What We Learned from 3-Day F1 Preseason Test at Bahrain

Jackson Wheeler
16 Min Read

Formula 1’s sole preseason test took place across three days in Bahrain this week.

Autoweek rounds up some of the main talking points ahead of next weekend’s opening round of the lengthy 2024 season.

Red Bull Still Ahead, Verstappen Still the Favorite

Shocking insight to report here.

The team which won 21 of 22 races last year, and the driver who claimed 19 of them start the new campaign as firm favorites.

What was perhaps more surprising this week was the speed and compliance of the RB20 straight out of the box, considering the aggressive approach Red Bull has taken with its design.

formula 1 testing in bahrain day 1

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Max Verstappen still appears to be head and shoulders above the rest of the F1 field for 2024.

The car’s sidepods, with its vertical inlets, shark-shaped components and aggressive overbite, caught the attention, as did the chunky shoulders that extend back from the halo along the engine cover.

Red Bull has not sat back on its laurels and has gone bold with its RB20. Max Verstappen set strong pace on the opening day, with TV cameras capturing race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase breaking into a knowing smile, while consultant Helmut Marko was effusive in the car’s performance.

There is more than a sense of resignation among Red Bull’s rivals.

“Red Bull are the favorites and definitely a step ahead of everyone else,” said Mercedes’ George Russell, while Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc acknowledged that Red Bull “remains the reference and is ahead for now.”

Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso quipped that 19 of the 20 drivers already know they won’t be World Champion this year.

The only real cloud hanging over Red Bull is the status of team principal Christian Horner, who was present at the test. Horner is still awaiting the findings into the investigation carried out into his alleged inappropriate behavior.

Mercedes, Ferrari Cured Some Issues

Red Bull is a top-heavy favorite, but Mercedes and Ferrari should have their moments in 2024.

Mercedes and Ferrari realized from the outset in 2023 that they had taken the wrong direction, and both consequently entered testing in 2024 keen to validate the off-season work of addressing their cars’ fundamental weaknesses.

Irrespective of overall lap times, there were positive noises coming out of both camps.

“Last year it was feeling like it’d bite us at every corner, we couldn’t attack, we feel like we’ve made a really good step in consistency and leaning on it,” said Russell of Mercedes’ W15. “Mechanically we’ve got a car where the aero guys can focus on building downforce on that. In the past whatever we did there were underlying issues that took a while to understand and solve. I’m confident that we’re in a much better place than we were 12 months ago.”

formula 1 testing in bahrain day 1

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George Russell will likely take over the No. 1 role at Mercedes in 2025.

Hamilton agreed that the W15 is “much more enjoyable to drive” and provides a good platform, though cautioned that “Red Bull (are) clearly out in the distance.”

Meanwhile, Ferrari’s SF-23 was plagued by sensitivity to changing conditions, leaving the squad’s performance wildly fluctuating, and that has been ironed out with the SF-24.

“I think the first good thing is that there are no surprises,” said Leclerc. “Everything that we expected from this car we got it on the real track so that is a good thing because that helps us to develop the car on the simulator and everything seems to make sense. I remember last year I finished the test and it was very, very difficult to understand in which direction to develop because the car was just so inconsistent; it was very difficult to understand what were the main weaknesses. This year it’s a very different story. We know exactly where we need to improve.”

Ferrari has so far looked a little sharper than Mercedes, while McLaren and Aston Martin caught the eye on occasion too and are likely to slot into that chasing group. As it was in 2023, very fine margins could settle such battles.

formula 1 testing in bahrain day 1

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Nico Hulkenberg and Haas concentrated on long runs and studying tire wear in Bahrain.

Haas Looking at the Long Game

Haas outlined prior to preseason that its focus would be on longer runs as it strives to understand as much as possible about the degradation woes that blighted its races through 2023.

Consequently the VF-24 was often toward the lower end of the timesheets this week as Haas got to work for the first time under the tutelage of Ayao Komatsu.

Komatsu outlined that finishing eighth in the championship was a realistic ambition for Haas. Which two teams can Haas beat? Williams and Sauber are the primary contenders within Haas’ reach, but both can make cases that they will be better than Haas.

Haas nonetheless had a broadly positive three days, completing 441 laps, the most of any of the 10 teams. There were no fundamental reliability setbacks, as there have been some pre-seasons, allowing the drivers to get on with the task at hand.

Komatsu said that “our race simulations show that, yes, we’ve got lots more work to do, but at the same time we’ve got a base car that we can actually race.”

Magnussen and Hulkenberg were also encouraged by the test.

“Given the limited time, I think we’ve done a lot, got some good impression of the car, and the focus is trying to be good on a Sunday,” said Magnussen. “We’ve been doing a lot of high-fuel race running, trying to address that issue, and I think we’re going somewhere. We haven’t fixed the issue completely but hopefully it’s enough to make a difference.”

Added Hulkenberg: “It’s early days, but from in the car, from where I sit, if I compare the car to last year it does feel better and like we’ve made a step in the right direction.”

formula 1 testing in bahrain day 2

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Pierre Gasly and Alpine showed little to get excited about at Bahrain.

Alpine, Williams Brace for Uphill Start

Alpine and Williams overhauled concepts for 2024, cautioned prior to testing that they were not expecting a fast start, and were the last teams to run their cars during a shakedown on Tuesday, ahead of the start of testing.

Alpine’s changes have been such that, according to Pierre Gasly, only the steering wheel has been carried over from last year’s car. An encouraged Esteban Ocon affirmed that it has been the smoothest and most reliable of his five preseasons with the team but was still cautious.

“I mean the important (thing) is not where we are exactly in Bahrain,” said Ocon. “Obviously in the first qualifying we are going to assess exactly where we are but the important (thing) for us is to improve from race to race, as it is a new concept, that’s the way we should take it, there’s a lot to do, and we are going to take it humble and step by step.”

Gasly added that “we know last year we plateaued in terms of development and potential so it was the time to take a risk and try and close the gap ahead of us—if it’s the right choice we’ll find out. We know it’s not going to be an easy start of the season, we know the early weeks will important to develop and find more performance.”

Williams was fast on some tracks in 2023, allowing Alex Albon to grab positions and then perform a defensive operation, but at other circuits was nowhere. The FW46 has been designed to be a better all-round package through the season, but it is not there yet.

“We have fixed a lot of the problem areas from last year but there’s some new things we have to iron out,” explained Albon. “It’s a totally different car to understand. I don’t think we’re going to hit the ground running but we can hit the ground jogging.”

Both of these teams are anticipating a subdued start to the campaign as they get on top of new packages.

formula 1 testing in bahrain day 2

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It could be said that every race in 2024 is an audition of source for outgoing Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz.

Some Drivers Already Looking at 2025

The focus is fully on 2024, of course. But that’s not stopping those drivers whose contract is up at the end of the season from daydreaming a little.

“Realistically I’m talking to everyone and seeing all my options,” said outgoing Ferrari racer Carlos Sainz, who stressed that he will take his time.

Mercedes’ George Russell, who has a vacancy alongside him for 2025 following Lewis Hamilton’s shock Ferrari switch, says he has already been amused by the situation.

“I’ve been with Toto (Wolff) a lot this winter, so seeing the drivers’ names pop up on his phone is quite funny,” he said. “And even on my phone as well, I had quite a few phone calls and text messages.”

After the early flurry of announcements—with Hamilton’s Ferrari deal complemented by Charles Leclerc’s extension and Lando Norris’ McLaren renewal—the market is likely to die down during the early months of the season. After all, management at Red Bull Racing and Mercedes—two prime openings—are in no hurry to make a decision.

But that doesn’t mean furtive phone calls and overtures aren’t already being made behind-the-scenes.

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Clive Mason//Getty Images

Not even veteran Fernando Alonso has seen the likes of an F1 season awaiting teams in 2024.

A Grueling Season Awaits

It would not be testing without regular repetitions of “it’s early days,” “it’s only testing” and “it’s going to be a long season.”

The last of those phrases, at least, is accurate.

Formula 1 is gearing up for its longest ever season, with 24 Grands Prix (not to mention six Sprint races, too), which is an increase of two on 2023, and it makes the season almost 50% longer than when Fernando Alonso made his debut way back in 2001.

It also gives relatively ample time to bounce back for any slow starters, with the first chunk of races spread out—at least compared to the plethora of back-to-back events and triple-headers later in the season—while McLaren’s improvement in 2023 shows that in-season recovery is eminently possible.

Teams are increasingly rotating trackside personnel—at least those who are in roles that can be rotated‚ in attempt to limit burnout.

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Williams was solid in its three-day test at Bahrain.

No Team Has Reason to Panic (Yet)

There have been years where a team (or teams), or an engine manufacturer, has had a shocker of a preseason that might have been due to a terrible design, financial setbacks causing delays, or woeful reliability.

There have been tests from which teams have been entirely absent, had to bring old cars, or barely been able to complete a flying lap without the thing conking out and subsequently being parked for the rest of the day. No-one is in that ballpark.

The teams widely expected to be circling at the back of the pack—Williams and Haas—are feasibly in the fight for Q3 if all the stars align. After all, last year’s worst car made Q3 on multiple occasions, qualified second (albeit in the wet) in Canada, and scored a double-digit number of points.

Everyone at least has a solid foundation and no-one is entering the new season with a car shod of anything resembling performance or reliability.

There was only one on-track stoppage across the three days of running, courtesy of Williams’ Albon on the opening day, and the only causes of red flags all test were due to a loose drain cover at Turn 11.

The least present car, the Williams, still turned 299 laps over the three days—which is more than five race distances worth of mileage.

Friday’s Top Times

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, 1:30.322, 74 laps, C4 tires

George Russell, Mercedes, 1:30.368, 67 laps, C4

Zhou Guanyu, Sauber, 1:30.647, 85 laps, C4

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, 1:30.755, 66 laps, C3

Yuki Tsunoda, RB, 1:30.775, 53 laps, C4

Alex Albon. Williams, 1:30.984, 121 laps, C4

Oscar Piastri, Mclaren, 1:31.030, 91 laps, C3

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, 1:31.159, 75 laps, C3

Carlos Sainz, Ferrari, 1:31.247, 71 laps, C3

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing, 1:31.483, 53 laps, C3

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas, 1:31.686, 89 laps, C3

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:31.999, 49 laps, C5

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, 1:32.038, 46 laps, C3

Lando Norris, Mclaren, 1:32.108, 20 laps, C3

Pierre Gasly, Alpine, 1:32.149, 47 laps, C3

Kevin Magnussen, Haas, 1:33.053, 80 laps, C3

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, 1:33.079, 55 laps, C3

Valtteri Bottas, Sauber, 1:33.528, 28 laps, C3

Daniel Ricciardo, RB, 1:37.015, 70 laps, C1

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at Speedofdaily.com, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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