Verstappen's win in Bahrain hints at continued F1 dominance

SAKHIR, Bahrain -- With every lap of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Max Verstappen strengthened his lead over his rival drivers and a fog of déjà vu thickened in the desert air. The hope that permeates the start of any new Formula One season was being methodically dismantled by the reigning champion as he relentlessly revealed the true potential of his Red Bull race car and its unwavering superiority over its competition.

After just 23 laps of the new season, Verstappen held a commanding 10-second lead, which had more than doubled by the time he reached the chequered flag. As he crossed the finish line underneath a barrage of fireworks, Verstappen secured his 55th career win and, perhaps more impressively, his 18th victory in the past 19 races.

His ownership of the No. 1 emblazoned on the nose of his Red Bull -- the designation of the defending champion -- has rarely looked stronger. There are still 23 races left to run in 2024 -- a number larger than any single season in the sport's history -- but there was a feeling on Saturday that Verstappen had already taken a giant leap toward a fourth world championship.

Even in the shadow of the ongoing controversy surrounding Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, the brilliance of Verstappen and his new RB20 shone through. On a weekend when he and the Red Bull team could have been forgiven for being distracted to the point of error, Verstappen arguably looked more comfortable at the front than he has at any point in his career.

The performance was not lost on Red Bull's fiercest rivals.

"I think today Max is not in a different league but he's in a different galaxy," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said later Saturday evening. "The performance is extraordinary, the machine is just really on top."

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Asked if Saturday's performance was a sign of another year of Verstappen dominance, Wolff added: "Unfortunately, yes. You just have to acknowledge his performance levels are really strong."

Was Bahrain a true reflection of Red Bull's dominance?

Friday's qualifying session had offered a modicum of hope for Red Bull's rivals. Although Verstappen emerged on top, the battle for pole position had been surprisingly close, with Charles Leclerc's Q2 lap acting as proof that he had the potential to unseat Verstappen had he managed to repeat it in Q3.

But the foundations on which Verstappen's dominance is based -- namely relentless race pace and superior tyre management -- were being held in reserve for Sunday. Throughout 2023 there was a trend that the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin would appear close to Red Bull over a single lap in qualifying, only to be comprehensively outperformed over a race distance.

During Friday's post-qualifying news conference, George Russell shocked Verstappen when he said he believed the Red Bull would hold a half-second performance advantage over the rest of the field in in the race. As it transpired, Russell's estimation wasn't far off, with the figure averaging out at 0.43s.

Twelve months ago, Russell doubted that anyone other than Red Bull would win a race in 2023 (and would have been proven right had it not been for Carlos Sainz's victory in Singapore). His analysis of the situation after the first race of this year was only slightly more positive.

"No doubt Max is the favourite," Russell said after finishing fifth. "I don't think anyone's going to be fighting him for the championship this year. I just hope some people are going to be battling for victories here or there."

While Verstappen's win on Saturday never looked in doubt, there were reasons why the challenge from his rivals evaporated so quickly. Leclerc, who could only hold on to second place until Lap 3, suffered brake problems early in the race that caused his Ferrari to pull to one side on corner entry and routinely miss the apex no matter how hard he tried to correct it.

"It was impossible in the first 15 laps," he said after the race. "The issue was getting a lot worse every lap, so I was basing my braking for Turns 9 and 10 with the previous lap, which felt too late all the time, but the issue was getting a lot worse, so every time I would brake three metres earlier but still lock up.

"Then on Lap 15 or 20 the issue stabilised. The team told me on the radio it was more than 100 degree [Centigrade] split from front right to front left, which is huge, so at that moment I understood the best I can do was to bring the car home.

"Honestly, all in all considering that the issue didn't get any better throughout the whole race, we started to be more consistent when the issue didn't worsen every lap. Considering everything, to finish fourth is a really good effort, but I'm obviously very disappointed with the result. Honestly, I think second place would have been very possible today."

The pace of his teammate seemed to underline Leclerc's optimism in the true potential of his car. Sainz finished third, less than three seconds behind Sergio Pérez in the second Red Bull, after struggling to match Leclerc's level in qualifying.

"I felt really good out there today," Sainz said. "The start wasn't ideal but from then on I just managed my tyres well.

"And then from there, I could do my pace, overtook two or three cars on the way to the podium and then keeping up with a Red Bull there at the end, which was a pleasant surprise. Still not enough, not where we want to be, but a good step forward compared to last year and a solid start to the season."

In typical fashion, Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur put a positive spin on the result, emphasising the fact that our knowledge of how the cars perform is based on a sample of just one of 24 circuits on this year's calendar.

"First, I am not focused on Red Bull, I'm focused on myself and to try to get the best from what we have. It was not completely ugly what we had this weekend. We had too many small issues in quali yesterday and in the race today.

"We also have to consider that Jeddah will be a completely different story, it's not the same layout and it's not the same track. We will have a better picture on the global situation after Melbourne probably.

"Before Melbourne it will be difficult to have a clear picture of the championship, but if you compare one year ago, we were one second away and we are now perhaps 0.5s. It's not enough, we are still behind, but to score the points of P3 and P4 today in the circumstances is not a drama."

Mercedes also ran into issues on Saturday night, with overheating becoming a factor after the first stint. To manage the issue, the team sacrificed a significant amount of performance that saw Russell plunge down the order from second place on Lap 3 to fifth place by the finish.

"The start went fine and then unfortunately we had to start cooling the engine more than we expected," Wolff said. "We don't understand yet where that came from.

"From then on, when you have to switch 0.3 to 0.4 seconds of power-unit performance off and have to lift and coast, it was costing us all together 0.5 to 0.6 seconds that we couldn't take from what the car had in it. Therefore it wasn't great fun."

Asked if there was a silver lining in Sunday's result, Wolff added: "In qualifying we were pretty close together. That was good and I believe our performance was masked by our problems. Pérez is 20 seconds behind his teammate, so we have hope. "That is maybe the silver lining I can see, but it is very thin and far away and I almost can't see that far."

Russell also pointed out that the Bahrain circuit, which has always been something of an outlier on the F1 calendar because of its rough track surface and the way it punishes rear tyres, likely played to Red Bull's strengths and exposed Mercedes' weaknesses.

"We've certainly got a much better car this year, one I do believe we can build from," he said. "Red Bull have always been strong here, so have Ferrari. I'd say this has been a bit of a bogey track for us in the last couple of years, so I do think it's too early to say [if Red Bull will be as dominant elsewhere]."

Even the most optimistic spin on Saturday's result would make it hard to believe in a serious title fight this year, though. Unquestionably Ferrari and Mercedes did not show their full potential in Bahrain and have better platforms on which to build performance this year than they did 12 months ago, but a winning margin of more than 20 seconds is unlikely to be entirely down to track characteristics.

Nevertheless, Red Bull remain wary of the improvements their rivals have made and, after a barrage of questions about nonracing matters, Horner was keen to stress that his team would not rest on its laurels despite the RB20's dominant first outing.

"I've been in this business too long to draw too many conclusions from a single race," he said. "It's a fantastic start, we'll enjoy this moment, maximum points score. But it's a long season, many different venues, different challenges, different conditions. And what we saw in the testing is that things are closer.

"Now we got it right this weekend, we took the right cars into the race, we executed a perfect race with both cars and we got a great finish. But I think that it will converge."