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Formula 1

Five questions F1's Bahrain Grand Prix will answer

7 min read

The first qualifying session of the Formula 1 season gave us some hints, but it's really Saturday's Bahrain Grand Prix where we'll get the answers to some burning 2024 questions.

We asked our writers to pick out the biggest unknowns that should be eliminated come the chequered flag.

Will Ferrari deliver on its race pace claim?

Team principal Fred Vasseur claimed Ferrari was on “another planet” in terms of its management of tyre degradation in testing compared to this time last year.

Both drivers are happier with the consistency of the car in terms of its handling and confident that means it’s using the tyres far better than in 2023.

The race will be the first test of whether Ferrari’s gains have, as hoped, turned it into more of an all-rounder.

In Bahrain last year, Charles Leclerc missed out on pole position by just 0.138s but was much further off in the race. Although he didn’t make the finish, Leclerc was already 25 seconds behind when he retired on lap 40 and Carlos Sainz was almost 50s down at the chequered flag.

The Bahrain circuit is a race of tyre management so it’s a good test of how Ferrari treats the tyres thanks to the emphasis on traction.

If Ferrari can avoid so dramatic a drop-off, it will confirm big steps have been made.

And given Leclerc showed the pace to be a pole position threat, if that offset between qualifying and race pace really has been eliminated then that’s an encouraging sign for the battle at the front for the rest of 2024.

Vasseur certainly thought there is reason to be optimistic for the year ahead.

"From what we have seen this year, it’s possible that this year Red Bull will not have the kind of comfort zone they had last year and maybe more teams could put them under pressure when they have to make decisions relating to strategy or even set-up," he said. - Edd Straw

Who'll win an absurdly close podium fight?

Behind Max Verstappen, eight cars from five teams were covered by barely three tenths of a second in qualifying. It was absurdly close between the Ferraris, Mercedes, McLarens, Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin and Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull.

So, the ‘best of the rest’ fight goes beyond just wondering if Ferrari will prove it is in better shape this year. All eight of those drivers will probably start the grand prix thinking a podium is possible.

Mercedes needs to see if its set-up trade-off towards the race will pay off, especially for Lewis Hamilton, who felt he might have sacrificed a little too much qualifying speed with his specific changes. However, it looks in good shape.

But if McLaren replicates its mega Friday long-run pace, so do Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri. Perez clearly has a great car under him. And Alonso was “massively surprised” to qualify on the third row with a car that was happier on high fuel through testing.

Guessing how that big pack of cars will be ordered by the end of the race is a fool’s errand. Watching it play out should be brilliant. - Scott Mitchell-Malm

Is Haas set for unwanted deja vu?

Nico Hulkenberg qualified eighth in the 2023 season finale. Haas knew he had no chance of scoring a point, in what was a bleak symbol of its miserable race prospects last year.

But for the 2024 season opener, he’s qualified in the top 10 in a car that seems to be an improvement AND hasn’t even been optimised over one lap.

So, will it be a case of deja vu, or could Hulkenberg give Haas a dream start to the Ayao Komatsu era? Hulkenberg made it clear that reading too much into a qualifying result would be naive after last season.

“Last year’s car gave me confidence and you saw how many Q3 appearances we had last year,” he pointed out.

“I didn’t really struggle with that so I don’t really feel that change. But the consistency in the long runs, how the aero characteristics of the car feel more consistent, it’s better.

“It feels like a wider operating window, which is obviously nicer and better for tyres.”

Saturday evening’s race will be the true test of that. It was clear that Haas felt in a much better place with this car through testing, but it’s all relative. How will the car treat its tyres in race conditions and how will it fare in comparison to others?

The answer will define whether Haas is really in contention for an unlikely points finish straight out of the blocks. - SMM

Can anyone break out of the midfield?

Bar Hulkenberg's superb qualifying effort, the make-up of Q3 went exactly to script with the top five teams after testing locking out the top nine places on the grid.

And if that continues into Saturday's race, there's going to be very few scraps left for RB, Williams, Haas, Sauber and Alpine to fight over.

RB has perhaps been one of the bigger disappointments in Bahrain but Yuki Tsunoda was only 0.007s away from denying Oscar Piastri's McLaren a place in Q3.

Tsunoda called the long runs in FP2 "a bit terrible" but said the team now knows the "wrong direction" to avoid going down.

He was far more concerned about the team's one-lap speed, so thought points are possible if the team maximises everything on Saturday.

Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo said of qualifying 14th: "I didn’t drive s*** or anything but I never really crossed the line being like, ‘Yeah, I did a clean lap’." He was disappointed in his session, but "as a whole, we're not worried or panicked".

Saturday will determine whether RB can be the threat to the top teams that it looked like being in testing and that Tsunoda's stellar Q2 lap teased.

Alex Albon remains Williams's best hope of points and a replication of his canny 15th to 10th drive in last year's Bahrain GP can't be discounted, as he starts 13th.

"Our race pace has improved generally, but the problem is everyone is improving," Albon said after qualifying.

"It’s almost frustrating because you make a massive step with your car but everyone has made a big step, even the Haas. Their race pace will be good, I don’t think it’s going to be slow."

Neither Sauber nor Alpine driver escaped Q1. All believe things will be better in the grand prix, but only time will tell if that matches reality. - Josh Suttill

Will the DRS rule tweak improve racing?

The Bahrain Grand Prix will be the first full F1 race with the revised drag reduction system rule that activates it for the second racing lap at the start (and after restarts).

It’s a subtle change, rather than anything transformative, but it will at least be a curiosity to see if it makes a difference or if - as Alonso suspects - it just creates a DRS train one lap earlier.

A bigger factor in how good the race will be is likely to be whether the cars seem to follow any worse than last year. There was an obvious regression in the following capabilities of this generation of car in 2023, so it’s important for F1 and the regulator the FIA that the Bahrain race doesn’t reflect a further backwards step.

It was felt last season that the teams made a step that hurt the wake characteristics of the cars in a way that, for whatever reason, the FIA did not feel would be replicated this year. The season-opening race is an obvious first test.

But Bahrain is a rear-limited track with a huge emphasis on tyre management. So it could become a bit follow-the-leader.

And while F1 doesn’t need a blockbuster season opener, if it gets the dominant winner many fear, it could do without a procession behind as well. - SMM

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