bahrain GP.

None of Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren put in a hot lap after sunset in Sakhir, and we may have to wait until Friday night – or indeed qualifying a week after that – to see a true representation of each team’s one-lap pace.

What’s more worrying is Red Bull‘s long-run pace. Max Verstappen‘s C3 ‘long’ run at the end of the session saw his laptimes in the low-mid 1:34s, which was seconds quicker than any other driver.

With all the testing caveats then it is hard to compare – Sainz and Norris were a full three seconds slower on their C3 (mediums) long run but George Russell trailed by just over a second on a longer race sim on the harder C1 tyres.

What is clear is that Red Bull haven’t been tripped up by their switch in concept, and haven’t seen anything like the troubles Mercedes faced when they unveiled the zero sidepods approach in 2022.

Basement battlers

While it’s hard to confidently order the top teams from testing, the back of the grid is somewhat easier to identify.

Though they turned it around later in 2023, McLaren had a nightmare test 12 months ago then duly rocked up to the Bahrain GP and put in one of the worst team race performances in recent F1 history, as Oscar Piastri became the first retirement of the season 13 laps in and Norris was the only driver to finish two laps down having made six pitstops to manage a hydraulics problem.

There were no woes to compete with that this time around, but Williams missed out on nearly two hours of running thanks to mechanical issues, with Alex Albon‘s fuel pump issue in the first session meaning that Logan Sargeant didn’t get out of his garage until well into the second session.

Logan Sargeant corners on the first day of 2024 F1 pre-season testing | @WilliamsRacing/X.com

Then, the American produced the most dramatic moment of the day with his smokey 360-degree pirouette and pulled up with a driveshaft issue on his next trip out of the garage.

Williams have gone bold with the FW46 and even put new components on the car between its launch and the start of testing. And that showed – so in the era of less testing than ever they may still be figuring things out by the time they take to the track in anger next week.

The good news is that the season’s longer than ever, and AlphaTauri‘s finish to 2023 proved that even an improvement in the last quarter of the year can completely change a campaign.

Sargeant‘s pace on the fastest lap of his cameo was promising too, but that can’t disguise the fact that Williams‘ pairing were 17th and 18th out of 18 drivers in terms of distance covered, and only four individual drivers drove less laps than Sargeant and Albon combined.

Haas were the complete opposite – rooted to the bottom of the timesheets and over a second behind the next-best driver, but they completed the most laps of any team and it wasn’t even particularly close.

Nico Hulkenberg‘s 82 laps in the afternoon is frankly absurd and make poor Kevin Magnussen‘s impressive 66 circumnavigations look insignificant – Haas entered the test fearing they’re off the pace but looking to understand the car more completely and they certainly completed their aim of data-gathering.

However, the eight hours on track also confirms that admission about their (un)competitiveness at race one.

What’s going on in between?

(left to right) Lando Norris, McLaren CEO Zak Brown, Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Team Principal Andrea Stella after the 2023 Japanese GP | McLaren F1 Team

McLaren CEO Zak Brown‘s press conference on day two will be fascinating viewing if RB keep their pace up.

Brown has been a long-time critic of the close relationship between Red Bull and their feeder team, who have aligned themselves closer to the double-reigning constructors’ champions after spending most of 2023 in the wilderness.

And it seems to have paid dividends, as Ricciardo finished the day fourth, just a hundredth and a half behind Sainz and a tenth behind Norris – though the Australian was probably the most aggressive driver in the closing stages apart from Verstappen.

He didn’t really do a long run so it’s hard to read too much into RB‘s pace but that’s definitely something to look out for in the next two days – and how good do they look doing it? Even though the name’s a mess, that livery is definitely an upgrade on AlphaTauri.

We’ve already touched on Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari, who are yet to show their full hands, but on early viewing Aston Martin appear to be at least in the same ballpark as their rivals last season.

Fernando Alonso completed the most laps of anyone in the first session and finished third on the timesheets but we won’t see him under the lights at night until the final day, so mark your calendars for that.

Where Ferrari did appear potentially a step behind their rivals is the SF-24’s drivability though. Charles Leclerc was seen wrestling through the first few corners throughout the morning and the second half of the lap through Sainz out of shape a couple of times too. It could just be both drivers finding the limit of the car, but it did stand out.

Alpine are the other team who look like they could genuinely join that fight after some promising (albeit short-lived) pace on the C3s from Gasly. His longest stint was five laps but his times averaged a 1:37.0, similar to Sainz and Norris.

And while it took him long enough to put in a hot lap, his eventual fifth-place finish should give Alpine more reasons to be cheerful. Finally, Zhou Guanyu looked like he could enjoy really pushing the Sauber in the first half of the afternoon session but their race pace looks like it leaves room for improvement.

At the moment, there still appears to be a divide with one battle between Alpine, RB and Sauber still trailing the MercedesMcLarenFerrariAston Martin fight, but that assumption could all change over the next few days.

Adam Dickinson
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, and 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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