Verstappen favourite and Hamilton’s Mercedes swansong – 2024 F1 talking points

By Sports Desk February 27, 2024

The new Formula One season begins in Bahrain on Saturday with Max Verstappen bidding to win a fourth consecutive world championship.

Here, the PA news agency looks at the key questions heading into the 2024 campaign.

Who is the favourite to win the title?

Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by allegations facing team principal Christian Horner. Horner, who is fighting to save his career following a claim of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague, insists it is business as usual at Red Bull. Off-track it has been anything but for the team which has dominated the sport for the past two seasons. But on-track it has been precisely that.

Verstappen — in an upgrade of the machine which carried him to 19 victories from 22 rounds last year — set a blistering pace on the opening day of last week’s test, finishing 1.1 seconds quicker than anybody else.

Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, summed up the ominous feeling in the paddock. Writing about Verstappen on ‘X’ he said: “He’s gloating. He’s taunting us. He knows. This year is going to be one long victory lap. You cannot begrudge anyone their success. All we can do is watch and admire.”

So, can anyone challenge Verstappen and Red Bull?

Ferrari ended last year with five pole positions from the final nine races and Carlos Sainz secured the only non-Red Bull win of the season in Singapore. The Italian team have worked hard over the winter on translating their one-lap pace into race conditions, where they tended to struggle in 2023.

They will take solace from a trouble-free test and their pace appeared relatively encouraging, too. Sainz topped the time charts on the second day, while Leclerc ended the final day quickest – albeit on speedier rubber than Verstappen.

An upbeat Leclerc said: “We are in a much better place and it is an easier car to drive. The feeling was good. We have been consistent straight away and this will help us in the race.”

And what about Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?

Hamilton stunned the sporting world by choosing to quit Mercedes and join Ferrari in 2025. The news broke earlier this month and is likely to be difficult for those at Mercedes to digest. Hamilton took the decision – one he described as the hardest of his life – after two winless years with the Silver Arrows.

Mercedes are armed with a new design philosophy for the new campaign but – although both Hamilton and team-mate George Russell spoke of an improved, more reliable machine – there was little to suggest from testing that they have closed the gap to Red Bull.

Mercedes finished ahead of Ferrari in last year’s constructors’ championship but do not be surprised if the Scuderia start the new season ahead of them.

What about the other teams?

McLaren came alive in the second half of 2023, with Lando Norris scoring seven podiums. But the British team looked short of last year’s form in Bahrain last week – although it is a track which has not always suited them in recent seasons.

Aston Martin finished fifth in the constructors’ championship, with Fernando Alonso, now 42, leading their charge for a second season. Alpine are set to head the midfield, with Williams, the newly-rebranded RB and Sauber teams (nee AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo) and Haas likely to follow.

Have there been any driver changes?

No. This season’s line-up is the same as the previous year – the first time that’s ever happened. But with Hamilton already announcing his move to Ferrari for 2025 and 13 of the 20 drivers out of contract at the end of the season – next year’s grid is sure to have a whole different feel about it.

What else happened during the winter break?

Aside from Hamilton’s blockbuster transfer, his soon-to-be Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc penned a new deal which is expected to keep the 26-year-old Monegasque dressed in red until 2029. Lando Norris also extended his stay with McLaren until at least the end of 2026.

Andretti’s move to become the 11th team on the grid was blocked by F1 bosses. The British Grand Prix will remain on the calendar for another decade after Silverstone agreed a new long-term deal with F1’s American owners’ Liberty Media.

How does the calendar look?

There will be a record-breaking 24 races – the longest season in history – starting in Bahrain on March 2 and ending in Abu Dhabi nine months and six days later.

The Chinese Grand Prix returns after five years away, while the round in Japan moves from its traditional October slot to April. The roster features six sprint races in China, Miami, Austria, Austin, Qatar and Brazil. The format has been tinkered with, too. Qualifying for the sprint will now take place on Friday, with the grid for Sunday’s main event decided on Saturday, following the shortened race.

What else do I need to know?

The opening two races will both take place on a Saturday. The Muslim holy period of Ramadan starts on March 10. As such, the second round in Saudi Arabia has been brought forward by a day. FIA rules stipulate there must one week between races, meaning the Bahrain GP will also be 24 hours earlier than usual.

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  • Norris '99% happy' as McLaren continue Verstappen pursuit Norris '99% happy' as McLaren continue Verstappen pursuit

    Lando Norris described himself as "99% happy" with where McLaren are in their ongoing pursuit of Max Verstappen, but the Briton is desperate to start cutting into the world champion's lead.

    Verstappen finished two seconds clear of Norris to edge a keenly contested Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, extending his championship advantage to 69 points.

    Norris is taking the fight to the Dutchman, having finished in the top two in five of the last six Formula One races.

    However, he was frustrated not to convert his pole position to a victory in Barcelona, having also fallen just short at the previous race in Canada.

    Norris rued a start to the race which saw him passed by Verstappen and Mercedes’ George Russell, who ultimately finished fourth behind the two championship contenders and team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

    "I should have done better," Norris said after the race, per BBC Sport. 

    "We should have got some points back on Max. Potentially there was a chance to beat him in Canada. Two races I have been second and he has won.

    "But Max needs to stop winning. He is still extending [his lead] at the minute but we cannot afford to let him run away with it. 

    "If I made some better decisions in Canada and had made a better start [in Spain], we would have won two races. We have what it takes; it’s just about putting it all together.

    "I am happy with 99% of things and it is just the 1% - which is a big part of it - wasn’t enough.

    "Two metres I lost out in the beginning and this was enough for Max to be on the inside. If George wasn’t on the outside I could have covered him, but George got a good start and got a perfect slipstream, nothing I can do about that.

    "As soon as you make one mistake, they are going to be ahead."

    Verstappen and Norris both said after the race that the McLaren is currently the fastest car on the track.

    But Norris, who did triumph at the Miami Grand Prix last month, lost crucial ground to Verstappen as he remained behind Russell in the early stages until his compatriot pitted.

    He added: "I got a bad start, simple as that, and then I just couldn’t get past George. The car was incredible and we were for sure the quickest, I just lost it at the beginning. 

    "Lots of positives, one negative and I know that. I can work on it for next time."

    Norris will be back on track soon, with the Austrian Grand Prix and British Grand Prix to follow swiftly as part of a run which sees three races take place in as many weeks, part of the longest season in F1 history.

    He added: "Austria and Silverstone – two of my favourite tracks. We are on a good roll. I just need to tidy up a few bits and then we will be on top."

    The result saw Norris move up to second in the drivers' standings, two points clear of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who had to settle for fifth place in Spain.

  • Verstappen lauds rapid start as key to Spanish Grand Prix success Verstappen lauds rapid start as key to Spanish Grand Prix success

    Max Verstappen pinpointed a rapid start as the key to his fourth Spanish Grand Prix triumph on Sunday.

    The Red Bull driver secured his seventh Formula One victory of the 2024 season in Barcelona, but needed to hold off charges from McLaren's Lando Norris and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.

    Verstappen started the race behind pole-sitting Norris but soon fell down to third after George Russell surged to the front into the first corner.

    Yet the Dutchman seized control after bursting past Russell a few laps later, referencing his early pursuit as pivotal to his seventh triumph in 10 races this campaign.

    "I think what made the race was the beginning, I took the lead [at the start of Lap 3], and that's where I had my buffer then in that first stint where I could eke out that gap a little bit," Verstappen said.

    "I think after that, we had to drive quite a defensive race. Lando and McLaren, they were very, very quick today, especially on degradation, it seems always the last few laps of the stint, they were very, very fast.

    "But then I think we did everything well, we drove quite, I think, an aggressive strategy, but luckily it paid out until the end – it was quite close until the end but very happy to win here."

    Pressed on those opening moments, Verstappen added: "I had to do a bit of rallying on the straight, I had to go onto the grass a bit, which lost me a bit of momentum, so then of course we braked quite late into Turn 1.

    "Then, of course, I was quite determined to try and get the lead. Once I was in the lead, I could look after my tyres a bit better, and that definitely made my race today."

    This victory extended Verstappen's championship lead to 69 points, with Norris now his nearest challenger and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc dropping back down to third.

    Considering this race success, Verstappen lauded his tyre-management ability.

    "It's just managing the tyres, they get very hot around here with all the high-speed corners, so you're sliding around actually quite a lot," he added.

    "It was just managing the race throughout."

    Verstappen will now prepare for the Austrian Grand Prix next Sunday.

  • Verstappen beats Norris to claim fourth Spanish Grand Prix win Verstappen beats Norris to claim fourth Spanish Grand Prix win

    Max Verstappen claimed his fourth Spanish Grand Prix triumph in Barcelona as he continues to increase his lead at the summit of the F1 driver's championship. 

    Having started second on the grid after Lando Norris snatched pole position from his grasp on the last lap of qualifying, the three-time world champion wasted no time in overtaking the McClaren driver. 

    However, George Russell raced around the outside to take the lead in the race going into the first corner, having started fourth on the grid. 

    But it would not take long for the Dutchman to reclaim the position he has found himself in for much of the season, performing an exceptional overtake on Russell before remaining in control of the race throughout, despite Norris' late charge.

    Lewis Hamilton would come home in third for Mercedes, claiming his first podium of the season, with team-mate Russell eventually finishing fourth, closing the gap to both McClaren and Ferrari in the constructors' championship. 

    Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz had yet another disappointing afternoon on the track, while Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Perez picked up four points, having finished in eighth place, despite starting the race in 11th after being handed a three-place grid penalty from the Canada Grand Prix. 

    Final standings

    1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

    2. Lando Norris (McLaren)

    3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

    4. George Russell (Mercedes)

    5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)

    6. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)

    7. Oscar Piastri (McLaren)

    8. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)

    9. Pierre Gasly (Alpine)

    10. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)

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