5 F1 takeaways from first day of pre-season testing

Max Verstappen could not even give us 15 minutes.

Midway through the second session of Wednesday’s first day of pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit, it was Lando Norris atop the timing sheets. The McLaren Formula 1 driver had put his MCL38 to the top of the table, and for a moment, F1 fans started to dream.

After all, after last season’s dominant performance from Verstappen — that saw the F1 driver win 19 of the 22 races a season ago — any sign that a true title fight is on tap for 2024 will be a welcome one from F1 fans. So when Norris topped the timing sheets during the second session, F1 fans on social media started to dream.

That is when Verstappen climbed back into his RB20 and put in an absolute banger of a lap, going back into P1 by over 0.8 seconds ahead of Norris.

We did not even get 15 minutes to daydream. Such is the brilliance, and almost inevitability, of Verstappen these days. To that inevitability point, with under 30 minutes left in the session, Verstappen improved his time, going over a second ahead of Norris. While it is fair to remind everyone that times do not matter during pre-season testing, as teams are running different programs, it certainly feels like the RB20 could very well be up to replacing last season’s RB19.

Here are the results, and some other takeaways from the first day of pre-season testing.

It looks like Adrian Newey has done it again

Adrian Newey has literally written the book on building an F1 car.

Red Bull’s Chief Technical Officer is widely regarded as the best engineer in F1 history, having designed some of the sport’s most successful cars, including last year’s RB19. Given the success of last year’s challenger, you might expect Red Bull to go down a similar path this season with the RB20.

But in F1 if you are not adapting, you are losing ground. So the team went in a different direction with the RB20, including some rather unexpected features. Chief among them? The new air intake design elements.

When Red Bull unveiled the design of the RB20 last week, the sidepod configuration as well as the air intake elements were shrouded in secrecy. Was the team going with vertical intakes? Was Red Bull actually going to lean into a zeropod design like Mercedes did with both the W13 and the W14 before changing course last season?

Now that we have seen the RB20 on the track, we know the answers. The team has gone with a dual intake design, with slim vertical and horizontal air intakes along the sides of the RB20, as well as intakes behind the cockpit of the car:

The result? Not only did Verstappen top the timing sheets, but his time of 1:31.344 was well ahead of his first-day results from a year ago, which saw Verstappen edge out Fernando Alonso — our first sign that Aston Martin had something with the AMR23 — with a time of 1:32.837.

Almost a second-and-a-half ahead of his time a year ago.

So yes, Newey might have done it again.

What a difference a year makes for McLaren

Think back to where we were this time last season.

While Red Bull looked as strong as ever, and Aston Martin brought the surprise package to Bahrain, the other end of the testing spectrum saw McLaren limp out of the gate. It was apparently very early during pre-season testing a year ago that the team needed to develop the MCL60, and quickly, if they were going to have a strong season.

What a difference a year makes.

Norris and teammate Oscar Piastri are very much on the front foot right now, as the McLaren duo both finished in the top ten on the first day of testing. Piastri, embarking on his second year in F1, finished the day in P9 after running 57 laps. As for Norris, he briefly topped the timing sheets as noted above, and ended the day in P2, behind only Verstappen.

McLaren’s early struggles in 2023 saw the team relegated to fighting for points at the start of the year, looking up at four teams that were faster than they were (Red Bull, Aston Martin, Ferrari, and Mercedes). But by the end of the year, thanks to the upgraded MCL60 and the “best driver duo on the grid” according to CEO Zak Brown, they were fighting for podiums.

Given their start to 2024 — with the caveat it is just one day of testing — it certainly looks like they will start the year fighting for podiums, and perhaps wins.

Hold up, Daniel Ricciardo and VCARB are cooking

Given how 2023 ended, seeing a Red Bull-McLaren-Ferrari 1-2-3 was probably not a surprise to open 2024.

A P4 from Daniel Ricciardo, however, is perhaps a bit of a surprise.

But it indeed was Ricciardo in P4 when the checkered flag flew to draw the day to a close, putting his RB01 for Visa Cash App RB F1 Team — yes we are going with VCARB here at SB Nation this season — into the top five. Ricciardo put in 51 laps in the afternoon session, ending the day P4.

Could VCARB have the surprise package this season?

There are reasons to believe they do. After all, there are going to be design elements to their car similar to what we saw from the RB19 a season ago. Competing as AlphaTauri a season ago, the team came on down the stretch and put pressure on Williams by the end of the season for P7 in the Constructors’ Championship.

Heading into this year their veteran driver pairing of Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda gives them a chance to be competitive out of the gate, and the RB01 has taken many design elements from the RB19, thanks to the relationship between the two teams. As you can see from this analysis provided by Formula Data Analysis, a number of elements on the RB01 are taken from the RB19, including a pull-rod front suspension:

The result? A top-five car, at least on day one. As for Tsunoda, he finished the day in P13, a solid showing as well.

Could VCARB be this year’s surprise package?

A mixed day for Williams

And now, some thoughts on the other end of the day one spectrum.

It was a mixed day for Williams.

First, the good news. Logan Sargeant finished the day P11, ahead of George Russell and notably, teammate Alexander Albon.

Now for the bad news: The team dealt with some reliability issues with the FW46, which hampered their entire day. Albon’s session was cut short after 40 laps due to a fuel pump issue. Then during Sargeant’s session, a driveshaft problem ended his program after just 21 laps, and he also endured a big spin at Turn 9 which sent him off the track and into the gravel.

Hopefully, tomorrow is a better day for Williams. On the bright side, much better that they deal with these issues now, instead of late next week before the season opener.

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