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Formula 1

Red Bull's 2024 F1 step leaves rivals 'wowed' - and fearful

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Red Bull’s 2024 Formula 1 car has ‘wowed’ one team principal and left other rivals fearing the worst ahead of the new season during testing in Bahrain.

After topping the first day with Max Verstappen, Red Bull’s second day started with a small, brief fire on the front right of Sergio Perez’s car and finished with Perez trailing Ferrari’s session-topping Carlos Sainz by seven tenths of a second.

That, combined with an encouraging long run for Sainz compared to Perez, creates the impression from laptimes alone that Red Bull faces a close challenge from revived rivals. And Sainz said he is not “afraid” of what Red Bull has done.

But team-mate Charles Leclerc said “my initial feeling is that Red Bull unfortunately remains quite a bit ahead” and Sainz did admit that winning the championship might not be a realistic target “when you see what Red Bull has brought this year”.

“I don’t know if it’s three tenths, one tenth, half a second,” Sainz said of the advantage Red Bull has.

“It’s impossible to know right now with fuel loads and engine modes. But you can already see from the design it’s half a step ahead of the others, and they’ve had more time to develop it given the advantage they had last year.”

The reality as many people in the paddock see it is that Red Bull is ahead - potentially by a large margin - as the effort to significantly redevelop its car into a visual departure from the RB19 has paid off.

The ease of Verstappen’s laptime on day one has caught the eye of other teams and the mileage racked up over two days, even with a couple of setbacks, has been mighty. Verstappen and his colleagues barely even tried to hide how satisfied they were on day one, while on day two Perez said it was clear the car was a “step forward”.

“I have to say, when I saw the car, I was like, ‘wow’ - they certainly were brave in changing some of the shapes that made that car that was so successful last year,” said McLaren team principal Andrea Stella.

“They could enjoy such an advantage last year, that gave them the confidence from a timeline point of view to take some risks early on to actually see whether it works.”

Stella was fearful of what Red Bull could unleash in 2024 after spending most of 2023 not bringing upgrades to the RB19 and instead just focusing its development time and budget cap allowance on the RB20.

That goes beyond the surface changes and will apply to improvements out of view, like the floor, where Red Bull may have moved the game on as well. And Stella’s fear, he suggested, was well founded on the evidence of testing so far.

“First of all, car design, there's some element of significant evolution on that car that certainly required time to be developed,” said Stella.

“And this is the time that we were referring to in terms of Red Bull not having developed last year parts that were not introduced on the 2023 car.

“The second element is performance itself. It looks like they are very strong.

“It looks like what they wanted to achieve from a design point of view also delivered what predominantly seems to be aerodynamic performance.

“What I would say, though, is that while there is innovation that we can see macroscopically, in these regulations a lot is in the millimetres, and a lot happens in work we don't see between the underneath of the car and the ground.

“So, while what we can actually see could be the most visible [changes], not necessarily it’s the most impactful in terms of this step forward they made.”

Nothing about this car, and nothing about the way this test has started for Red Bull, has suggested anything other than the team making a clear step on from last year and being the benchmark yet again.

Another team boss said that picking Red Bull as the favourite was the only clear conclusion for the pecking order so far, a sentiment shared by Mercedes driver George Russell.

“They are in such a great momentum at the moment,” Russell said on Thursday.

“They started these new regulations on the front foot and they came here and have been solid ever since. So, they are definitely the favourites, definitely a step ahead of everybody else here in Bahrain.

“They’ve had a massive winter no doubt, but that was to be expected.”

The only question is how big its advantage will be. And some are starting to fear it might be even bigger than in 2023.

Friday’s final day may produce more clues and the picture will be fully revealed next week.

But already the RB20 has left a big and quite worrying impression on a lot of people in the paddock, including Red Bull’s rivals.

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