Conclusions from F1 2024 Testing: Red Bull’s RB20 checkmate, drain cover dramas and more

Oliver Harden
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen looks on during the drivers' F1 2024 photoshoot

Max Verstappen could ease to a fourth consecutive title in 2024 on the evidence of pre-season testing

F1 2024 testing is done and so now the countdown begins until the Bahrain Grand Prix, the opening race of the new season, next Saturday.

New season, same old story? It looks that way with Red Bull’s RB20 excelling after the team’s brave change of direction for 2024.

Everyone knows it’s a dangerous game to jump to conclusions after pre-season testing – but you think that’s gonna stop us? Think again…

Red Bull’s courage will be rewarded with the RB20

Every other team would have stuck with what they had, limited the changes to finetuning and hammered home the philosophy on a daily basis back at the factory: evolution, evolution, evolution.

But Red Bull are not like every other team.

And so it follows that the RB20 is not like any other car. Not like anything on the 2024 grid and not like Red Bull’s previous two cars under F1’s current rules either.

The logic is simple: with the rest out of ideas and convinced a car like last year’s RB19 is the only way to crack the ground effect regulations, Red Bull’s returns were likely to diminish – the other teams likely to gradually close the gap – as time passed.

So what better way to retake control of their own destiny – to consolidate their status and authority over the rest – than by changing the game completely?

Pursuing a new concept – just as the other teams thought they were closing in on their deepest secrets – is a commanding move typical of this team, long praised for their bold and adventurous strategic thinking at the track, and a sign of Red Bull getting their retaliation in first.

Even considering moving away from the RB19 design was one thing; actually committing to it? After all the success they had in 2023? Quite another.

It takes a huge amount of courage to do what Red Bull have done, but the early evidence suggests the car is no weaker – and, in the hands of Max Verstappen, likely even stronger – than its record-breaking predecessor.

And, crucially, with all the development potential Red Bull would have soon lost by sticking rather than twisting.


More ground effect downforce = more lengthy red flags?

One of the last noteworthy images of 2023 was the sight of Carlos Sainz climbing out of his Ferrari in Las Vegas, having struck a loose manhole cover at speed just minutes into opening practice.

It was a bitter moment for both Sainz, forced to serve a 10-place grid penalty through no fault of his own, and Ferrari, whose team principal Fred Vasseur fumed in the post-session press conference after assessing the damage and weighing up the repair costs.

Frustrating as it may have been for all involved, such teething troubles are not uncommon on street circuits.

But what happened on consecutive days in Bahrain – a long-established, conventional circuit – on Thursday and Friday, as two more loose drain covers caused lengthy delays and hastily rearranged schedules, felt slightly more disconcerting.

Entering the third season of the ground effect regulations, with the teams clawing back more and more performance, is there a danger that F1’s current cars are now generating more downforce than even the most modern venues built to the highest FIA standards can handle?

Ground effect cars, as we know, generate their performance in a unique way, with the interaction between the underbody and the track’s surface integral to overall downforce, and you only need to study the difference between the testing times in 2023 and 2024 to understand how rapidly teams are finding gains.

Could 2024 mark a tipping point where circuits begin to crumble under the ever-more extreme forces of ground effect machinery – forces unlike anything they have been subjected to before – potentially causing delays like this at races across the calendar?

Let this week, perhaps, be a warning sign.

Memo to circuit officials everywhere: weld down your kerbs and your drain covers like they’ve never been welded down before; 2024’s F1 monsters are coming.

Mercedes and Ferrari finally have the solid platforms they’ve been hoping for

It was this time last year that the fundamental limitations of their car concepts finally dawned on Mercedes and Ferrari.

Over in the silver corner, the W14 was effectively the 2022 Merc stripped of its bouncy personality; in the red, meanwhile, the SF-23 was a temperamental tyre muncher.

No sooner had the 2023 cars hit the track, the technical teams of Mercedes and Ferrari were going back to the drawing board, both mindful that their existing solutions were not – and never were – going to be enough to take on Red Bull. recommends

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Neither, at first glance, are the 2024 cars – but the difference this time is that they now have something to work with and develop for the remainder of this rules cycle.

Drivers of both teams have commented that their 2024 cars are a clear improvement and infinitely more pleasant to drive than their predecessors, finally giving them the solid, stable platform they have been hoping for.

Out of the darkness, Mercedes and Ferrari have stepped – albeit tentatively – back into the light.

McLaren are now carrying themselves like a top team

It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.

McLaren have been anxious to manage expectations over the winter, wisely refusing to let their impressive mid-2023 transformation convince them that they’re riding an unstoppable tidal wave back to title contention.

It was mirrored in the way they went testing, McLaren slightly below the radar, reluctant to chase the headline times, diligently working their way through their run plans and carrying the quiet confidence that characterised Mercedes throughout their period of dominance.

Having been hamstrung by chronically overheating brakes in both 2022 and ’23, this easily marks McLaren’s smoothest pre-season of the ground effect era to date – a reflection of a team now back on track, now comfortable in their own skin, in all areas.

With McLaren quite open at launch that they have not yet addressed all the areas initially targeted with the new MCL38, they may find themselves having to bat off a rejuvenated Mercedes and Ferrari at the start of 2024 before they can even think about hunting down Red Bull.

But everything about McLaren these days suggests this is a team who aren’t going away.

Don’t expect any miracles from RB

Where exactly would Red Bull’s new-look junior team feature in the initial 2024 pecking order?

That was one of the key questions as the teams headed for Bahrain and one of much interest to McLaren chairman Zak Brown, the most vociferous critic of so-called A-B team relationships over the winter.

Would a closer technical partnership with the main team – in a similar arrangement to Haas’s arrangement with Ferrari – bring RB into serious contention, potentially allowing the little team from Faenza to replicate the results of Aston Martin this time last year?

The best-case scenario of a few early podiums would no doubt do wonders for Daniel Ricciardo’s campaign to reclaim his old Red Bull seat…

As last season developed, however, so it became clear that Aston Martin were slightly flattered by the troubles of Mercedes and Ferrari a year ago.

And with both Merc and Ferrari in the process of getting back on track, the opportunity to make a similar breakthrough does not exist in the same way for RB regardless of the encouraging step they seem to have made over the winter.

In any case, RB appear to have put themselves firmly back in the midfield fight, rather than at the head of it or achieving the Aston-style dream of shattering F1’s glass ceiling.

Podiums? A stretch too far for now.

Expect this team to be more ‘Haas on a good day’ than 2024’s answer to Aston Martin.

Read next: Decoding Red Bull’s RB20: Shark mouth inlets and innovative design