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Why tight-grid concerns weigh heavy on F1 teams before testing

As 2024 winter testing gets under way, Formula 1 teams are bracing for the tightest season ever as narrowing gaps will punish any driver or squad that gets it wrong.

George Russell, Mercedes W15

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

F1 heads into its third of four years under the 2022-era regulations cycle, which has gradually seen teams converge on Red Bull's all-conquering design philosophies.

Red Bull completely crushed the opposition in 2023 after facing some initial resistance from Ferrari the year before, but behind it the rest of the grid has been closer than ever, with even the slowest teams being regular challengers for Q3 in qualifying.

With the effects of F1's cost cap and aerodynamic testing restrictions now in full force, and the technical rules stable for another year, teams are bracing for an even tighter battle in 2024, which is set to see every little mistake punished and any development breakthrough heralded a game changer.

"It's going to be very tight," said Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso, whose team made a big leap forward at the start of last year but then slid to fifth.

"Even if we make a reasonable and very good step forward, we know that the other teams over the winter, they do also good step forward. And we saw in Abu Dhabi, I think, within six tenths was pole position and P18.

"So, when you improve couple of tenths, this can change your life. This can change fighting for podium or being in Q2, out of the top 10 in the first races. It's just one small update that maybe you bring to the next race, and from Q2 you jump to a podium."

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR24

Photo by: Aston Martin Racing

Carlos Sainz, whose Ferrari team lost out to Mercedes by three points in the fight for second last season, agreed with his fellow Spaniard that the gaps will be even smaller this year.

"My prediction is that yes, it should be [closer]. In the end when you look at the 2023 season as the races were going by, the competition was getting tighter and tighter across the whole field," he said.

"I remember a lot of Q1s, Q2s and Q3s that there was barely anything between a lot of teams, so moving forward a year I think everyone's going to converge even more and the competition is going to be even tighter.

PLUS: 10 things to look out for as F1 testing 2024 kicks off

"So, that's why every single detail, every single small advantage that you can get and improve is going to be key because the field is going to be extremely tight."

Few teams are under any illusion that Red Bull will be beaten to a third consecutive championship this year, as the Milton Keynes squad saved up development resources early to focus on a boldly different RB20 rather than play it safe.

But there's still hope for its closest challengers, like the resurgent McLaren, to pick up bits and pieces if it gets things right. That also means mistakes will be punished even harder than last year.

"When you don't have a perfect lap, or you don't get something exactly right, at times in the past, you could get away with it," added Lando Norris.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, the rest of the field at the start of the race

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, the rest of the field at the start of the race

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

"Whereas I think you're going to be able to get away with this less and less, and that requires less mistakes, more hard work and learning and perfection in order to achieve consistent results."

Williams' Alex Albon pointed out that the days of having traditional top teams appear all but over, and hopes that amid a converging field his Grove-based squad can bridge the gap from seventh to sixth, after finishing a long way behind Alpine last year.

"It's not this kind of three or two team top section anymore," he acknowledged. "It's now a very complete field up at the top with a lot of teams involved.

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"When you actually look at the gap to P6 and P5, that still quite a big jump and then after Alpine you've got a rather substantial gap to the Astons, McLarens, Mercedes.

"I want to be fighting in that kind of Alpine [area] and nipping on the heels of that top group. I think that's a realistic performance expectation for us."

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