Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024

Analysis: Verstappen’s still ahead but the chasing pack is closer than before

2024 Bahrain GP strategy briefing

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With Max Verstappen winning 19 of the 22 grands prix held last season, neutral fans could easily be forgiven for hoping to see the world champion off the top spot on the grid for the first race of 2024.

But wasn’t how things played out in Bahrain. To the surprise of the Red Bull driver – but probably no-one else – he will start his title defence from pole for the second year in a row.

All through the winter and pre-season, the finest technical minds throughout the field all predicted that the 10 teams would likely grow even closer heading into year three of the current technical regulations. And on the basis of what we’ve seen so far this weekend, they have all been proven right.

In the first season of Formula 1’s ground effect era in 2022, the gap between pole and 10th in Q3 was 1.7 seconds. Last year, it was 1.2 seconds. This weekend, just over half a second covers the top nine on the grid. Had tenth-placed Nico Hulkenberg had a fresh set of softs for Q3 to match his best Q2 lap, the field spread between the top ten in round one would have halved in a year.

George Russell, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Russell made it three different cars in the top three
The evidence is clear – the competition will be fierce in 2024. But while qualifying performance is one thing, race pace can be an entirely different matter.

Verstappen is clearly confident the RB20, like its predecessor, is a better race car than a qualifying car. The data appears to back that up. In Thursday night’s long runs on a set of soft tyres, Verstappen’s average pace of 1’36.715 was quicker than any of the nine drivers who will start behind him on the grid.

Last year, Leclerc could do little to put pressure on the two Red Bulls ahead of him through the Bahrain race. But in 2022, when the Ferrari led from pole, the battle between the pair was exquisite.

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It’s especially critical for Leclerc to ensure he keeps within a second of Verstappen in the early laps on Saturday. Not just to try and keep the Red Bull from pulling away, but to avoid becoming the unwilling leader of a lengthy DRS train made up of all those equally-matched cars.

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Red Bull still have a straight-line advantage
Overtaking Verstappen may be even more of a challenge this year, though the data exaggerates this somewhat. Although Verstappen recorded by far the highest top speed through qualifying, hitting 327kph, this was thanks to a generous tow along the pit straight from Kevin Magnussen. Even so, the Red Bulls were both at the top of the speed trap rankings running solo.

Verstappen’s relentless race pace was the not-so-secret recipe to his utter domination in grands prix last year. But Leclerc and team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr have confidently predicted their new car will be more consistent with its tyres over a long race stint than last year.

That will prove invaluable if Leclerc ends up focusing more on the cars behind him – George Russell, Sergio Perez or even Lewis Hamilton, if the Mercedes driver’s race-focused set-up proves as beneficial as he hopes – as Leclerc’s ability to remain just out of reach of rivals as his rubber fades is one of his great strengths as a driver.

A three-stop strategy proved the way to go at this race in 2022 but last year this was a two-stop affair. It’s near certain all drivers will start on softs for the opening stint, with Pirelli expecting that a switch to hards before a second set of softs to finish the race is the best strategy for Saturday. Even if there is an early Safety Car period, Bahrain’s abrasive Tarmac makes the prospect of stretching out a one-stop on hard tyres an especially difficult one.

Red Bull are the only team in the field to have run the hard compound over the weekend so far – with Verstappen less than complimentary about his experience on the radio. While that may seem to give them an advantage, their rivals already had hundreds of laps’ worth of data on the C1 compound in Bahrain from last week’s pre-season test.

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Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2024
Ferrari got both their cars between the Red Bulls
Conditions in Bahrain are perhaps as predictable as anywhere on the calendar. Both sessions held under the lights so far this weekend around the same time that the grand prix will have seen near identical ambient and track temperatures. Wind can add a challenge for drivers, but Ferrari are also sure that their new car will not be anywhere near as affected by this as they were last year.

Given that it’s the opening round of the season, with the first time these cars will ever be raced, there is always an increased risk of unforeseen mechanical failures in Bahrain. A sudden stoppage that could trigger a Safety Car may turn the race on its head. But with no rookies on the grid, it’s to be hoped that the drivers will avoid many silly mishaps fighting on track.

Although this is the first race of a new season, this Bahrain Grand Prix has the air of ‘2023 v2.0’ about it. With Verstappen starting at the front and his rivals already anointing him the presumptive race winner, it’s easy to forget just how enthralling the battles through the field were at the end of last season. But with signs that things are now even more competitive 100 days after the last grand prix, this opening race has every chance of delivering a thrilling start to the season.

Speed trap

P.#DriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
11Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB20327.3 (203.4)
223Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW46321.9 (200.0)
311Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB20321.6 (199.8)
42Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW46320.9 (199.4)
555Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-24320.0 (198.8)
620Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-24319.9 (198.8)
714Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR24319.3 (198.4)
827Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-24319.1 (198.3)
918Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR24318.6 (198.0)
1077Valtteri BottasSauberFerrariC44318.3 (197.8)
1116Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-24317.7 (197.4)
1210Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA524316.8 (196.9)
133Daniel RicciardoRBHonda RBPT01316.8 (196.9)
1463George RussellMercedesMercedesW15316.8 (196.9)
1544Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW15316.6 (196.7)
1622Yuki TsunodaRBHonda RBPT01316.4 (196.6)
1731Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA524315.8 (196.2)
1881Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL38315.6 (196.1)
1924Zhou GuanyuSauberFerrariC44313.4 (194.7)
204Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL38313.4 (194.7)

Over to you

Will Max Verstappen run away with the first race of the season? Share your views on the Bahrain Grand Prix in the comments.

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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19 comments on “Analysis: Verstappen’s still ahead but the chasing pack is closer than before”

  1. Still, the reality kicks in verstappen is one of the greatest qualifiers.
    He definitly makes a difference, while the gaps are smaller then ever.

    1. Did he? The tow made a bigger difference than Max. And the famously slow qualifier Sergio wasn’t far behind. Once again, the RBR is and has been easily the fastest car for three seasons now. It’s why Checo could clearly struggle so much last year and still finish P2 in the WDC decently comfortably in the end. So, let’s calm down.

      1. I think the interesting thing here is that all of these drivers are very capable and there are a handful of course that are exceptional, these are the ones that tend to find their way into winning cars. Leclerc may have had the fastest lap overall during qualifying but when it counted he didn’t produce again, we can hypothesis about the value of the tow Max got all day long. For some considerable time now Max has said the key to winning races and championships is minimising your mistakes and ensuring you have no big mistakes at all. It appears as he is maturing that he brings this balanced approach to every session of every race and perhaps that is what makes the difference. Of course if you have a superior car you are perhaps likely to be pushing slightly less and therefore make fewer mistakes. Is the Red Bull superior in qualifying trim?

      2. You obviously did not see the quali.
        The redbull was not the fastest car. Even thelap times show this.
        But when things really count its the driver that makes the difference.

  2. Nice write up Will, thanks!

    1. Indeed! Great write up will :)

  3. Leclerc was unlucky, as his first q3 lap on used tyres was even good enough for 2nd place. His first lap would have been good enough for pole position if he had two sets of new tyres. On the other hand, Max was lucky as he found a good tow in his final lap, but things go like this in F1, you dont have a margin even for a little mistake when you don not have the best car.

    1. Thats not unlucky, thats bad execution to have no extra set of new.

  4. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    1st March 2024, 23:39

    Wait, Verstappen’s car is 6 kmh faster? Was that because of the tow from Piastri?

    1. It says in the article- he got a tow from MAG.

  5. Although this is the first race of a new season, this Bahrain Grand Prix has the air of ‘2023 v2.0’ about it.

    Indeed, we’ve seen this before. Remember Verstappen ‘only’ had 12 poles last year. A close qualifying is nothing new.

    The real test will be in the race, to see if the other teams have managed to get better at keeping their tyres working throughout a stint. If they haven’t, they still don’t get it and the season looks very bleak indeed.

  6. I mean, yes, the gap is ‘small’ but that’s one lap pace, i reckon there’s going to be a rude awakening for the pack tomorrow and he’s going to lap the majority of the field, and that ‘closed field’ argument is going to turn to ‘Well that’s depressing, they were only winning by 40 seconds here last year….’

    Just look at the onboard for his pole lap, the car looks almost lazy, touch of understeer but very consistent. Tyre deg on long runs looks like he could run a zero stop all day on softs if he really, really wanted.

  7. Coventry Climax
    2nd March 2024, 1:07

    Thank you,, for deleting a post again.
    Must be because you didn’t like the contents, for there were zero untowards words in it.

    1. They do it all the time.

      1. Coventry Climax
        2nd March 2024, 11:16

        So does Russia, but that doesn’t make it right, does it?
        Sure, it’s their site, so that probably gives them the lawful right, but it still puts them in a bad light when you’re not allowed your opinion.

  8. Will Max Verstappen run away with the first race of the season?
    – Unfortunately, yes, but even if this scenario were to occur (& the new season as a whole would be similarly one-sided to the last), I hope the race itself would otherwise be exciting

    1. Yellow Baron
      2nd March 2024, 9:02

      Hopefully he gets overtaken at least by a few cars at the start. But they never race him hard

  9. Max is still 10 kph faster than his competition down the straight. Lolz. Why Ferrari and Mercedes do not break the rules to improve their power units is beyond me, it worked for RB. What a shame the competition is so meek and docile. its like they don’t want to win or something.

    1. Nobody broke any engine rules. Stop making things up.
      In this snakepit called f1 every error will be enlarged and punished.

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