Photo by justDONQUE images, CC BY 2.0, via Openverse

Formula 1’s 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix may not have delivered much in terms of high stakes on-track action, but here is what we learnt at the first race of the 2024 season.

For those of us who are neither a Red Bull nor Max Verstappen fan, the Bahrain Grand Prix, which marked the long-awaited end of the winter break, was a disappointing race. Red Bull domination looked somehow even more secure than last season, leaving the sincere impression that we should hand the Flying Dutchman, who won the race by a cool 22 seconds, the World Drivers’ Championship right this minute.

Perhaps the dominant Red Bull performance can be said to be a little unexpected in the face of the turmoil surrounding Christian Horner, who had been accused of controlling and inappropriate behaviour by a member of staff at Red Bull, but retained his position as team principal. Despite all the controversy, Max Verstappen managed to pull away to a 10-second lead in just about 10 laps, and ended up finishing off a ‘Grand Slam’ (pole position and fastest lap as well as having led every lap of the race) that he branded ‘simply lovely’ on his Instagram. Indeed, you certainly got the impression from his team radio messages at the end of the race that this was just another day in the office for both Max and Red Bull.  

Furthermore, one of the key takeaways from any first Grand Prix of the season is an establishment of a new pecking order of the teams, although of course a long season awaits with much room for development.  Beyond Red Bull’s seemingly unchallenged retention of the top spot, there has certainly been some movement after the winter break’s development. Perhaps the most notable being the fall from grace, or ‘chute de grâce’, of Alpine, the Renault works team. After finishing a solid 6th in the Constructors’ Championship, the 2 Alpine cars qualified 19th and 20th for Saturday’s race, and solidified a catastrophic weekend with a 17th and 18th place finish. Further up the field, with just 5 teams making up the top 10, it feels certain that the fight in 2024 (if only just for 2nd place) lies with Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin.

But first, what happened in that other Red Bull garage? Here too, some consistency from last season, with a performance suggesting that Sergio Perez is much more comfortable with the handling of his Red Bull in a race setting as opposed to a qualifying one. He lost out to the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc and George Russell’s Mercedes in Friday’s qualifying session, but made quick work of them during the race, delivering a seriously impressive overtake on the latter, as well as Red Bull their first 1-2 finish since Monza last season.

On the other hand, Charles Leclerc seemed to continue his run of doing the opposite – overperforming during qualifying and failing to exploit this during the race (as evidenced by his truly abysmal pole conversion rate of only 17.4%). The Monegasque seemed to lack pace from the outset, being overtaken by Russell in the early stages, before being afflicted with a series of technical issues. Certainly there seemed something ominous about the ‘Leclerc Radio’ graphic by the end of the race, through which we learned of issues such as a tendency to drift right when braking, as well as an apparent balance issue that meant an endless proclivity for his Ferrari to ‘lock up’. Despite all this, Leclerc managed to pull back past George Russell, ending up fourth in the race. He also took to Instagram to explain he had been affected by ‘big problems with the brakes’. Room for optimism Ferrari fans?

What is certain is that if Carlos Sainz manages to continue impressing with the kind of performance he managed in Bahrain, then, despite losing his seat to a certain Lewis Hamilton next year, he can be optimistic of an offer of a drive elsewhere. The Spaniard looked to be the pacier of the two Ferrari drivers from the early stages of the race, and after a nail-biting overtake managed to convert that into the higher track position that eventually won him a podium at the season’s first asking. One gets the impression that, having been somewhat thrown to the curb in favour of a 7-time world champion in the form of Lewis Hamilton, things might get heated between Sainz and the teammate he no longer needs to prioritise over himself. It is going to be a feisty year.

The Mercedes camp too were hindered with some technical issues, namely both drivers being told to increase ‘lift and coast’ whilst the silver arrows overheated in traffic. It is seemingly unclear whether or not Russell was passed due to Sainz’s merit or due to a technical issue, but the Brit was allegedly unable to use his overtake button during certain parts of the race, and ended up finishing 7 seconds behind his championship rivals at Ferrari. Sir Lewis on the other hand, managed to make an overtake on Oscar Piastri stick, thus splitting the McLaren’s and moving up 2 spots from his position on the starting grid. However, given the optimism surrounding the W15, with Hamilton claiming during testing that they had a ‘great platform to build on’, perhaps 5th and 7th can still be seen as a somewhat underwhelming result.

With regards to the McLarens, which finished up  6th and 8th after managing some tyre degradation early on, it is safe to say that they find themselves in a much stronger position than this time last year, when the pair placed 17th and 20th. Although both cars got past that of Fernando Alonso with relative ease, one can see that there will be a battle between the grid’s green and orange cars this season. Even with a turn 1 incident with Nico Hulkenberg, Lance Stroll still managed to sneak into the points after driving a decent recovery.

Further down the field – some usual suspects and some new additions. After a 7th place finish in the Constructors’ Championship (a stark improvement on the preceding 10th place), the Williams team struggled to mark the start of their season with much of a bang. One of the more comical elements of their struggle was Albon’s steering wheel which at one point appeared to simply read ‘CAR TOO HOT’. Similarly, the season did not get off to a good start for potentially the driver with the most to prove, Logan Sargeant. He came careering off the track in the 10th lap due to a steering wheel issue that caused him to lock up his rear axle, and although he eventually got going, he finished last, a minute off the pace.

On the other hand, signs of positivity for both Haas and the Sauber teams, although it did not materialise in points. Nico Hulkenberg’s aforementioned turn 1 incident with Stroll meant the German’s impressive qualifying effort (starting 10th on the grid) was scuppered from the beginning. However, there is certainly something in the fact that even with a front wing change, he still managed to finish above both Alpine cars. At Sauber, beyond their (stunning, if I do say so myself) new neon livery, there was hope that Zhou Guanyu might be able to replicate his 2022 performance, in which he managed to score points on his debut. Unfortunately, after a well-timed pitstop had him running 9th for a while, he ended up finishing just outside the points in 11th . His teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was forced to endure a 52 second pitstop reminiscent of his pitstop-related disaster in Monaco 2021: he might just be cursed in that regard.

The elephant in the room is whatever has happened to the Alpine team that undoubtedly had the worst weekend in the paddock. It became clear after testing in Bahrain that the A524 would need some more time to be in its optimal shape; team boss Bruno Famin described the Alpine concept as ‘aggressive’ at the car’s launch, but is now urging patience with the design that has left them extremely far away from where they want to be, hoping presumably to develop away some of the catastrophe later on in the season, much like McLaren did last year.

Some fireworks (in addition to those celebrating Max’s win) came after the race between the 2 RB cars when Yuki Tsunoda appeared to divebomb Daniel Ricciardo before locking up and almost crashing into the Australian, all after the chequered flag. This came about after Tsunoda initially resisted a team orders call to cede his 13th position to his teammate. Having been just half a second behind Kevin Magnussen when the call was made, the young Japanese driver voiced his frustration at the outcome: “he’s not fast at all”. This sets up an interesting dynamic between two drivers at very different stages in their journey with Red Bull: Yuki a future prospect and Daniel something of Christian Horner’s returned prodigal son.

So, it’s safe to say that the Bahrain Grand Prix was not completely devoid of action, and, after all, why shouldn’t there be an exciting race for 2nd place?