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Red Bull’s better tyre options quash F1 rivals’ hopes further for Bahrain GP

Red Bull’s rivals already knew before the weekend that it was going to be a tall order to beat Max Verstappen in the Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20 in the pit lane

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

The pace of the RB20 in the world champion’s hands throughout practice and qualifying has further highlighted the advantage he has over the opposition right now.

But despite a pretty close fight for the top grid spots – where Charles Leclerc’s best Q2 lap would actually have been good enough for pole position – few are anticipating much hope of holding a candle to him around Sakhir on Saturday.

As Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz said about the deficit to Red Bull in qualifying appearing closer than last year: “Let's wait until the race.

“I think that's where they suddenly level it up and that's where they manage to have degradation that no one can have, and a race pace that no one can have.

“I think last year, if you look at the last eight races: in quali we were always there, within reach of them, and this year we felt again within reach in quali [pace]. In the race? We'll see.”

But if the performance deficit to Verstappen has left rivals feeling their chances are minimal, there is further bad news for them – because Red Bull also enjoys a tyre strategy advantage heading into the grand prix.

Almost slipping under the radar, Red Bull elected to steer clear of an early soft tyre run in final free practice and opted to use a hard tyre instead.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

That means for the race, Red Bull duo Verstappen and Sergio Perez have a new soft available, while all its main opposition only have used ones.

Here is a run-down of the tyre sets available:

 

For a high degradation track like Bahrain, it would seem counter intuitive to feel that extra softs are a benefit, but things fall that way here because the medium is not an especially good tyre for the race.

As Pirelli’s Mario Isola explained: “The medium is very close in terms of delta lap time with the hard, but with higher degradation. That means that there is no real advantage with it.”

The medium’s characteristics therefore push the frontrunners to the soft - especially for the start and opening stint.

Isola added: “I believe the majority, or at least the cars in front, will start with the soft because otherwise they lose too many tracks positions.

“The lap time delta between the soft and hard is big. The soft/medium is 1.2s, and the medium/hard is 0.3-0.4s, so it means that you have 1.5 seconds between the hard and soft. That is a lot.

“So if you start with the hard, and you are in front, with some possibilities for overtaking, then you start to lose track positions.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, receives his Pirelli Pole Position Award from DJ Zedd

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, receives his Pirelli Pole Position Award from DJ Zedd

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

The strategy pointing to soft being the tyre of choice for the first stint, with extra grip away from the line – allied to the extra tyre life it offers – gives Red Bull a quite decent cushion compared to the others.

Sainz estimated that the advantage for Red Bull was in the region of two or three seconds over that first stint.

Plus, it also points to Red Bull opting for the same soft-hard-soft strategy that it put to good use to dominate last year. Others that have two hards available may opt for the more conservative route.

Red Bull’s car design, its long-run form and the tyre strategy choices all culminate in leaving the rest of the field accepting that there is one clear favourite the first F1 race of 2024.

George Russell, who will start the race from third place, said: “The gap in qualifying was probably slightly closer to Max than we all expected, but I think race pace is the important one. We're expecting probably a half second deficit. That's what we thought after testing.”

Asked by Autosport if he had seen anything on the data over this weekend to give hope of someone taking the fight to Verstappen, Isola was quick to reply.

“Max is very strong, I cannot tell any lie,” he smiled. “You can see that from the lap times, both during the test and also yesterday. I hope that the others are close but I believe he still has an advantage.”

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