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2024 Formula 1: Who can catch Red Bull and Verstappen?

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The longest Formula 1 World Championship season in history, a record 24 races, revs up for a Saturday start in Bahrain for what could be a long haul with rivals hoping to close the gap and beat Max Verstappen’s dominant Red Bull team.

The evidence from the three days of Formula 1 testing at Sakhir circuit last week was that the champions, winners of all but one of the 22 grands prix last year, were set to pick up where they left off.

Despite team principal Christian Horner fighting for his future in the face of allegations, which he denies, from a female employee about his conduct, Red Bull have looked untroubled.

Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin all made the right noises about their new cars, confident gremlins had been removed and performance improved, but the real proof has yet to come.

The suspicion is that when the flag drops on Saturday night, with the first two rounds of the season in the Middle East held a day earlier than usual to accommodate Ramadan, Red Bull will be first across the line.

As McLaren team principal Andrea Stella told reporters in Bahrain: “There’s one car that seems to have found a big step. Unfortunately, (that’s) the car that was already the quickest last year.”

Panic buttons pressed before the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix

The hope, for fans wanting closer racing at the front and yearning for change after Red Bull’s run of 38 wins in the last 44 races, is that the gap — if as feared — will close as the season progresses.

The Formula 1 regulations have been stable for a while and that in itself usually sees a tightening of the field.

Daniel Ricciardo told Reuters: “There’s more races now so there’s more track time, more data, more understanding, more looking at other cars and seeing what developments they bring. I don’t think anyone’s pressing any panic buttons. It’s a long season and developments can make big changes.”

Ferrari, the only team to beat Red Bull last year, lapped fastest in testing but Mercedes were also buoyed by a much less “spiteful” car than its predecessor.

Mercedes technical director James Allison said after testing in Bahrain: “I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone (Red Bull) have got their noses and perhaps a bit more of their face in front of those of us that are chasing. But I think we’ll make a good fist of the chasing and hopefully just develop strongly through the year.”

Explosive F1 Silly Season will run all year

vasseur ferrari hamilton

The season will be seven-times F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton’s farewell to Mercedes before the sport’s most successful driver heads to Ferrari in 2025 as replacement for Carlos Sainz.

Who takes over Hamilton’s seat will be a talking point for months to come, as will uncertainty over Verstappen’s future teammate with Sergio Perez out of contract at the end of this year.

Speculation is swirling around before a wheel has turned in anger and, with more than half the grid coming to the end of contracts, will run and run.

China returns for the first time since 2019 and Italy’s Imola is back after last year’s race had to be cancelled due to flooding.

There will again be six sprint weekends, with Miami and Shanghai new to that, and a revised format with the 100km race held on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday’s grand prix.

There are no rookie drivers and, remarkably, no changes to lineups since the end of 2023.

There are new team bosses, with Netflix “Drive to Survive” favourite Guenther Steiner replaced by Ayao Komatsu at Haas and Laurent Mekies now in charge at the rebranded Visa Cash App RB (previously AlphaTauri aka Scuderia Toro Rosso).

Sauber-run Alfa Romeo are now racing as Stake F1, where gambling laws permit. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)