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Formula 1

11 biggest unknowns before the 2024 F1 season begins

10 min read

Contrary to the cliche, Formula 1 testing can tell you some things about the upcoming season.

But we have to wait until qualifying and the grand prix at the season opener until the 10 F1 teams put all their cards on the table.

So what are the biggest unknowns looming over the Bahrain Grand Prix and the 2024 season as a whole?

We asked our writers for their suggestions.

How big will Red Bull's advantage be?

Despite Ferrari being quickest at the pre-season test and posting some encouraging long-run times, all with the belief that it was not running at 100%, it was Red Bull that everybody considered (and still considers) the pre-season favourite.

Put simply, the expectation is that Red Bull held more back than anybody else. What we don’t know is how much. So the obvious question going into the season is how big will Red Bull’s advantage really be?

Within that are some smaller but still important sub-sections. Will the car have a bigger race day advantage than in qualifying again? If so, could it be vulnerable on Saturday and could others have improved their own performance enough to actually capitalise on a better grid position on Sunday?

And is this car one that only Max Verstappen can get the most out of consistently or will Sergio Perez avoid the issues of 2023, making it more of a fight even if in team terms it is a one-horse again?

Even in the near-certainty of Red Bull having an advantage at the start of the season there’s enough keeping us guessing to maintain intrigue for now. - Scott Mitchell-Malm

Is Ferrari's race pace really on a 'different planet' now?

Fred Vasseur described the Ferrari’s tyre degradation during Bahrain testing as being ‘on another planet better’ than last year. The numbers actually bear this out.

On the final day of last year, Carlos Sainz’s 10-lap run on C3 tyres started out in the low 1m39s and within nine laps he was doing 1m40.2s, with his last lap a 1m41.0s.

This year on the final day, Charles Leclerc did a 15-lap run on the C3s, beginning with a 1m37.1s and ending it with a 1m38.4s. Maybe not quite like-for-like regarding fuel level, but this year Leclerc goes 50% longer for a similar level of deg. Will it translate to the race weekend? - Mark Hughes

Where does Mercedes really stand?

Everyone at Mercedes is certain that the W15 is a car that it can work with, giving the drivers confidence and creating a platform that will respond to ongoing development. What isn’t entirely clear is exactly where it is in the pecking order.

Testing suggested it was in good shape, close to Ferrari on long-run pace.

However, it didn’t complete a full-blow race simulation. Likewise, the team admits to having more work to do on its single-lap pace. Having digested the lessons of the three days of test running, we should at least get to see what it can do.

Provided Mercedes is thereabouts with Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin, it should be in good shape for the year ahead. The key was always that it had a stable, consistent platform to build from.

But of course, this is Mercedes, and there’s always the risk that after two years of unpleasant negative surprises there may be some unexpected difficulties that mean things might not be as good as they looked.

Whatever happens, we’ll know what its baseline is for 2024 and therefore what the chances are of it being able to develop quickly enough to emerge as a Red Bull threat in the future. - Edd Straw

How much trouble is Alpine in?

The season is going to start badly for Alpine, but Bahrain will reveal just how far off it is. If testing is anything to go by, a Q1 exit could be on that cards.

That’s really not good enough for a works team, even one that has been at pains to manage expectations. The car is overweight, doesn’t look good on track and both drivers have made it clear they expect a slow start.

Can it really be that bad? It’s possible Alpine has more performance to unlock having spent the test focusing on understanding the revised mechanical platform it considers to be the heart of its new concept. But that’s unlikely to mean a step change in pace.

If Alpine really is not only in the back group, but towards the back of it, that will pile on the pressure. There have been signs of progress trackside since the middle of last year, but that won’t be enough if it’s built a car that isn’t up to it.

Bahrain will reveal the full extent of Alpine’s trouble. - ES

Is McLaren finally ready to start a season strongly?

McLaren has failed to start either season in this set of regulations with a strong result. And it must be linked to how its car has performed, early on in the season at least, in this ruleset.

McLaren’s actually point-less in the last two season openers. But expectations are different this time around.

In each of the two years prior to the 2022 overhaul, Lando Norris finished fourth in Bahrain. It would probably take that result quite happily this time around.

McLaren scored multiple podiums as 2023 went on and has expressed confidence in maintaining its development curve in the off-season.

Some specific weaknesses seem to remain though, or at least need a bit more time - and some more upgrades - to be addressed, leaving the team with a lingering deficit in the slow-speed corners.

McLaren’s still talking about this not being a track that suits its car ideally even though it wants to make it more of an all-rounder.

But if there’s a bit of Bahrain-specific vulnerability the team should at least be starting the year in a better position overall. - SMM

How big a step forward has RB taken?

The team with the biggest hope of escaping last year's four-way back of the grid scrap is RB.

Red Bull's rebranded second team had a quietly stellar pre-season test, but just how much progress has it made?

The answer hinges on whether it can threaten Aston Martin and snipe at the heels of the top four teams or whether it's simply firmly at the head of a cast-off second half of the grid.

And if the RB is a midfield leader, will that increase criticism of its closer relationship with Red Bull, given the tirade - led largely by McLaren CEO Zak Brown - against co-ownership and A/B team relationships?

The VCARB 01 didn't resemble the all-conquering RB19 nearly as much as some thought it would, but that alone isn't going to quash complaints.

RB appears the team most capable of breaking free of the back of the grid this year, but you can't count out Williams's 'late car' gamble paying dividends (although you'd suspect the benefits of that will be better felt later in the year).

Sauber showed an impressive turn of speed too on the final day of testing - though likely low-fuel assisted - and Haas and Alpine have both set expectations of a slow start. - Josh Suttill

What's the state of the 2025 silly season?

Lewis Hamilton's Ferrari bombshell has already kicked 2025 silly season into overdrive and our first proper look at the 2024 competitive pecking order will further shape the driver market.

That's because the Bahrain GP will inform drivers whether they're in for a year of pain (like it did for Hamilton and George Russell at Mercedes last year) or whether there's good reason to put pen to paper with their current teams as soon as possible.

For example Alex Albon, a potential target for multiple teams despite being under contract at Williams, will be measuring the competitiveness of his new car versus his other possible 2025 destinations with great interest.

A return to Red Bull could be a potential landing spot for him, but that may depend on whether Sergio Perez clicks with the RB20 in a way he didn't with the RB19 for three quarters of the season. It could also choose Daniel Ricciardo from RB to replace Perez.

The competitiveness of the Aston Martin may decide whether Fernando Alonso holds out for Hamilton's Mercedes seat or commits to Aston.

Hamilton himself may come to either regret or relish his Ferrari move based on its relative competitiveness. He'll find out whether he's got a Mercedes good enough for a starring farewell.

Further down the grid, Kevin Magnussen, who struggled with last year’s car characteristics, felt progress in pre-season with a VF-24 that he could trust “from braking to turn-in to mid-corner”.

Whether that materialises will be crucial for his future, with the likes of Ferrari protege Ollie Bearman circling his seat for 2025. - JS

How long will Horner saga hang over Red Bull?

In a literal sense, the ‘Horner saga’ may be over by the time you read this - as a decision on his future is reported in some quarters, including from Sky Sports, to be coming on Wednesday before the Bahrain GP.

We don’t know whether Horner will be the team principal come race weekend weekend and what impact his staying or leaving might have.

But one thing we do know is that Red Bull is coming off the back of one of the most dominant years in F1 history where it arguably built the series’ best-ever car. And such is its quest for greatness, it’s basically overhauled that design for this season in a bid to make sure it stays ahead.

So it doesn’t feel like its on-track performance will be affected by this situation in the short-term.

It’s the longer-term fallout that will really be the thing to watch here. - Jack Benyon

Will following be better or worse this year?

In general, the more aerodynamically effective the cars become, the less easy it will be to follow closely.

Specifically, we are seeing some developments - such as the Mercedes front wing with its half-width top flap - which look designed to create a greater outwash.

This does not always mean a more turbulent wake, but it very often does. There’s nothing to suggest following is going to be a whole step change worse; it’s more likely to be degrees. - MH

Where is the next FIA/F1 clash coming from?

Andretti being approved by the FIA for an F1 entry, and then being denied by F1 itself, is just the highest-profile instance of the friction between the championship and the governing body in recent times.

It’s clear that many people want more teams on the F1 grid but, considering how difficult it has been, it’s hard to imagine we'll see a new team before the next engine rules cycle unless Andretti gives F1’s existing teams - protecting their slice of the prize money pie - no choice but to accept it.

It feels like another clash between the FIA and F1 is a matter of if, and not when. There’s certainly friction between F1 and FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem over the hands-on approach he's taken during his tenure and some of the decision making that has been on display.

The next dispute never feels far away given recent friction. - JB

Will these cars keep breaking drain covers?

After two stoppages during the test, and considering last year’s controversial Las Vegas GP damage and disruption, it has been asked if this generation of cars will keep breaking drain covers and causing problems.

Some circuits are older than others and have different structures in place around these parts of the track surface (or beyond it). Maybe some are not as robust as they used to be, maybe there are some weaknesses being exposed more than before.

But we know these cars are bigger, heavier and produce more downforce from underneath than at any time in recent history. So, the track surfaces are being exposed to more violent forces than before.

And in the case of Bahrain, the cars are using different parts of the track too. We’re in the third year of these rules, car compliance looks better than ever, and downforce levels are increasing - so drivers can get away with using more run-off area and flat(ish) kerbs on entry because the car isn’t as unsettled as it would have been previously.

Whatever the cause, it needs close attention and proper solutions, like the drastic but also pragmatic ‘rip the drain out and fill it with concrete’ fix in Bahrain. - SMM

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