F1 set for on-track return as craziest-ever off-season draws to a close

Thomas Maher
Max Verstappen, F1 testing, Bahrain, 2023.

F1 testing for the 2024 season kicks off this week, putting an end to a crazy winter off-season.

Formula 1’s on-track return this week almost feels like an afterthought following the wildest off-season in living memory.

After what had been a routine and non-descript Christmas period, January’s big news story was the reveal of the split between Haas and long-time team boss Guenther Steiner after parting ways just before the new year.

But Steiner and Haas going their separate ways merely proved an aperitif for what was to come a few weeks later, with an absolutely manic off-season unfolding as F1 began to gear up for the 2024 championship.

Andretti email kicks off a wave of F1 insanity

At 15:31 on the 31st of January, a ding into the email inbox from Formula 1 signaled the end of the off-season in one fell swoop.

Outlining the reasons (they were many, and notable in their harshness) why Andretti had not passed the F1 process after being waved forward by the FIA, the decision to rule out a prospective 11th team seemed the big drama of the off-season as the calendar ticked over to February.

Analysing the implications, the immediate fall-out of reaction, and the umpteen opinions that looked set to dominate the news cycle as launch season geared up – the bizarre reasoning behind F1’s decision to not admit Andretti would have caused quite a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny for Liberty Media and FOM over recent weeks.

But, fortunately for the concerned parties, that very night saw the beginning of the rumours from Italy that a seismic bomb in the driver market was about to explode. Rumour quickly became a viable lead after a few enquiring messages and phone calls. Just a few hours later, the viable lead became fact – Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes announced an unthinkable divorce is imminent, and the seven-time world champion will begin a new relationship with Ferrari next year.

With three huge news stories in the first few weeks of the new year, surely that spelled an end to the madness and we could all go back into the usual cycle of having time to digest the changes and allow every driver, ex-driver, and their granny, to air their views while picking our way through the launch season?

Four days. Four days of peace was all we got before the next jaw-dropper – the confirmation from Red Bull GmbH that Christian Horner had been placed under an internal investigation after alleged complaints about his behaviour as team boss.

While F1 courts controversy on a regular basis, most of the time it centres on the FIA’s rulebooks and the craziness of the regulations, and he said/she said back-and-forths that, despite being exhausting in nature, tend to be straightforward enough to address. That is not the case with Red Bull and Horner.

With Red Bull Racing circling the wagons to maintain a solid silence on the matter, and GmbH refusing to detail anything beyond perfunctory statements, it’s led to weeks of navigating a legal minefield – something which many PlanetF1.com readers have noticed and commented on in some of our comment sections.

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Andretti, Christian Horner, and Lewis Hamilton the tip of the F1 news iceberg

Aside from these huge stories, there have been plenty of other stories that, without these bombshells, would likely have had far more prominence in the news cycle. For instance, calendar changes and rumours such as the arrival of Madrid, the renewal of Suzuka, the future of Barcelona and Singapore, and the possibility of a Chicago Grand Prix – all of these had their moment and, just as quickly, were lost in the rush.

On top of that, there’s the mild headache Sauber is having regarding the naming of the team as ‘Stake’ given that the sponsor hasn’t got a licence to operate in Switzerland – triggering an investigation by Swiss authorities to ensure compliance with advertising laws.

There are also the decisions taken at the F1 Commission level, with the Sprint format set for revision (again), the DRS rules being altered to allow for earlier use, and an increase in the power unit allowance to give the drivers four engines for the year.

And, lest we forget, there’s still the matter of what is going on with regards to Mercedes and Toto and Susie Wolff and what steps they take with the FIA after saying legal options will be assessed.

This is regarding the bizarre 48-hour investigation by the governing body into whether confidential information was passed between the couple in their professional capacities, only for the FIA to almost immediately back off and say everything is OK once the other nine teams put up a (very unusual) united front to confirm they had never raised a complaint about them. One would imagine we haven’t heard the end of this one…

With such dramas happening off-track over the winter, it’s astonishing to think the season hasn’t even begun. This week sees the resumption of the on-track stuff, with all eyes on Bahrain to see what the teams have rolled out for the third year of the ground-effect regulations.

Three days of pre-season testing begins at 7am UK time on Wednesday, February 21st, running on until 4.30pm at the Bahrain International Circuit, where PlanetF1.com will be reporting from the ground throughout the week.

Most of the teams’ designs have seen clear convergence with the RB19 design that swept all before it last year. It’s notable, then, that Red Bull has opted for far more bravery than expected – the RB20 showing signs of heading in the direction of the philosophy Mercedes tried to make work over the past two years.

If the ‘zeropod’ rumours that the team is supposedly lining up turn out to be true, seeing whether Red Bull can succeed where Mercedes failed will be one of the key storylines of the season.

There are also the huge question marks over whether McLaren’s quiet confidence makes them the dark horse should Red Bull stumble, and whether it’s Ferrari, Mercedes, or Aston Martin can make that big step forward they all want.

After an off-track winter of discontent, disharmony, and legal intrigue, it’s time for the matters of real interest to begin. The soap opera sideshow that F1 has provided over the past few weeks has made the on-track stuff feel like an afterthought but, hopefully, with more competition for Red Bull and Max Verstappen than they had in 2023, the scene is set for a remarkable 2024 campaign.

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