Mercedes and Ferrari’s untapped potential gives hope F1 2024 won’t be a one-man show

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After crushing the field for his eighth straight Formula One victory in Bahrain, it seemed odd for Max Verstappen to talk up his rivals’ competitive merits.

It had been a perfect day for Verstappen. He led the entirety of the race from pole and set the fastest lap en route to victory. Sergio Pérez, his Red Bull teammate, was over 20 seconds behind, with the leading non-Red Bull car, Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, 25.1 seconds off at the checkered flag. A dominant result amid the off-track turbulence at Red Bull.

And a deflating one for the opposition, who’d spent the winter overhauling their car designs in the hope of making a step toward Red Bull. Deflating for the millions of fans who tuned in hopeful of a closer fight at the front through 2024, who now considered the prospect of watching the same procession a further 23 times this year.

Verstappen wasn’t so sure. “In general, other teams are closer,” he said. “I just think that today everything just worked really, really well. I don’t expect that to happen (at) every single grand prix in the near future.”

It’s a hard argument to make, considering the margin of victory that could’ve been even greater had he pushed flat out. But Verstappen was right that there were signs both Ferrari and Mercedes, the leading teams in the chase to catch Red Bull, might be closer than Saturday’s result indicated.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the big gap at the front. Sainz’s fantastic drive kept him in touch of Pérez’s Red Bull while teammate Charles Leclerc struggled with braking problems. Cooling issues limited Mercedes’ pace, leaving George Russell fifth and seventh, the latter also dealing with a broken season.

If we didn’t get to see either team’s true potential, can we hope for a closer fight to come this year?



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

Encouraging signs from Ferrari

Qualifying showed Ferrari remains strong over a single lap, not losing any of the edge we saw through last year when it scored five poles in the final nine races, including three in the last five for Leclerc. Leclerc’s Q2 lap was actually quicker than Verstappen’s final Q3 time in Bahrain by 0.014s, pointing to the pace being in the car to have taken pole. But when it mattered at the end of qualifying, Leclerc was two-tenths off Verstappen’s pole lap.

Ferrari’s big weakness last year was tire degradation over the race distances. It was capable of keeping up with Red Bull over one lap, only to then burn through its rubber much quicker when trying to do so over a lengthy stint, Monza being the clearest example of that.

The Ferrari drivers’ belief that tire degradation was better this year was proven by Sainz’s race performance as he was able to stay largely in touch with Pérez. “I knew the Red Bulls today were going to be very, very difficult to beat,” Sainz said after the race. “To keep up with one of them and have the possibility to fight is already a good surprise.”

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 02: Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari prepares to drive on the grid during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 02, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Charles Leclerc struggled with braking issues during Saturday’s Bahrain GP. (Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images)

Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur also felt more optimistic compared to last year’s season opener, when Leclerc suffered an engine failure and Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin sailed past Sainz in the final stint to grab third.

“If you compare one year ago, we were one second away, and we are now perhaps 0.5 seconds (behind),” Vasseur said. “It’s not enough, we are still behind. But to score the points of P3 and P4 today in the circumstances is not a drama.”

Sainz also noted that Bahrain has traditionally been one of Red Bull’s strongest tracks, given the emphasis on rear traction coming out of corners and the high levels of degradation on the abrasive track surface.

“Hopefully when we go to a more front-limited track and maybe better tarmac, our car will come alive and we will be able to mount a better challenge on Max for the win.”

Why Mercedes’ pace was masked

Twelve months ago, George Russell was the first driver to float the idea of Red Bull winning every single race of the season, making the prediction right after the checkered flag in Bahrain. He was only one race away from being correct.

This time around, even after finishing 46 seconds behind Verstappen, Russell was more upbeat. “For Lewis and I, we’ve certainly got a much better car this year, one I do believe we can build from,” he said. “Red Bull have always been strong here. So have Ferrari. I’d say this has been a bit of a bogey track for us in the last couple of years, so I do think it’s too early to say.”

Mercedes’ race was heavily compromised by the team’s decision to go aggressive with its cooling configuration, something that can offer aerodynamic benefits but, in this case, caused the car to overheat. It meant the power unit had to be turned down and both drivers were required to coast at the end of straights, costing them up to six to seven-tenths per lap, according to team principal Toto Wolff.

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - MARCH 02: George Russell of Great Britain driving the (63) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W15 leads Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Ferrari SF-24 during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit on March 02, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Mercedes’ race was heavily compromised by the team’s decision to go too aggressive with its cooling configuration, something that can offer aerodynamic benefits but, in this case, caused the car to overheat. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Adding that time in would have put Mercedes into range with Ferrari and a step ahead of McLaren, whose cars finished either side Hamilton down in seventh. Hamilton put his disappointing qualifying on Friday (he started ninth) down to his setup direction, which he thought would pay off more in the race, only for that to turn into a struggle due to the cooling issue and his broken seat.

The bottom line is Mercedes, like Ferrari, has a better car baseline to work from this year. Unlike the start of last season, Hamilton and Russell aren’t already asking for big changes. The developments that follow should build on a good platform instead of forcing a tear-up of the design book like last year.

It’s the hope that kills you

Sainz’s Ferrari was able to keep up with Pérez, and Mercedes’ pace was masked by its issues in Bahrain, where Red Bull has always gone strong. Verstappen and Pérez also had the advantage of an extra set of soft tires — which held up better than expected in Bahrain — for the final stint, while the Ferrari and Mercedes cars had to take the slower hards.

“I was surprised that others didn’t (save soft tires),” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race. “It distorted perhaps the back end of the stint. But nonetheless it was a dominant display and great to get that maximum score.”

So maybe things aren’t so bad for the competitive picture this year?

The big issue here is that Ferrari and Mercedes only really stood a chance of beating Pérez in Bahrain – not Verstappen, who was on another level once again. It’s all well and good staying in range of one Red Bull, but when the other one is 20 seconds up the road? That’s what makes the outlook bleak.

“Today Max is not in a different league, but he’s in a different galaxy,” Wolff said. “The performance is extraordinary.” A similar story to last year? “Unfortunately, yes,” he added. “(You) just have to acknowledge his performance levels are really strong.”

Wolff took a shred of comfort from the fine margins in qualifying. “That was good, and I believe our performance was masked by our problems,” he said. “Pérez is 20 seconds behind his teammate, so we have hope. That is maybe the silver lining I can see.

“But it is very thin and far away, and I almost can’t see that far.”

Although Verstappen’s advantage remains big, Ferrari and Mercedes do at least seem in a better position this year to grab opportunities that may come their way. Assuming we get repeats of those few slips from last year, such as Monaco, when Aston Martin should have won, or Singapore, when Red Bull was completely off the boil, there is some hope F1 2024 won’t be a one-man show.

“No doubt Max is the favorite,” said Russell. “I don’t think anyone’s going to be fighting him for the championship this year. I hope some people are going to be battling for victories here or there.”

“Here or there” may be better than last year, but it’s still far from where F1 fans want to be.

(Lead photo of Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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