Bahrain Grand Prix conclusions: F1’s growing Red Bull problem, Alpine disaster

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen punches the air after winning the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix

With Max Verstappen starting 2024 as he ended 2023, are Red Bull now too good for the common good?

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen got his title defence off to a flying start by winning the Bahrain Grand Prix, the opening round of the F1 2024 season.

The three-time World Champion dominated from pole position and was joined on the podium by Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in second place and Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz in third. Get the feeling you’ve seen all this before? Here are our conclusions from Sakhir…

Why has there been no attempt to slow down Red Bull?

By the start of Mercedes’ third season of dominance in 2016, plans were already afoot to knock them off their perch.

After two seasons of watching the sport being painted silver, with just six non-Mercedes victories in total across 2014/15, F1’s powers that be had seen enough.

The solution for 2017?

Downforce, downforce and more downforce – at the time perceived to be one of Mercedes’ few areas of weakness but, more pertinently, the greatest strength of their most dangerous threat, Red Bull and Adrian Newey.

Those 2017 regulations were one of three separate rule changes – see also the simplified front wings of 2019 and the tapered floors of 2021 – thrown at Mercedes before F1 at last had its ‘gotcha’ moment and finally wrongfooted them at the fourth attempt in 2022.

Over the last three decades – from the ban on electronic aids to destabilise Williams in 1994 to the 2005 rule, specifically targeted at Ferrari and Bridgestone, preventing in-race tyre changes – F1 has never hesitated when it comes to knocking dominant teams off course, because to sit and do nothing would be exceptionally bad for business.

Which makes its reticence to do anything about Red Bull, in the face of the most crushing spell of dominance ever witnessed in this sport, all the more staggering.

F1 patted itself on the back in 2022 when it purported to deliver more raceable cars via the most thoroughly researched rule changes in history.

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But as time has passed so it has become clear that all these regulations have really done is unwittingly play directly into the hands of Newey, the only major figure in the entire paddock with experience of the previous ground effect era.

Only he understood from the very start that the secret to cracking these rules was found not in the car’s complex underbody, but the suspension – and how it allows that underbody to interact with the surface of the track, establishing a stable and aerodynamically efficient platform.

Often the argument against rule changes is that Red Bull and Verstappen have worked hard to put themselves in such a commanding position (fair), are deserving of their success (true) and that it is up to the rest to simply do a better job (how’s that going three years in?).

“And besides!” they say. “Wouldn’t a change to the rules compromise the sport’s integrity?”

All very worthy and idealistic, but this is an odd time for F1 to suddenly grow a conscience about slowing down the quick guys.

Red Bull’s position at the head of the field has been unchallenged for so long now that after the new season started exactly as the last ended, with Verstappen winning effortlessly from pole, the need to do something is becoming inescapable.

Perhaps the most prescient example here is the 2019 front wing tweaks, which were fast-tracked from the research into the 2022 rules to place a fork in the road, creating an opportunity for teams to get their design paths either spectacularly right or terribly wrong.

With F1’s 2026 regulations on the horizon, is there the potential to apply some of those findings to the current cars for the sake of throwing a new variable into the mix and unbalancing the current state of play?

There is a risk that F1 has become complacent, that amid all the talk of a popularity boom, newcomers being hooked on Drive to Survive and the value of teams rising to unprecedented new heights it is unmoved by the fact that Red Bull have become too good for the common good.

Yet there is nothing more damaging to a sport than predictability and F1 stands as the only sport in the world right now where the identity of the Champion is known long before the action even begins.

That, by any measure, is unsustainable.

Welcome, everyone, to 2024. Otherwise known as 2023: Part 2.

The ‘shop window’ theory is flawed – and an insult to Carlos Sainz

If you’re looking to irritate Carlos Sainz this year, ask him if he sees his final season at Ferrari driver as an opportunity to put himself in the shop window for a 2025 seat.

A couple of times already in 2024 the question has been posed and on each occasion Sainz – set to be replaced by Lewis Hamilton for 2025, if you haven’t yet heard – has delivered a firm and well-rehearsed response.

“Honestly speaking, I don’t think I need a new season to prove that or to show to anyone what I’m capable of,” he told media including PlanetF1.com at the launch of Ferrari’s 2024 car last month.

“I’ve been in F1 for nine years and over the last nine years – and especially the last three being with a team like Ferrari – everyone has seen more or less what I’m capable of.”

He has a point, for Sainz has produced a strong enough body of work over the course of his F1 career to date that a handful of results at the start of the new season should not sway the decisions of potential suitors for better or worse.

And if it does, the teams concerned have got their recruitment processes all wrong.

For a sport so technically advanced, there remains a nagging suspicion that when it comes to driver recruitment F1 is still painfully unscientific compared to other sports such as football, where clubs have access to all manner of metrics to evaluate the performance, suitability and character of prospective signings in detail.

A flavour-of-the-month, back-of-a-fag-packet culture still seems to pervade in F1, by stark contrast, catapulting drivers into the centre of the driver market if they manage to secure exactly the right results at exactly the right time.

The most glaring example of recent years?

The tale of Nyck de Vries, who suddenly emerged from nowhere as a key player in the market after scoring points in a sub appearance for Williams at Monza 2022.

Signed by Red Bull’s junior team for 2023, De Vries was memorably discarded after just 10 races of last season – confirming the severe reservations once held by McLaren, who dropped him from their junior academy as long ago as 2019, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who had questioned the signing of De Vries at the time.

Even if his third place owed much to the chronic brake issues suffered by team-mate Charles Leclerc and overheating problems for Mercedes – still a step behind Ferrari in the race to hunt down Red Bull – Sainz offered a reminder of his qualities and, in light of the news he received over the winter, his resilience with a spirited drive in Bahrain.

But that is all this, and any other results he achieves in the opening months of this season, should be: a reminder, not a clincher one way or the other.

Alpine: A team whose heart and soul is being torn out

You can spot a desperate F1 team a mile off these days – they’re the ones with barely a lick of paint on the car.

It was the must-have trend of 2023, the exposed-carbon look, as the teams left large sections of their cars unpainted in an attempt to save weight.

Then Red Bull, among the few to resist the craze, won all but one race last season and exposed it for the fallacy it really was.

So, wisely, some teams – notably Mercedes and Williams – have moved tentatively away from the nude look for 2024, accepting that the benefit won’t magically turn a sidepod-less horror into an instant title contender after all.

Yet it is those who have not only stuck rigidly to it but taken the all-carbon livery to yet more extremes this season who have marked themselves, almost unconsciously, as teams in trouble.

This is not the pursuit of marginal gains, but desperate measures for desperate times.

Which brings us to Alpine, one of just three full-blown factory teams on the grid, who have ceded all sense of identity by producing what is a black car – often with blue bits, sometimes with pink bits – for 2024.

The most alarming aspect about Alpine’s terrible start to the season is that it does not come as a surprise, having been telegraphed by Esteban Ocon over the winter in the aftermath of a 2023 season riddled with acts of self-inflicted damage.

After eight years spent meandering under Renault’s ownership, the project – long regarded as a marketing campaign with an F1 team attached – is now at risk of coming off the rails completely.

For some time it has seemed there is a battle raging at Enstone between the real racers, a talented and committed on-the-ground workforce still keeping the spirit of the Schumacher/Alonso eras alive, and the meddling, undermining bureaucrats within Renault, throwing 100-race plans at the wall like nobody’s business and hoping some of it will stick.

In that context, perhaps the public sacking of long-serving sporting director Alan Permane, along with team principal Otmar Szafnauer, at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix was even more significant than first thought.

Was that the day the real racers lost and the bureaucrats won?

That was also the day another of Enstone’s real racers, Pat Fry, was appointed as Williams’ new technical director, seeing more ambition in a team who had finished bottom of the Constructors’ standings for four of the previous five years than he did at Alpine.

“I didn’t feel there was the enthusiasm or the drive to move forward,” Fry told select media including PlanetF1.com of his decision to leave at the end of last season.

“I decided that I want to be pushing things forward. I don’t just want to sit there and not be able to do things. So, for me, that was time to stop and move on really.

“I think, as a company, they almost weren’t set up to push hard enough.”

It was a statement that could so easily have been uttered by Permane, Szafnauer, Alonso, Alain Prost, Oscar Piastri, Marcin Budkowski and every other significant figure to have left Enstone over recent years, all left to bemoan a disturbing absence of purpose.

As Renault now reap what they sow, the heart and soul of one of F1’s grand old teams is being torn out.

Desperate, desperate times…

Tsunoda v Ricciardo: F1’s spiciest 2024 rivalry?

Of all the team-mate battles on the 2024 grid, few have the potential to turn as explosive as Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull’s new-look junior team.

This is classic him-or-me territory, both with much to gain – and still, for different reasons, with much to prove – but equally with everything to lose.

Comfortably defeat Yuki, one of the understated stars of last season, and Ricciardo’s hopes of reclaiming his former Red Bull seat will be back on.

Finish off Daniel once and for all, meanwhile, and Tsunoda’s reputation – as well as his chances of remaining in F1 for the long term, potentially following Honda to Aston Martin in 2026 – will rise to new heights.

And if neither establishes a clear advantage over the other? That could well be the end of both of them.

So it maybe shouldn’t come as a great surprise that it took just one race for things to get tense, Tsunoda horrified by the pit wall’s instruction to switch positions with Ricciardo in the closing laps before taking his frustration out on his team-mate – power-sliding past him, the RB cars separated by inches – on the cooldown lap.

Having comfortably outqualified Ricciardo on Friday, following the pattern of the second half of 2023, Tsunoda’s emotional response to the team order captured the animalistic refusal to concede ground – any ground at all – to a driver with the power to finish his career.

When Tsunoda and Ricciardo first became team-mates last summer, much of the focus – inevitably in this social media age, in which everything has to be viewed as one giant meme – honed in on the fun and games two of the most vibrant personalities on the grid would have together.

On the evidence of Bahrain, however, the real fun is only just beginning.

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