Ranking the F1 grid ahead of Bahrain after preseason testing

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By jeenmediaa

Ferrari may have finished Formula One‘s preseason testing with the fastest time, but it looks as though Red Bull remains the team to beat ahead of the new season. That was certainly the consensus in the paddock at the end of three days of track running at the Bahrain International Circuit on Friday, just one week ahead of the opening qualifying session of the year this Friday, March 1.

Just how far Red Bull is ahead of the chasing pack and the exact order of the teams in that battle for second remains up for debate, though. Unlike a qualifying session in which all 20 drivers aim to set the fastest time possible, there is no incentive to chase ultimate lap times in testing, and numerous variables throughout the days mean the results on the timesheets present a skewed order at the end of each day.

Trying to untangle the web of lap times from testing is often considered a fool’s errand, especially with the first qualifying sessions just four days away. But where’s the fun in waiting for reality to play out?

Instead, we’ve analysed the lap times by taking into account as many performance differentiators as possible. Tyre compounds, for example, are key to lap times, with Pirelli offering five variations in testing from the softest (and fastest) C5 through to the hardest (and slowest) C1. Most fast laps were set on either the C4 or the C3 compounds in last week’s test, with fresh C4s offering a 0.6-seconds advantage per lap over the C3s.

Other factors, such as fuel loads, are unknown but can also have a big impact on performance. As little as 10 kilograms of fuel can cost as much as 0.3 seconds in lap time.

We’ve also listened to sources at teams before putting a finger to the wind to cobble together the following competitive order ahead of Saturday’s season opener (9:55 a.m. ET; stream live on ESPN).

1. Red Bull

Fastest lap: 1:30.679 (Day 2, Sergio Pérez, C4 compound)
Total laps: 390

It should come as no surprise that the team that has won 38 of the 44 races held under the current technical regulations remains the team to beat ahead of the first round of the new season. The only question after testing is quite how far the Red Bull RB20 is ahead of the rest of the field, with estimations within the paddock ranging from as much as a full second per lap (unlikely) to as little as one tenth of a second (also unlikely). Based on the available data, 0.3 seconds to 0.4 seconds seems like a more accurate guess, but so much of that estimation depends on guessing unknown factors such as fuel loads and engine settings.

The ease with which Max Verstappen could access fast lap times on the opening day of testing seemed to strike fear into rival teams while confirming the widely held belief that Red Bull has moved the game on with its latest car design. Neither Red Bull driver finished at the top of the timesheets after that opening day, but the pace Verstappen found from the C3 compound tyres in relatively hot conditions on Friday (setting a 1:30.755) was another indicator of the underlying performance of the car.

Pérez appeared to struggle over a race simulation on Thursday afternoon, but whatever the issue was, it seemed to be fixed by the time Verstappen focused on long-run pace on Friday. On single-lap performance and race pace, Red Bull rather predictably emerged over the three days as the team to beat.

2. Ferrari

Fastest lap: 1:29.291 (Day 2, Carlos Sainz, C4)
Total laps: 416

Ferrari topped two of the three days of testing, and Sainz set the fastest time of all using the C4 compound on Thursday. Those flashes of pace undoubtedly showed promise, but as team principal Frédéric Vasseur pointed out on Friday, Red Bull could quite easily be hiding performance.

“We don’t know if they are running the car with 20 kilos [of fuel] or 80 kilos,” Vasseur said, “but we do know this is [a] 2.5-second difference and it means it is very difficult to draw any conclusion.”

It’s much harder for teams to mask their pace over race simulations as they have to start with a full tank of fuel to make the distance, but even then comparisons can be skewed by a change in track temperature of several degrees Celsius from afternoon to evening. Nevertheless, from the fuzzy snapshot the long runs provided, Ferrari emerged as Red Bull’s closest competitor and at times looked like a close match for the RB20.

Even if Ferrari is still shy of Red Bull, the test represented a huge step compared with last year, when the team’s car was quick over a single lap but destroyed its tyres on heavier fuel. That did not appear to be the case this year, and combined with the quick laps on relatively low fuel, there are genuine reasons for optimism at Ferrari ahead of the new season.

3. Mercedes

Fastest lap: 1:30.368 (Day 3, George Russell, C4)
Total laps: 361

Mercedes’ form was hard to read during the three days of testing, but it’s clear that last year’s runners-up are also in a much stronger position than they were 12 months ago. Over the winter, Mercedes put a lot of emphasis on eliminating the “spiteful” handling characteristics of last year’s car, and almost immediately Russell and Lewis Hamilton were happier with what they had underneath them last week in Bahrain.

Mercedes’ focus seemed to be on cycling through various setup changes over the three days of testing, meaning there was limited data to compare with the fast laps and race simulations of its nearest rivals. For what it’s worth, Russell set the team’s fastest lap in the final 20 minutes of the test, but despite having favourable track conditions relative to Charles Leclerc‘s fastest time of the day, still ended up 0.046s shy of the Ferrari. If he was carrying 10 or 15 kilos more fuel than Leclerc, then his time would be promising, but if the fuel loads were similar, it suggests Ferrari holds a decent advantage.

Mercedes has always been very effective at turning testing data into tangible lap time gains by the first race, and there is every reason to believe the team already has a stronger platform to build on this year than it has had at any point in the past two seasons. Whether Red Bull is catchable over the course of the year is less clear, especially after considering Hamilton’s words to the media on Friday.

“We are going in the right direction, but we still also have [lap] time to find,” he said. “I think Red Bull are out in the distance, but it is a good platform to work from this year.”

4. Aston Martin

Fastest lap: 1:31.159 (Day 3, Fernando Alonso, C3)
Total laps: 379

This time last year, Aston Martin emerged as the surprise package behind Red Bull in winter testing and went on to score six podiums at the first eight races. A repeat of that seems very unlikely this year, although that’s not because Aston Martin has dropped the ball but more because rival teams are in a much better position than they were 12 months ago.

The new AMR24 completed healthy mileage over the three days of testing, and Alonso’s fastest time compared reasonably well to the best efforts from Red Bull and Ferrari on the final day. He was 0.4s off Verstappen after setting his lap time on the same tyre compound and, correcting for Leclerc’s C4 tyre advantage, just 0.2s off the Ferrari. As always, fuel loads could skew both comparisons, but all three laps were set within 40 minutes of each other, meaning track conditions were similar.

Alonso’s longer runs towards the end of the day didn’t translate into a full race simulation, but his pace wasn’t dramatically off the Ferrari’s, backing up the rough 0.2s gap to Leclerc over a single lap. However, any hope of Aston Martin (or any other team for that matter) challenging Verstappen for race wins from the first race appeared to be dashed when Alonso uttered one of the most powerful quotes of preseason on the final day of the test.

“I think 19 drivers in the paddock now will think that [they] will not win the championship,” he said. “It happens 99% of the time in your career. This is a brutal sport.”

5. McLaren

Fastest lap: 1:31.030 (Day 3, Oscar Piastri, C3)
Total laps: 328

McLaren looked as if it might emerge as Red Bull’s closest competitor after the first day of the test, but that was before Ferrari and Mercedes started to show more of their hands. There’s still a good case for putting McLaren above Aston Martin in this list — not least because Piastri was 0.129s faster than Alonso on the same tyre compound on the final day — but clear tyre degradation on Piastri’s long runs means McLaren might be slightly off the pace of its closest rivals when it comes to a full race distance. What’s more, the combination of a fuel system issue and a clutch problem left McLaren 51 laps short of Aston Martin’s total by the end of the three days.

Having said that, McLaren is very much a part of the tightly knit group of teams behind Red Bull and the gaps are so small that a good qualifying performance could see Piastri or Lando Norris propelled to the front of that chasing pack. That was not the case 12 months ago when the team endured an awful preseason test and didn’t properly start to recover until the Austrian Grand Prix in July.

Team principal Andrea Stella believes McLaren can match the rate of improvement it enjoyed towards the end of last year, suggesting there are plenty of upgrades in the pipeline once the season gets underway. What’s more, Bahrain has always been a bit of a bogey track for the team, meaning the true performance of the MCL38 should be judged only after a handful of rounds.

“Going into the Bahrain Grand Prix, we have to be prudent because some teams seem to have made a good step over the winter and Bahrain is not the ideal track layout for our car,” Stella said on Friday. “We will find out where we are in qualifying next Saturday.”

6. RB

Fastest lap: 1:30.775 (Day 3, Yuki Tsunoda, Day 3)
Total laps: 367

At the end of last year — when the team was still known as AlphaTauri — RB was already making big strides in the midfield. It seems the lessons learned from those late-season upgrades in 2023 have been applied to create a tidy package for the start of the 2024 season, with RB seeming to bridge the gap between the upper and lower midfield during testing.

Tsunoda was fifth fastest using C4 tyres on the final day, with a time that was nearly identical to Verstappen’s best effort on C3s. The lap-time delta between C4 and C3 is estimated to be 0.6 seconds, but Tsunoda will also have gained some advantage by running two hours later in the day in cooler conditions.

The team completed a healthy number of laps over the three days. Tsunoda and teammate Daniel Ricciardo will fancy their chances of breaking into the top 10 when the opportunity presents itself.

7. Alpine

Fastest lap: 1:32.061 (Day 3, Pierre Gasly, C3)
Total laps: 334

Based purely on lap times, Alpine should feature towards the bottom of this list, but we’re giving it the benefit of the doubt. The French team ranked 10th of the 10 teams on pure pace over the three days, and the picture barely improves once you factor in tyre compounds and the time of day the fastest laps were set.

But Alpine’s preseason testing pace is often a case study in why headline times mean very little at this time of year. Although it has never emerged as a front-runner after one of its many slow starts, it has rarely ended up performing as badly as its preseason lap times suggest.

Nevertheless, the messaging from Alpine this year has been somewhat downbeat. From the moment the A524 was launched, the team said it was expecting a slow start, albeit with a platform that will allow for a steep development curve as the season progresses. This message was reiterated at the end of testing, suggesting points might be hard to come by at the opening round.

“We know where we stand,” team principal Bruno Famin said. “We are expecting a challenging start to the year as we continue to learn more and more about our A524 to develop it across the season.”

8. Williams

Fastest lap: 1:30.984 (Day 3, Alex Albon, C4)
Total laps: 299

Williams completed the fewest laps of any team over the three days after losing track time on Wednesday to a driveshaft issue and further time on Thursday to a couple of smaller problems. Nevertheless, the performance of the car looked relatively good, with Albon’s fastest time just 0.2s off Tsunoda’s on the same tyre compound and at the same time on the final day.

One of the main aims over the winter was to build a car that is less sensitive to track conditions and circuit layouts, and the early signs are that the team has made progress in this area. Albon’s race simulation on the final day gave further reason for optimism, and the team looks well placed to sniff around the lower points positions when the teams ahead slip up.

9. Sauber

Fastest lap: 1:30.647 (Day 3, Zhou Guanyu, C4)
Total laps: 379

On the face of it, things looked positive for the rebranded Sauber team in testing. Zhou finished the final day of the test with the third-fastest time, and the team completed the three days with the third-highest lap count overall.

Just as Alpine has often looked slow in testing only to show its true performance over the opening rounds of the season, though, Sauber often flatters to deceive at this time of year. Also, although the team has been competitive at the Bahrain International Circuit in recent years, it has then struggled to translate that pace across a variety of venues.

A higher position on this list could be justified, but with the field so tight, Sauber needs to be on the very top of its game to get out of Q1 and in the mix for early-season points.

10. Haas

Fastest lap: 1:31.686 (Day 3, Nico Hülkenberg, C3)
Total laps: 441

There were concerns ahead of the season that Haas might be cut adrift from the rest of the pack this year, but those fears seem to have been allayed during last week’s test. Although it’s hard to put Haas anywhere other than the bottom of this list, that doesn’t mean its two drivers will automatically fill the back row when the first race gets underway.

Slow lap times early in the test were largely due to the team focusing on its biggest weakness from last season: race pace. Haas believes it has made progress in that area, with new team principal Ayao Komatsu saying it has now got “a base car that we can actually race.”

The focus on heavy-fuel running means the team did not attempt any low-fuel runs until the final day of the test, but it is confident that means it still has plenty of performance to unlock over the course of the Bahrain race weekend.

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