Red Bull pace the star of F1 preseason but Ferrari impresses

Are Red Bull expecting another season of dominance in F1? (0:59)

Red Bull's Max Verstappen, Christian Horner and Sergio Perez look ahead to the upcoming F1 season. (0:59)

BAHRAIN -- Max Verstappen and his Red Bull team will leave Formula One's preseason test feeling confident they can sweep all challengers again in 2024.

At the end of running on Friday's final day, it was Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, not Verstappen, top of the order, but all the chatter this week has centered on the reigning world champions.

- Unlapped: How to listen or watch ESPN's F1 show

While things look closer on the surface when looking only at headline times, especially from Thursday and Friday's running, it is rare for rival teams to be so downbeat of their chances of challenging the lead team coming out of the tests.

Red Bull's overall pace across three days of testing prompted Fernando Alonso to say he and 18 other drivers already know Verstappen will be champion again this year.

Rivals estimate Red Bull could be as far as half a second per lap quicker than the rest (a comfortable advantage in modern F1), although that may well change circuit to circuit as the season goes on.

Verstappen won last year's final race, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, by 17 seconds. His average victory margin across the year in races which finished under racing conditions was a hefty 13.363 seconds.

Those stats help underline why half a second per lap is a sizable margin for any team to overcome, especially with Red Bull likely to aggressively develop their RB20 car, which features a completely overhauled design concept to the record-shattering RB19 of last year.

Verstappen has won three straight drivers' championships, and Red Bull won the constructors' title in 2022 and 2023.

Last year was one of the most dominant seasons in F1 history -- Verstappen won a record 18 races as Red Bull won 21 times out of 22 events through the year.

In truth, the competitive order is never known until the first qualifying session for the first race -- when teams truly show the raw pace of their cars with low fuel and fresh tyres -- but Verstappen has already declared his team has made a step forward from last year.

That first qualifying session takes place in a week's time at the same venue as testing on March 1, ahead of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 2.

At testing last year, Aston Martin created headlines after emerging as a shock outside contender to Red Bull, but this time around it appears to be firmly in a busy chasing pack with Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes.

Another consensus which has formed this week in the paddock is that the chasing gaggle of teams might be even closer together than in 2023, which may create another frustrating season of imagining the all-time classic championship that could be taking place if Verstappen and Red Bull were magically erased from the competitive order.

Speaking of how tight that pack is, Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur said: "For ten kilos of fuel, you will move from P2 to P6 or P7, which means the most important thing is to focus on yourself, to have a good feedback from the drivers and so far their feeling is good."

Beyond Red Bull, Ferrari's car has impressed throughout the three days, with the most positive feedback coming from drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.

Both drivers complained Ferrari's 2023 car was difficult to drive throughout the season. That erratic nature was demonstrated in its seasonal record, which saw the team claim seven pole positions but only convert one into a grand prix victory.

While happy at the improved driveability of the new car, neither Leclerc nor Sainz's quotes to the media or general body language -- so often a giveaway of how a team feels at this stage of the year -- suggest they are men who expect to challenge for a first world title win this year. Mercedes and McLaren look likely to be well established within that chasing group.

A team to watch going into the first race will be the newly rebranded Red Bull second team of Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda, now dubbed RB.

The outfit, formerly Toro Rosso and AlphaTauri, has enjoyed three solid days in terms of mileage and is hoping to make a major step up the grid now it has secured a big commercial partnership with Visa and Cash App.

It may well look to swap places with perennial midfielders Alpine this year, with the French team's new car appearing underwhelming to most onlookers.

Tellingly, Alpine have been downplaying all expectations around their car, although it should be noted the team rarely has a particularly standout test performance as it prioritizes longer runs with heavy fuel over outright quick times.

Williams is another difficult team to judge at this stage, while Sauber and Haas look set to be at the rear end of the field to start the year.

However as with the chasing pack, the rear group of teams appear to be very closely matched.

F1's 2024 season starts with a rare scenario of back-to-back races on a Saturday, with the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix following Bahrain on March 9.

The first two races have shifted to Saturday in order to accommodate the beginning of Ramadan.

This year's race schedule stands at a record 24 events across the season, including three in the U.S.