F1 Bahrain GP takeaways: Verstappen on cruise control, Ferrari makes a statement


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School is back in session.

The brand new Formula One season — the longest in the sport’s history with 24 grands prix and six sprint races — is off to a very familiar start on the sporting side. Max Verstappen already looks capable of breaking his own record of 10 consecutive wins after securing his eighth straight victory on Saturday. By the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, the Dutchman had nailed a Grand Chelem, meaning in addition to the win, he had secured pole position, recorded the fastest lap and led the entire race.

Complete domination, once again. As Mercedes’ Toto Wolff said, “I think today Max is not in a different league, but he’s in a different galaxy.”

But plenty happened behind the Red Bull drivers, who secured their first 1-2 finish since the Italian GP last September. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz made a daring move on teammate Charles Leclerc early in the race, and both had solid performances despite a brake issue.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton scuffled, Valtteri Bottas experienced a lengthy pit stop, Nico Hülkenberg and Lance Stroll made contact early in the race, and Williams is having an issue with its new steering wheel. But on the positive side, all 20 cars finished the race.

Here are our takeaways — plus a new notebook section — from the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix.

Can Verstappen and Red Bull be stopped?

To no one’s surprise, the Bahrain GP became a leisurely Saturday stroll for the three-time world champion, who steadily grew his lead.

With 15 laps to go, the gap to second-place Sergio Pérez sat at 15 seconds. With five to go, it had grown to an eye-catching 20 seconds. By the end, Verstappen sat 22.457 seconds ahead of his teammate and 25 seconds clear of Sainz in P3. As Red Bull enters its 20th season on the grid, their fans couldn’t ask for more with the on-track action.

“Max was dominant, and Checo, I thought, drove a very strong race, coming through the field from fifth to achieve a 1-2 finish at the first grand prix of the year. Achieving maximum points, I think, is the perfect start for us in our 20th season,” team boss Christian Horner said. With the caveat that “you can’t read too much into a single event because of the nature of the circuit, the temperature, the fact that we’re able to carry over a soft tire into the race,” he called it “a dominant display.”

He acknowledged that domination could mean another season criticized as boring. “I’m sorry that it wasn’t a more entertaining race for you today, but that is the result of the team doing its job and producing an incredible car.”

But Horner also suggested 2024 could see more battles. “It’s a long season, many different venues, different challenges, different conditions. And what we saw in the testing is that things are closer.” Verstappen agreed, saying in the post-race press conference, “I also think that in general, other teams are closer.”

Bahrain is one of Red Bull’s strongest circuits, the Dutchman said. Jeddah is a reasonably different track, but it could be another repeat. Pérez (who won there last year) said, “I believe that the car will be strong there with the high-speed content, so I think there should be another strong weekend for us.”

Max Verstappen made clear that he was the runaway favorite for his fourth world title in 2024. (ALI HAIDER / POOL / AFP)

Ferrari comes out swinging

Carlos Sainz has said all the magnanimous things about Ferrari’s decision to give his seat to Lewis Hamilton for 2025. But you just knew there’d be a chip on the Spaniard’s shoulder as the season began in Bahrain. He’s a proud driver. Quick throughout testing, practice and qualifying, Sainz drove with a focused ferocity on Saturday.

He overtook teammate Charles Leclerc for P4 on Lap 11 with a daring lunge into the Turn 1 hairpin, completing the pass through Turn 3. Sainz then got past Mercedes’ George Russell on Lap 18. With just the Red Bulls in front of him at that point, Sainz was told by his engineer, “Let’s go hunting.”

Sainz didn’t quite track down Pérez, who managed his soft tires well for the last twenty laps and finished 2.6 seconds clear of the Ferrari, but he joined the podium with a satisfied smile nonetheless. One gets the feeling we’ll see that determination a lot this season as he hunts for a new seat and defends his pride.

“I felt really good out there today,” Sainz said. “The start wasn’t ideal, but from then on, I just managed my tires well. And then from there, I could do my best – overtook two or three cars on the way to the podium and then keeping up with the Red Bull there at the end, which was a pleasant surprise.

“Still not enough, not where we want to be, but good steps forward compared to last year.”

The “not where we want to be” part plagued Leclerc, who complained about his brakes for much of the race, calling the car “impossible to drive properly.” By the end, Leclerc had found the car enough to get past Russell for P4. But it’s interesting to see the two Ferrari drivers endure different races in what looks like the second-best car on the grid.

“We have made a step forward, but I fail to see the positives at the end of a weekend where, when it’s time to put everything together, we have issues,” Leclerc said.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 02: Third placed Carlos Sainz of Spain and Ferrari celebrates on the podium during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 02, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Carlos Sainz started off his 2024 with a third-place finish. (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

The inscrutable midfield

Hands up if you thought Zhou Guanyu and Kevin Magnussen would be flirting with a points finish in the first race of the season. I’ll wait. (Twenty minutes pass.) Yeah, not exactly on the bingo card. Zhou brought home P11, and Magnussen finished a respectable P12.

All indications from preseason testing were that the RBs had taken a step forward over the winter, cementing the Stake and Haas cars at the back of the grid. One result in the season’s first race doesn’t mean that read was incorrect. Still, Haas and Stake will take heart in finishing ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda after so much team turnover this offseason.

Most hopeful for Haas was the tire degradation, their old foe, which was “a little better” at the notoriously high-deg Bahrain circuit.

“(It) does feel better. I feel like I’m on par with the guys I’m racing out there in terms of tire performance,” Magnussen said. “I don’t feel disadvantaged today … If this is the case that we have this tire performance, then suddenly we need to look at other things that we weren’t looking at before. That’s a positive.”

Regardless of the future implications for Haas and Stake, the results are a good reminder that preseason testing can be a bit of a mirage. RB’s pace backed off once proper practices got underway and labored under braking in the grand prix. Haas’s testing lap times were nothing to write about, but it looked quick over one lap in qualifying again, and the race pace was better. The midfield still has plenty of sorting to do – behind the top teams, the truth of things is still emerging.

“Beginning of the week, if you tell me we’re fighting with the Astons, I didn’t think that was the reality of our performance,” Zhou said. “Clearly, we didn’t have the pace at the end when we had lighter fuel compared to them. But happy we did a very clean and promising race. We made a step.”

The next step for Stake, Haas and the rest of the midfield is gauging just how big a step forward they’ve made. Luckily, next week’s high-speed circuit offers a new test and a fresh chance to assess this season’s midfield scrap.

“On one hand, you obviously want to see your competitors in the mirrors,” Ricciardo said, “but it is good that there is a pretty competitive field, you know; at least in the midfield, it’s very competitive.”

Emptying the notebook

  • Who expected Ricciardo and Tsunoda to have the first teammate barney of the year? RB gave the orders late in the race for the drivers to swap, and Tsunoda voiced his frustration loud and clear over the radio. After the checkered flag came out, the two nearly collided during their cooldown lap on the exit of a corner when Tsunoda dove on the inside of the Australian. Ricciardo told F1 TV, “I’m being very sensible right now, but let’s call it immaturity.
  • Mercedes had a cooling issue with its engines, as did Williams. That’s something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks. Williams, McLaren and Aston Martin are all engine customers of Mercedes.
  • The engines weren’t the only iffy part of Williams’s day. Logan Sargeant experienced steering wheel issues again, which caused him to lock up and head off track. Williams replaced the steering wheel, but it’ll need to look more into it to identify the root issue.
  • That was a terrific recovery drive from Lance Stroll after spinning out in the second turn of the race. (Not his fault – Nico Hülkenberg couldn’t slow enough behind). Stroll fought back for P10, a good sign the Aston Martin hasn’t lost a step over the winter. “I didn’t enjoy the first lap, but I enjoyed the recovery for sure,” Stroll said.
  • McLaren warned us it wouldn’t show its true potential in Bahrain, and that bore out as Lando Norris (P6) and Oscar Piastri (P8) couldn’t keep pace with Mercedes or Ferrari. But the team was still happy with the result – doing well at a track it typically struggles on is a good sign for the season ahead. Norris is excited about the package McLaren will bring to Jeddah next week, saying, “The upgrade (last season) has changed our lives.”
  • Valtteri Bottas’s last pit stop took 52.4 seconds. It takes about 2.4 seconds for a message to reach the Moon from Earth. So NASA could’ve sent about 21 messages to the surface of another celestial object while Bottas pitted. Makes you think.
BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 02: Oracle Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner and Geri Horner walk in the Paddock holding hands prior to the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 02, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

(Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Horner declines to comment

The checkered flag has fallen on the year’s first race, but questions remain. While teams will pour over data to find a competitive edge and prepare for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix just days away, the aftermath of the allegations against Christian Horner is still at the forefront.

On Thursday, an anonymous sender leaked unverified text messages to the media and other high-ranking F1 figures. The next day, Horner attended a meeting with FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem and F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali.

The Red Bull team principal held his usual post-race media session on Saturday, but he repeatedly declined to comment when asked about the ongoing situation. Horner said he remains “100 percent” confident he’ll stay at the helm for the entire season.

The situation first came to the public’s attention in early February when Red Bull GmbH launched an investigation into Horner after allegations of inappropriate behavior were made against him. He has continued to deny the allegations. On Wednesday, Red Bull GmbH announced that “the grievance has been dismissed” and that “The complainant has a right of appeal. Red Bull is confident that the investigation has been fair, rigorous and impartial.”

In the wake of the investigation’s completion, Toto Wolff and Zak Brown called for transparency over the probe. The Mercedes team boss said Thursday, “We cannot afford to leave things in the vague and in the opaque on critical topics like this because this is going to catch us out.”

“It’s sometimes very short-sighted to try to suppress it,” he added. “Not saying this has happened. We’re standing from the outside and looking at it. But just as a looking at statements or press releases or the timelines, it just seems that it’s a bit not as modern as things go in this world, in the real world out there.

“But maybe in Formula One, we’re just (in) our little bubble, and we think that’s OK.”

Wolff was asked several questions about the situation following Saturday’s race but opted not to dive deeper into the matter. He said at one point, “The moment I start to continue to question how this has been handled, I am probably not doing any good to the whole issue because then it could be seen as just about a power fight within F1. That’s why I think. It is not in the teams’ hands; it is a so much bigger topic. I don’t want to diminish the situation by making it seem like the Mercedes or McLaren guy talks about the Red Bull guy.

“Let’s see how it goes in the next days, and I would very much hope the governing body, the commercial rights holder, sets the compass right.”

(Lead images of Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez, Ferrari cars at the Bahrain GP: Mark Thompson, Steve Etherington/Motorsport Images/Sipa USA via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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