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F1 Testing: Red Bull vs Ferrari, Mercedes improve and serious drain cover warning for Formula 1 ahead of Bahrain

A fascinating three days of testing came to a close on Friday which means the Bahrain Grand Prix is on the horizon; watch the season-opener in Sakhir with practice on Thursday, qualifying on Friday and the first race of the season on Saturday - all live on Sky Sports F1

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Craig Slater is joined by Ted Kravitz who discusses his top 10 pecking order after the F1 testing in Bahrain

Analysing the key talking points as pre-season testing comes to a close ahead of the opening race of 2024 in Bahrain next week.

Red Bull favourites but not dominant

How do you improve on the statistically the most successful car of all time? Subtly evolve? Not if you are Adrian Newey. While the RB20 may not quite represent a full revolution on last year's almost-unbeatable RB19, the car is definitely a significant evolution and features design aspects that have certainly caught rivals' attention.

While the initial pictures and car itself revealed at last week's Milton Keynes launch had already created plenty of technical intrigue, Wednesday's opening day of testing confirmed the presence of several notable changes to the car's sidepod and cooling layout.

With Newey watching on from the pit lane, Max Verstappen certainly hit the ground running in the car on Wednesday's opening day, completing more than two race distances during the session and topping the timesheet by a full second. Of course, the new car's advantage over the field was always unlikely to be quite that vast, but it was still an impressive start and for many already confirmed their status as being the team to still beat.

Even Ferrari's presence at the head of the timesheet order over the next two days didn't shift that widely-held narrative in the paddock.

"They [Red Bull] are definitely a step ahead of everyone else," said Mercedes' George Russell. "They are definitely the team to beat," concurred McLaren's Oscar Piastri, while Ferrari's Charles Leclerc added: "My initial feeling is that Red Bull remains the reference and ahead for now."

But that belief should not be too much of a surprise after a winter of stable regulations and for a team that won 21 of last season's 22 races, even if they have introduced new concepts onto their car in anticipation that they need to keep making strides forward if they are to keep their rivals at bay.

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The final moments of testing conjured up some action between George Russell and Charles Leclerc

"I trust the team, to be honest, that they make the right decisions in terms of choosing the direction of the car," said Verstappen on the final day when he finished fourth on the Leclerc-topped timesheet.

"I saw of course, how it had already been drawn at the end of the of last year, but honestly, I don't care how the car looks like as long as it's fast."

That last point appears a given, as does the fact Red Bull remain the team to beat heading to next week's season-opening Grand Prix at the same Bahrain venue. The big and crucial question that remains though is just how far they are ahead - particularly of Ferrari, whose pace caught the eye and not only on short runs - and how soon the chasing pack can get on terms and give them the kind of challenge that never materialised in 2023.

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Max Verstappen gives his thoughts on how the RB20 has performed during testing

Can Ferrari really challenge Red Bull?

Although Ferrari posted the fastest lap times on days two and three, the overall feeling is Red Bull are still favourites going into the season opener.

However, it's not just Ferrari's one-lap pace which is encouraging but their long runs were very strong too.

Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez both completed a full race simulation on day two and the Ferrari driver was quicker in the second half of the race. We can compare lap times because any driver who does a race simulation, so does not get wheeled back into the garage but makes pit stops for tyres, would have started on a full tank of fuel, so we know the fuel levels were the same.

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Anthony Davidson compares Ferrari's Carlos Sainz's performance from day two and day three of testing in Bahrain

Leclerc underlined this with very strong lap times in the final hour of testing on Friday, showing no signs of tyre degradation on a track that punishes the Pirelli rubber.

On the C1 tyre in particular, Ferrari were very strong and none of Verstappen's long runs were quicker than Leclerc's laps towards the end of testing.

"Since the first lap on the simulator, it felt like an easier car to drive and similar on the track from the very first laps," said Leclerc.

"The feeling was good and we managed to be consistent straight away. This will help the race runs.

"I'm confident we did a step forward in terms of tyre management because whenever the tyres are more used, you can feel the weaknesses of the car and with the characteristics of this car, it should be quite a bit better."

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Charles Leclerc outlines the differences he's experienced in the new Ferrari car

If you remember the early parts of the 2022 season when Leclerc and Verstappen had some brilliant battles in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, we could be set for a similar scenario this year.

Ferrari's biggest weakness in recent years has been tyre degradation and race pace but both of those aspects were their strengths in testing compared to everyone else. If anyone thinks Red Bull will have it easy this year, think again.

"On our side, it is quite a lot better. Last year's car, one of the main weaknesses, was the wind sensitivity," continued Leclerc.

"Whenever the wind would change a tiny bit on our car would be extremely difficult to drive with huge differences in terms of balance from one corner to another.

"This year, we are in a much better place for that. That's definitely a step forward. We worked a lot on it and had confirmation already from the first days."

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Max Verstappen makes the first overtake of the year in the RB20 by getting past Charles Leclerc in the opening session of testing from Bahrain

'Much nicer' to drive but will W15 get Mercedes back to winning ways?

It was no secret it was going to be a different-looking Mercedes that showed up to testing.

Having done their best to move away from the 2022 and 2023 design concept during last season, the Silver Arrows finally had a clean slate to work with for 2024.

Lewis Hamilton's demands for the cockpit to be moved further back, made before he announced he was leaving for Ferrari in 2025, have been granted, while the team switched from a pull-rod to a push-rod rear suspension configuration.

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Lewis Hamilton discusses his reasoning for moving to Ferrari and his relationship with team principal Frederic Vasseur

The changes appear to have earned unanimous approval from Hamilton and team-mate Russell, who as the driver committed to the team for the future is likely to have more sway on development from this point onwards.

While its predecessors were described as 'divas' and other unflattering words by the drivers and team principal Toto Wolff, the W15 is clearly a far better car to drive.

"Compared to last year's car, the feedback from the drivers is very different and more positive, which is encouraging," Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said on Friday. "The team has worked hard to iron out the handling flaws that were integral to the W14, and it's great that we seem to have put a number of those problems behind us."

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Ted Kravitz is joined by Pat Symonds to discuss Mercedes' new front wing during the first day of testing from Bahrain

So the driveability box has been ticked, but are Mercedes actually going to be any closer to Red Bull and in position to add to the one win they have claimed in the last two seasons?

"We know we've got work to do and we're not yet where we want to be," Hamilton said. "We knew that would be the case coming into the test though. We've got a great platform to build on."

RB-Red Bull link up drama quashed?

There were plenty of eyes on RB throughout testing after claims the Red Bull-RB relationship was an "A and B team" from paddock figures including McLaren CEO Zak Brown.

While Red Bull have dominated the last two F1 seasons, RB (previously known as AlphaTauri) have been languishing at the back of the field. Frustrated by the gulf in performance, ownership have looked to increase collaboration between the two teams, with RB moving more of their operations and personnel from Italy to a new facility closer to Red Bull's Milton Keynes base in the UK.

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Ted Kravitz takes a first look at the new bold 2024 Red Bull during the first day of testing in Bahrain

F1's regulations allow for certain 'transferable components' designed by one team to be bought by another, with RB among several to make use of this rule. Haas also have a wide-ranging technical partnership with Ferrari, which includes an office at the Italian giant's Maranello factory.

Brown was asked about this in the press conference and made it clear his problem was with the rules, rather than Red Bull.

"The sport continues to evolve," Brown said.

"We now have a budget cap in place which I think was intended, and is working for the most part, to bring a level playing field to the sport, fiscally and in every other manner.

"No other major sport, to my knowledge, allows co-ownership of two teams that compete against each other.

"I think the sport, as we're now in the budget cap era, has moved on to where we're trying to have 10 independent teams from the sporting and the political and from a technical point of view."

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Lando Norris says he has no regrets about extending his McLaren contract despite potential openings in big teams after Lewis Hamilton's shock move to Ferrari

On track, Yuki Tsunoda posted the fifth quickest time in the final hour of testing and was just 0.453s behind Charles Leclerc as he appeared to go for a glory run on low fuel and soft tyres.

RB's long run pace was over a second slower than the best race simulations in testing, so they haven't exactly leaped to the front of the pack but they could be heading the midfield in Bahrain next week, as Alpine didn't produce too many fireworks.

"Before testing a lot of people were saying 'is this the car that won the championship last year?' No it's not that car," said Daniel Ricciardo.

"I think the top teams still have some legs on us in the midfield. We are trying to focus on ourselves. Anyone expecting us to be on the podium next week, we are being realistic. That's not us but we still have some work to do.

"Q3 and points is our target. If we're not there next week then we certainly want to be there soon."

Drain disruption serves up warning to F1 hosts

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Carlos Sainz was watching closely as the drain cover incident unfolded and says it should have been yellow flagged earlier

With the level of reliability across the field almost immaculate, the only red flags of the three days came as a result of a drain cover coming loose at Turn 11.

In scenes reminiscent of November's Las Vegas Grand Prix, the action was suddenly halted on Thursday morning after Leclerc and Hamilton drove over the hazard.

While Hamilton's Mercedes escaped without any significant damage, the floor of Leclerc's Ferrari needed changing, and it was only the delay to repair the track that meant Ferrari didn't unfairly lose any testing time.

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Another day of testing sees another day of drain cover trouble in Bahrain to bring up Friday's first red flag

Perhaps more concerning than the first incident, was that with track officials now hyper aware of the potential problem, it happened again on Friday morning, causing another 75-minute delay.

In the same way that testing is designed for teams to iron out issues with their cars, it should perhaps be seen as a blessing this issue has occurred at testing, giving the sport's hosts a chance to get on top of the issue of drain covers coming up before their race comes around.

The Bahrain International Circuit has hosted F1 without since 2004, which emphasises the point that this latest era of ground effect cars, gathering more downforce with each passing season since new regulations were introduced in 2022, are providing new challenges for tracks.

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Sky Sports' Craig Slater and Ted Kravitz explain why drain cover issues have halted F1 pre-season testing in Bahrain for a second-straight day

Leclerc, the chief victim of the testing issues, warned it's a "serious issue because it can have big consequences," while Verstappen offered some sensible advice.

"Maybe these kind of things can be checked a bit more," Verstappen said. "We know that this is a potential problem with these cars and when you go to certain tracks, you know where the drain covers are. So I guess before you start driving in the weekend, to double check that everything is solid, I think is a must for the upcoming tracks."

When the world champion speaks, people tend to listen.

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