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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
1:00 AM 24th February 2024
sports

Ferrari On Top Amidst Bahrain Sandbagging

 
Formula 1’s sole official pre-season test has ended in Bahrain, and Ferrari will have been boosted as Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc set the fastest times on days two and three, after Red Bull’s triple world champion Max Verstappen proved unbeatable on the opening day. It was clear, though, that there was an element of sandbagging underway, where teams hide their true pace until it really matters come the opening race weekend.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is hoping for a competitive season
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is hoping for a competitive season
After the eight-year period when Mercedes dominated the sport with consecutive constructors’ championship titles from 2014 to 2021, the last two seasons have belonged in similar fashion to Red Bull, with more success potentially set to follow before the new regulations arrive in 2026. However, as we enter the third year of four under the 2022 regulations, the rules stability is likely to concertina the grid in terms of the performance gaps between teams, and Red Bull may well face more opposition from its leading rivals.

It has often been somewhat difficult to judge the relative pace of all the teams and their pairs of drivers due to pre-season testing being so limited and with many variables thrown into the mix: fuel loads, power unit settings, weather conditions, and the tyre compounds used. This was again true in Bahrain. The fact that each team can only run a single car at a time also means that each driver typically only gets a day and a half of official testing to become acquainted with his new steed before the imminent start of the season.

These restrictions are, of course, commendable, all down to a desire by the FIA governing body to limit team expenditure, but it doesn’t make the drivers’ tasks any easier. Last year’s test was certainly different though, as, once Red Bull’s RB19 had revealed its full capabilities, it was hard to see any driver other than the mighty Verstappen taking the title, which of course he did with consummate ease, winning 19 of the 22 Grands Prix.

George Russell used softer rubber to impress yesterday afternoon
George Russell used softer rubber to impress yesterday afternoon
The recent series of team launches revealed two key factors. Funnily enough, many of the new cars bore a distinct resemblance to last year’s RB19, and the one that actually least did so was the new Red Bull charger. The team had said it was simply an evolution of last year’s car, but this seemed to be a definite understatement due to its aggressive new sidepod design, a philosophy Mercedes had previously experimented with and failed with. As such, there was real interest up and down the pitlane as the test began on Wednesday morning to see just what the RB20 might be capable of compared to the RB19 and also how it would fare in relation to the other nine new cars it was set to share the Bahrain International Circuit with.

Each day’s testing began at 10am local time (7am GMT), with separate morning and afternoon sessions split by a lunch break. Teams usually tend to share the daily sessions between their drivers, but it was interesting to note that on Wednesday, Red Bull and Mercedes opted to hand its cars solely to Verstappen and George Russell, with Sergio Pérez and Sir Lewis Hamilton having to wait patiently in the wings for a chance to get behind the wheel of the RB20 and W15. Come the conclusion of the opening day’s running, all the teams other than Williams had shown impressive early reliability, and, after completing 143 laps, Verstappen had easily set the fastest time of the day, over 1.1 seconds quicker than the best of the rest, Lando Norris for McLaren.

Third fastest was Carlos Sainz for Ferrari, a likeable Spaniard who clearly has a point to prove before he is dropped at the end of this season to make way for the arrival of Hamilton. Russell may have undertaken 122 laps in the new Mercedes, but it was ominous that he was almost three seconds off Verstappen’s pace and ended the day only 12th quickest of the 18 drivers who had taken to the track.

Max Verstappen is again very much the pre-season favourite
Max Verstappen is again very much the pre-season favourite
Every Formula 1 team is understandably almost neurotic about not sharing its technical secrets with its rivals, and there will be a fascinating dynamic within the Mercedes team this season, with Hamilton having already decided to jump ship for Ferrari next year and with his current longtime employer not wanting him to pass any knowledge of its innovations to its Italian opponents.

Pérez and Hamilton took over for Red Bull and Mercedes on Thursday morning, along with drivers from the other eight teams, but the Mexican lost valuable track time due to a brake issue with the Red Bull. This was followed by the first red flag stoppage of the test after a drain cover had become loose at the entry to Turn 11, with debris being run over by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari and Hamilton’s Mercedes. The work required to repair the cover meant Race Control abandoned the remainder of the morning session, during which Leclerc had been fastest, calling for an early lunch break and adding an hour to the afternoon session (14.00 to 19.00 local time).

Pérez and Hamilton continued in the second session, whereas the other teams switched drivers, and, come its conclusion, it was encouraging to see that five different teams occupied the top five places, namely Sainz for Ferrari, Pérez for Red Bull, Hamilton for Mercedes, Norris for McLaren, and Daniel Ricciardo for RB (formerly known as AlphaTauri). It should be noted, though, that Sainz set the fastest time of the day on a softer, grippier compound tyre than second-placed Pérez.

Only a week now until the opening Grand Prix in Bahrain
Only a week now until the opening Grand Prix in Bahrain
The morning session during yesterday’s final day of testing was again interrupted by red flags following a further loose drain cover issue at Turn 11, but the on-track action resumed once further repairs had been completed. At the end of the session, it was Sainz, who had again posted the quickest time ahead of Pérez, and this then left the other ten drivers to take over for the final afternoon of testing, including, of course, the return of Verstappen and Russell, who had sat out Thursday. Most teams focused on longer race simulation runs on harder tyres as the track conditions were very close to what will be experienced in the Grand Prix next Saturday. However, the top three on the final timesheets used softer compounds to lead the way, with Leclerc, Russell, and Sauber’s Zhou Guanyu outpacing fourth-placed Verstappen, whom Red Bull kept on less grippy rubber. The reigning champions remain the pre-season favourites, though.

Christian Horner was present in Bahrain, undertaking his usual duties as the Red Bull team principal, and was understandably unwilling to answer any specific questions about the still ongoing investigation instigated by Red Bull’s Austrian-based parent company into allegations made about him by a female member of the team. It seems there may be a conclusion within the next two weeks to this distracting issue, which was the main subject of conversations around the Bahrain F1 paddock throughout the last three days.

With pre-season testing now concluded, all the teams will be focusing heavily on the masses of data derived from the three days of running before the opening Grand Prix of the longest ever Formula 1 season, which is set to take place in Bahrain on Saturday, March 2nd.