Red Bull downgraded? The key questions for F1 2024’s frontrunners

Red Bull downgraded? The key questions for F1 2024’s frontrunners

Max Verstappen's finish 25 seconds ahead of the first non-Red Bull driver in the 2024 season opener seemed a clear indicator of an entirely one-sided season.

All pre-season hopes and dreams of a multi-car battle at the front seemed dashed. But the opening two weekends were dominated by a series of even more exciting races – two won by Ferrari, one won by McLaren and one almost won by Mercedes.

So is F1 2024 saved now with three different teams in pole position in the final four races?

Spanish Grand Prix could Be further proof of this. But it should also help answer some key questions hanging over both Red Bull and its main rivals.

Has Red Bull downgraded its RB20?

There didn't seem to be much wrong with the RB20 when it debuted in February, but as Monaco and Canada showed, it has weaknesses that make it vulnerable on a certain type of track – something that in particular has bothered Max Verstappen a lot. Sadness in Monaco.

There were also question marks over the merits of Red Bull's first major promotion which debuted at Imola.

Mercedes technical director James Allison did not miss any opportunity in Canada to suggest that the Red Bull RB20 might have made a comeback: “I think once there is a suitable range of cornering speeds it will be beneficial.” [competitive] Again, but it seems as if their promotion was a downgrade. So fingers crossed.”

As Red Bull team boss Christian Horner pointed out after the race, the RB20 was still fast enough to beat the updated Mercedes W15 on Sunday in Montreal and still has a healthy advantage in both championships.

The safety car intervention that helped Lando Norris in Miami, the unique nature of Monaco coupled with Verstappen's mistake in qualifying, and rain in much of Montreal, skewed the picture somewhat.

Sergio Perez's tough run of races (four points in three weekends) has also magnified the stakes in the Constructors' Championship. The fact that Verstappen's drivers' championship lead is greater than Red Bull's constructors' lead is clear.

But it was tougher than Red Bull has been used to in recent years. Even if you make progress with the RB20, F1 is a relative game. And it's all about Red Bull making relative gains against the likes of Ferrari and McLaren (and increasingly Mercedes).

Allison's predictions that Red Bull will be more competitive on traditional circuits should be tested at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona is the track that Formula 1 teams know better than any other, and now the track has been removed from Mickey Mouse, the challenge of setup has been reduced and it has become a more pure test of a car's performance.

“I don’t think it will be like the beginning of the season,” Verstappen said on Thursday in Barcelona. “But we know that this is the track that our car should be most suited to, and we are excited.”

“I realize everyone has caught a lot, so I think everyone is quite confident. But if you compare this to the last few races we've done, this track should be better for us.”

His rivals also agree with Leclerc saying: “I think we'll see [Red Bull] “Getting back to a really good level this weekend.”

After Barcelona, ​​there's a quick run of races with the Spanish Grand Prix starting with a trio followed by races at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone, so by the end of that round, we'll know just how much trouble Red Bull is in – and how much its advantage has already been reduced.

Can McLaren challenge traditional circuits?

McLaren has arguably achieved the most impressive rate of development of any Formula 1 team over the past 12 months. It has transformed itself from a team in danger of falling out of the top quarter at the start of 2023 to one of Red Bull's closest rivals a third of the way through 2024.

While there were doubts about the success of Red Bull's upgrade to Imola, there was no doubt about the big Miami package presented by McLaren, which won on its debut. This appears to have cut its deficit against Red Bull in half, and allowed it to compete for victories (albeit in vain) at Imola, Monaco and Canada.

Even McLaren surprised itself with how powerful this upgrade was. McLaren's weaknesses in low-speed corners remain, but this upgrade has helped it make gains, as demonstrated by Oscar Piastri who almost stole pole position from Charles Leclerc in Monaco.

The high-speed cornering power that has been the hallmark of its 2023 car has been somewhat reduced by the gains made by its rivals and the nature of Barcelona and Silverstone in particular should be a test of where that really stands.

“We were the most consistent team,” Norris said in Barcelona. “We were not the team that suddenly became the fastest and dominated the weekend like we saw Red Bull or Ferrari do.”

“So we haven't had that absolute strength in certain places, but we've been a very good all-rounder so far which is exactly what we want over the course of the season and it's a good strength compared to last year when we were very up and down.

“But I can't say at any point in time that we were the absolute best over the whole weekend. That's something we still need to work on and we still need to work on getting a faster car.”

On its day, it can clearly beat Red Bull, but where is the actual entry level for the 2024 McLaren when Red Bull is at its best?

Did Ferrari back down?

Ferrari started the season as the second best team. He took the win in Melbourne when Red Bull faltered and added another win in Monaco which even began to spark speculation about a title clash.

But this was followed up in the worst possible way with a disastrous weekend in Montreal with incorrect tire pressures resulting in a miserable qualifying followed by an unfortunate race slick tire gamble by Leclerc and Carlos Sainz crashing out of 10th place. .

Ferrari has pledged to conduct a “deep analysis” in the wake of the Montreal crash, and there is real reason to believe this was just a one-off result of everything that could go wrong while doing so.

On the other side of the coin, Leclerc's dominance in Monaco should be seen as a one-off event with the unique characteristics of the track hurting Red Bull and boosting Ferrari – and this was reinforced by Leclerc being at peak form throughout the weekend.

Barcelona is less a test of whether Montreal is a one-off than it is a test of Ferrari's Imola promotion. Like Red Bull, it did not have as impressive a debut as McLaren despite the huge hype leading up to the event.

But a traditional track like Barcelona will determine whether Ferrari makes any further gains in the last twenty years that separate it from Red Bull.

Is Mercedes' revival another false dawn?

Arguably the biggest surprise of 2024 so far has been Mercedes' surprising pace in Montreal.

Yes, he has made strong and increasing gains all season so far, but the way he finished first and challenged for the win was impressive after a season in which he was clearly fourth fastest on the team.

We've been here before with Mercedes. George Russell's first win at the Brazilian Grand Prix of 2022 was partly responsible for fooling Mercedes into believing the original ground effect concept was productive enough to stick with in 2023.

Then came Lewis Hamilton's second place finish in Austin (although he was officially withdrawn for a plank violation) and in Mexico, which suggests Mercedes may finally be on the right track with major structural changes to the car planned for the winter.

In fact, these are the false starts provided by Mercedes' simulators as well, and Russell didn't even believe that the gains the simulator promised the pre-Canada upgrades would deliver were real.

But Canada was real and there are reasons why Mercedes believes this breakthrough is more important than the others. Nothing shows this progress better than a graph of Mercedes' lap times in 2024 compared to its rivals.

Part of this improvement is the return to the traditional front spoiler which provides more rear stability for drivers. It has made gains with its ground form as well, an area that Red Bull has exploited to devastating effect in recent years. More updates have been promised every weekend until Silverstone.

Mercedes has a strong record at Barcelona in the ground effect era, having finished as the best non-Red Bull car in both 2022 and 2023. So this weekend won't be definitive proof of where it really stands – just as second and third places in 2023 were no evidence that it has suddenly become the second-fastest car.

But at worst, it now appears to be on the heels of McLaren and Ferrari and, as Montreal has promised, may be able to upset Red Bull on track.

“This will be a real test and if we can get up to speed this weekend it bodes really well for the season,” Russell noted.

It will all be answered in the most important weekend yet in F1's better-than-expected battle for the front.


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