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What we learned from Thursday F1 practice at the 2024 Bahrain GP

The first day of the 2024 Formula 1 season is in the books and it turned up a somewhat surprising start, as Mercedes shocked itself with its pace while world champions Red Bull and Max Verstappen kept their cards close to their chest. Here's what we learned from two hours of practice on Thursday

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15

Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

So, it begins. Formula 1's 2024 season has now officially kicked off after the opening two free practice sessions in Bahrain, albeit in an atypical Thursday slot, the opening two of races in the Middle East have been shuffled back by a day each to ensure that the F1 rounds do not clash with Ramadan.

Of the three practice sessions held during the Bahrain weekend, only one is of any real benefit; FP1 and FP3 offer little insight in their late-afternoon scheduling, as the circuit sizzles under the beating sun. Since the drivers enjoy cooler climes in qualifying and the race as the sun has long since slipped down the horizon, FP2 is historically the best gauge of what to expect in the crunch sessions later in the weekend.

Both soft-tyre hot laps and longer runs were crammed into the twilight session, offering a slightest glimpse of the relative performance data across the field, although it could be suggested that a few teams are continuing to mask their hands somewhat. With expectations that Red Bull is set for another dominant season reaching a near-unanimous consensus, it seems that the Milton Keynes outfit has been the team most keen to veil its absolute maximum in performance.

Hamilton set the pace for Mercedes on Thursday

Hamilton set the pace for Mercedes on Thursday

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The story of the day

A gauntlet was thrown down by Lewis Hamilton at the start of FP2. As ambient conditions had swiftly dropped to below 18 degrees C, the field was somewhat split on their strategies: a handful of drivers emerged for their preliminary runs on the medium compound, but the more big-ticket runners opened on soft tyres to conduct some early qualifying simulations.

The Haas drivers had also started with the C3 compound and both Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen found their way to the top of the order, but the times swiftly fell and prompted a fleeting tug-of-war between the Ferrari drivers and Sergio Perez over the timing board's zenith. Charles Leclerc settled on a 1m31.578s to briefly win that, before Hamilton slid in with his 1m30.751s baseline time on his first effort. This was two tenths faster than the best FP2 time from 2023, but at the very least suggested that Hamilton had immediate confidence in his Mercedes.

The same couldn't quite be said about George Russell, who suffered with a lack of traction at the start of his first flyer having arguably fluffed his lines in his preparation lap. There was improvement in his second run after a tweak to his setup betwixt his two efforts, although the Briton fell slightly short of his more senior team-mate once more as Hamilton raised the bar further.

Red Bull was not believed to have been running at full power. Verstappen was lagging relative to Hamilton, exacerbated by a small final-corner mistake, but it's likely that the Honda-designed powertrains had their wicks turned down

Both Sainz and Oscar Piastri had improved on their laps with a second set of soft tyres, but still couldn't quite reach Hamilton's first effort. The Mercedes driver turned up the heat again and posted a 1m30.374s which eventually had been set in stone as the fastest effort. Russell got closest with a 1m30.580s having enjoyed a cleaner run on his second attempt, as Fernando Alonso went third-fastest, 0.08s slower than Russell.

Sainz and Piastri remained between the top three and Max Verstappen, who ended the session with only a 1m30.851s to show for his efforts. This put him 0.033s clear of Hulkenberg, who hinted at improved pace for Haas this season.

Earlier in the day, Daniel Ricciardo had led the way in FP1 over Lando Norris, Piastri, and team-mate Yuki Tsunoda, although the RBs and McLarens had done their laps on the soft tyre as most chose to focus on the harder grades of tyre. Alonso had been the top performer on the medium C2 tyre, shading Verstappen by just under half a tenth to sit fifth overall in the earlier session's order.

Red Bull didn't run to full power with its engines on Thursday, explaining some of Verstappen's gap to the Mercedes drivers

Red Bull didn't run to full power with its engines on Thursday, explaining some of Verstappen's gap to the Mercedes drivers

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Is Mercedes really ahead of Red Bull?

The pace that Mercedes showed in FP2 appeared surprising to most, given that it had eclipsed both Red Bull and Ferrari with relative ease on fresh rubber. Taken at face value, it bodes surprisingly well for the Brackley squad - but things are rarely that simple in F1. Straightline speed on the Mercedes looked promising, given this was an area that the team was rarely lauded for last season, and Hamilton appeared to gain most of his time beyond the first sector after losing a smidgen between Turns 4 and 8.

But Red Bull was not believed to have been running at full power. Verstappen was lagging relative to Hamilton, exacerbated by a small final-corner mistake, but it's likely that the Honda-designed powertrains had their wicks turned down to keep them relatively fresh. Whether full power is enough to account for the near half-second gap remains to be seen, but it appears Red Bull is keeping its powder dry at this point in time.

Verstappen also faced a few (not entirely unfamiliar) issues with his gearshifts, and he'll be expecting some degree of resolution by FP3. Although there's more to get out of the car, the driver also needs to extract a little more comfort from the still-box-fresh RB20.

The cards fall naturally in Red Bull's favour in the long runs. With no interruptions, there was a smooth graduation from the qualifying simulations to exploring race pace as the field all opted to retain their now-used soft tyres.

Through assessing the average lap times from these runs, Verstappen led the way with a 1m36.715s average, and had been able to gradually bring the tyres in to ensure there was minimal drop-off throughout the stint. Perez's long-run data put the Mexican just a tenth shy of Verstappen, at least suggesting that the RB20 can remain consistent in the hands of both drivers - for the time being at least.

Mercedes was about 0.3s a lap shy of Red Bull's runs on the soft tyre, with Russell leading the Silver Arrows with a 1m37.052s over a 12-lap spread - although this was pretty much level pegging with Hamilton's 1m37.097s average over 14 laps. Even if Mercedes manages to retain an edge in qualifying relative to Red Bull, the picture in the race could appear somewhat reminiscent of 2023 as the RB20 flexes its advantage when it matters.

Mercedes admits it was worried about its single-lap pace coming into Bahrain after testing

Mercedes admits it was worried about its single-lap pace coming into Bahrain after testing

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

"Following the test we were most concerned about our single lap pace," reckoned Mercedes' trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin. "From the running today, it looks like we have improved. We're certainly not getting carried away, as there is plenty of scope within power unit modes and fuel loads for several cars to find a chunk of time before tomorrow.

"It's encouraging though that the picture we had last week seems to have improved. The long run data also looks close. Verstappen is still comfortably out front, as we saw last week, but behind him it's going to be a tight battle for the remaining podium spots."

Average long run times 

Pos
Team
Time
Laps
1
Red Bull (VER)
1m36.715s
14
2
McLaren (PIA)
1m36.887s
13
3
Mercedes (RUS)
1m37.052s
12
4
Ferrari (LEC)
1m37.125s
12
5
Aston Martin (ALO)
1m37.292s
10
6
Williams (SAR)
1m37.365s
9
7
RB (RIC)
1m37.678s
13
8
Sauber (BOT)
1m37.721s
11
9
Haas (HUL)
1m37.789s
12
10
Alpine (GAS)
1m38.018s
10

Piastri's 1m36.887s average, conducted over a 13-lap stint, may be construed as an anomaly. The Australian may well have overturned his race tyre management deficit to team-mate Norris, as the Briton only recorded a 1m37.223s average over the same distance, but it has been suggested that Piastri was running with slightly less fuel relative to others on race running.

Ferrari was a gnat's whisker away from Mercedes' runs, and Leclerc was under a tenth shy of Russell's laps across the same 12-lap stretch. As Ferrari had been expected to be Red Bull's nearest challenger this year, it could either be that the Scuderia had also not run at full pelt in FP2, or Mercedes had been able to keep a greater level of pace relatively well hidden throughout testing.

The top five teams, crucially, all remained within 0.5s a lap over their soft-tyre runs. Extrapolating this over the course of a season, it suggests that the faintest advantage in terms of set-up could theoretically shuffle the order among them - and Red Bull would not be immune to this if its margin at the top does not grow. Aston Martin does appear to be at the back of this group thus far on overall pace, but the margins between Alonso and the other frontrunners remain small.

Where will Ferrari fit into the picture come qualifying?

Where will Ferrari fit into the picture come qualifying?

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

A change in order among the bottom five teams is anticipated, although the long runs recorded have been masked slightly by Logan Sargeant's reduced fuel load across a nine-lap stretch on the softs. The American was a full three tenths faster than the best RB run from Ricciardo, but lighter tanks are believed to account for not only this gap, but the near 0.7s advantage he held over team-mate Alex Albon on their averages.

It appears that RB can expect to be battling Williams for minor points, with Sauber and Haas very close to them, while Alpine looks to be in trouble on both one-lap and longer-run pace. About level with Sauber's efforts in the qualifying simulations, the French squad's fastest long run was about quarter of a second away from everyone else's. The overweight A524 will only exacerbate this, although technical director Matt Harman says the team knows where it can easily shed those extra pounds.

What they said

Max Verstappen: “The practice sessions today were not perfect but we weren’t too far off. The long runs were quite decent, and I think we can always do a little better on those laps. There were a few small balance issues that we will work on but I am quite happy with everything with the car overall. Today was just about trying to find that sweet spot and getting the perfect balance in the car."

Lewis Hamilton: "We had a positive FP2 session. The car was feeling good, but we can't get ahead of ourselves. We know there is more to extract, and our long run pace isn't in the fight with the Red Bulls. Overall though, I'm feeling much happier with the car than last year. We've made some good improvements and it feels much more like a race car. It's a really good platform for us to build from. We just need to keep our heads down and keep chasing."

George Russell: "We're not going to get carried away after one day of practice. Our qualifying pace did look strong. We made some changes from the test and the improvement exceeded our expectations. But ultimately our long run pace is where it counts. Verstappen looked comfortably quickest, and it was very tight with the Ferraris, the McLarens, and the Aston Martins. So we've likely got a real fight on our hands there."

 

Charles Leclerc: "No big surprises at least on our side, so that is a good thing again. No bad surprises, no good surprises either, just exactly as we expected the car to be. In FP2 did a small mistake on my fast lap, it’s a one lap tyre, so that was it. But apart from that it's all about tomorrow now, trying to focus to do a step forward. Mercedes looks strong, which is a bit of a surprise, but we don't know with which fuel they are running. So I think we'll have all our answers tomorrow."

Who will snatch the first pole of 2024?

Who will snatch the first pole of 2024?

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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