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Bahrain Thursday Report: Who Fired the First Shots of the 2024 Season?

Written by Traber Burns

Image Credits: Williams Racing

F1 fans, rejoice! The 2024 season has arrived. Break out the popcorn and - for those unfortunate enough to need them - get those alarm clocks and coffee ready. It’s time for 24 weekends of blood

pumping Formula 1 action. 

They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but it appears Saturday night races have carried over to the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix this year. The cheers of Asian, Australian, and Oceanian fans could be heard throughout the globe knowing they will be able to watch the races on a Sunday morning rather than a Monday morning. F1's official reason is a little more circumstantial. Ramadan begins on Sunday the 10th, the same weekend as the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. All things considered, this scheduling should please many fans. Of course, this means that the weekend starts on a Thursday, with Qualifying taking place on Friday night. But while the weekend has shifted one day earlier, the usual session times for the Bahrain Grand Prix haven’t changed. FP1 and FP3 take place in the daylight, which leaves the teams with only one hour of representative conditions for practice.

Speaking of conditions, this weekend is fairly mild, with temperatures being slightly cool (around 62℉ (17℃)). Despite the cold track temps, many teams were electing to go for double cool-down laps during qualifying simulations. Look out for which drivers choose which strategy come Friday. The biggest challenge this weekend is the wind. Teams and drivers had to tackle what was usually a headwind of around 10-15 mph down the front straight. While it remained mostly consistent, the wind swirled from time to time as well. It’s expected to be similar tomorrow, so don’t be surprised to see some dramatic moments come qualifying. 

So who flexed their muscles under the lights? There was very little in the way of action in FP2, which gives us plenty of data to dig into. During qualifying simulations in FP2, Lewis Hamilton set the pace, with his teammate two-tenths behind. The Mercedes has been rumored to have more pace than testing revealed, and so far, those rumors appear to be true. The only trouble the silver arrows ran into was George Russell’s wooden plank catching a very small flame for at least half a lap, which didn’t result in any lingering problems. Race pace was fairly decent as well, putting up what looked like the second-fastest times at the end of the session. So who was first?

So far this weekend, Red Bull haven’t provided indisputable proof that they’re the team to beat on Friday. At the same time, race runs seemed to offer a consistent story. To the surprise of many, Verstappen was half a second behind the fastest driver in Qualifying pace. When race runs came around, that quickly changed. We don’t know the fuel load or engine modes, but from the data we do have, Max Verstappen was consistently around two-tenths faster than the Mercs. With that said, they also encountered some not-so-minor teething troubles in FP1.  If you had Verstappen complaining about rough and inconsistent shifts on your bingo card, congrats! (This should really be a free space at this point). Verstappen complained of shifts multiple times throughout FP1. He later reported the engine giving positive torque under braking, something that was also confirmed on the onboard camera. Checo struggled to dial in his own setup throughout the day as well. Despite these challenges, all signs point to the Bulls being the fastest cars on Saturday, even if the gap isn’t as big as it was.

Bahrain is a track that suits Aston Martin, and the guys and gals in green looked like front runners again tonight. Alonso was only 0.284 seconds off of Hamilton in Qualifying sim, and Stroll was just over half a second back. Race pace didn’t offer the same optimism, but it’s still solid enough to expect a double points finish at the minimum. One thing’s for sure: If this season is anything like the last, they’ll need to capitalize on their early season speed.

The Bahrain circuit might suit the green cars, but the papaya cars don’t share the same love. Historically, Bahrain might be McLaren’s worst track on the calendar. Zak Brown also suggested that it might take five to six races to really get the car dialed in. As for tonight, Oscar Piastri carried the flag for them in Qualifying sim, finishing 5th, within half a second of Hamilton. Lando Norris made a mistake on his qualifying lap and therefore finished P20. While Piastri expressed confidence in the setup early in the day, Norris continued to make changes through FP2. Piastri’s race pace started extremely fast, but fell off quickly, making the McLaren’s possibly susceptible to high degradation on the soft tire. Norris wasn’t as fast out of the gate, but put in more consistent lap times than his teammate. However, the pace was still lacking, and he’ll be looking for more help come FP3 tomorrow. 

It’s tough to say where Ferrari stands at the moment. Carlos Sainz had the best Qualifying pace, setting a lap only 0.41 seconds behind Hamilton. They didn’t stand out much when it came to race pace either, putting in laps that were inconsistent. Ferrari have been both strong at Bahrain and weak on handling tire deg, and the race pace times look to have confirmed that once again. 

Image Credits: Scuderia Ferrari

RB has shown to have solid pace through both testing and practice. Daniel Ricciardo posted the fastest lap in FP1. He was only one of six drivers to complete laps on the soft tire, joined by his teammate, both Saubers, and both McLarens. While this isn’t representative of this weekend, this is a promising result for future races. Like the Red Bull, the RBs did experience some odd troubles. In FP2, both drivers reported strange engine braking in turn eight. Neither driver felt comfortable with their setups either, and will likely be looking at FP3 for changes. On another note, there’s a battle for a possible Red Bull seat between the RB teammates. It’s only Thursday, but day one can be chalked up as an upper hand for Ricciardo. 

Sauber had a rough Thursday to kick off the season. Multiple new-car problems reared their ugly head in FP1. It started with Zhou Guanyu, who immediately complained about the resting position of the brake pedal. Then, Valtteri relayed his assessment. He said the steering wheel was slightly right hand down on the straight, and his steering wheel screen showed a brake-by-wire (BBW) failure. However, judging by Valterri’s tone, it seems like this was expected, and the radio message seemed positive overall. After making a few laps, Zhou said “The car feels so unconnected right now.” Many other drivers complained of inconsistent balance issues, most likely due to the wind, but other than Max, Zhou sounded like the most irritated driver of the session. 

Haas were the butt of an easy joke or two when looking at the timing sheets of FP1. A closer look reveals that while the rest of the grid did qualifying runs, Haas only put a focus on race pace. This is a continuing trend from testing as well. Last season, one could easily argue they had the worst race pace on the grid, so it’s not surprising to see them put qualifying focus on the backburner. However, they did make a qualifying run in FP2. Hulkenberg was able to nab a P7 spot, proving that the single lap speed never left. The race does appear to have improved for now, but Saturday will be the only true test. Magnussen wasn’t fully on par with Hulkenberg tonight, either. This is a pivotal year for the Dane, as he’ll have to find some performance if he wants to keep his seat next year in an extremely competitive driver market. 

Image Credits: MoneyGram Haas F1 Team

As for Alpine and Williams, it’s hard to say where they stand. In Williams’ case, Albon nabbed a P11 and Sargeant ended in P13, but the race runs were concerning. They look like they can contend for small points finished at moments, but both drivers ran off track multiple times and the cars looked like a handful. As for Alpine, they made a trend last season of having a terrible day one and bouncing back relatively strong come Qualifying last season. It’s hard to say which version of Alpine we’ll get this season, but neither race pace or one-lap pace looks flattering. Best they can hope for is likely a low-end points finish.


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