10 things to watch in F1 pre-season testing
Tue 20, Feb, 2024
Source: The Race

Some big questions will finally be answered during Formula 1 pre-season testing when it kicks off on Wednesday.

Despite there being only three days of testing in Bahrain, the key storylines of the upcoming season will begin to emerge both on and off track.

There are sure to be some surprises, but now that all 10 teams have held at least some kind of launch event we already have a good idea of where to look for the headlines.

We’ve picked out the 10 things to watch out for in the test.

Is Red Bull for real?

When the Red Bull RB20 broke cover, there was widespread surprise. A car characterised as an evolution of the all-conquering 2023 RB19 looked markedly different.

The question is, will it look like that come testing?

Details such as the floor edge, and the diffuser that was blanked off at the launch, will obviously be different compared to the launch car.

The team’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan had said the RB20 would be “an evolution of the current car” in November last year.

But given the widespread surprise at the switch to sidepod inlets and shoulder cannons that move closer to what Mercedes had last year, which Mercedes has since moved away from, it’s only natural to ask if Red Bull is for real with what team principal Christian Horner describes as “not a conservative evolution”.

The team is adamant that the launch car was largely as it will be in Bahrain. That raises the next question of whether Red Bull has changed the game yet again. And if so, how big a hit will the hopes of its rivals take?

Testing will begin to give us the answers.

Is Aston Martin back in the mix?

The Aston Martin AMR24 certainly looks the part. But only once it’s running up against the rest will there be evidence of whether or not the Silverstone-based team will recapture its early-season form of 2023.

Technical director Dan Fallows proved the team’s ambitions are high, saying that he sees Red Bull as beatable and that’s what Aston Martin is chasing.

The trouble is, Aston Martin was bullish about being able to close the gap to Red Bull during last season. But after its remarkable start, with six podium finishes for Fernando Alonso in the first eight races, its form dropped off.

The question is whether it really understood why the upgrades during the season didn’t always work as hoped.

Testing pace, and whether the car behaves as expected, will tell us whether Aston Martin is going to be back on form, or consigned to marking time trundling round with the likes of Alpine in the mid-pack.

Is Haas doomed?

Low expectations are the name of the game for Haas this year. But if the VF-24 really is 2024's slowest car, just how far off the rest of the pack is it?

New team boss Ayao Komatsu says Haas's testing programme will be "completely focused" on generating the relevant data to gauge to what extent the VF-24 has retained its predecessor's tyre-chewing weakness.

Haas typically starts a season strongly and then fades away as the development race ramps up, but this year, as Kevin Magnussen put it, "expectations are low to begin with but high for the season as a whole”.

That's because the team spent so much time on its major United States Grand Prix upgrade last year, a development that didn't exactly make Haas any kinder on its tyres but left Haas with less time to dedicate to its actual 2024 challenger.

Bahrain testing will give us the first clue of just how compromised the VF-24's development has been and whether Haas is any closer to finally eliminating its Achilles' heel.

What's the extent of McLaren's post-launch update?

One of the most fun things about testing is filling in the blanks between what teams showed in their launches and what is real. And arguably no team has more blanks to fill in than McLaren. It has been deliberately secretive.

There was a concerted effort to limit the number of images and hide parts of the car at launch. The new side impact structure wing and sidepod arrangement, the front suspension and central section of the underfloor, the floor edges - all have been covered up in some way.

As Lando Norris pointed out, why would you want to give away more than you have to?

We have a sneaking suspicion McLaren might not have been hiding that much, though.

We’ve seen McLaren photoshop floor edges and disguise bargeboards before, and when it’s revealed it turns out to be… a floor edge, or a bargeboard arrangement. It’s not nothing, and it’s not basic, but it’s just more or less what you’d expect it to be.

Has McLaren been leading us on, misdirecting us, over something quite minor? Is it a distraction technique to take attention from another area of the car it is more proud of? Or is there genuinely going to be a wow moment when the car is seen properly for the first time?

The key question is: what has McLaren gone to such lengths to hide?

How are things between Mercedes and Hamilton?

We’ve barely seen or heard from Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton since the news broke of his shock decision to join Ferrari in 2025. But their farewell season will play out in full view of everyone soon enough - starting with pre-season testing.

There’s curiosity over how things will work between the two sides as the year develops. Hamilton will have an idea of how competitive his final Mercedes is by the end of the test. If it’s not all he hopes it will be, and he’s heading for the exit door, how might that affect how he or his team handle the situation?

What they say and how they act will almost certainly not be far removed from what was shown in their brief launch: that Hamilton’s super-motivated and determined to end on a high, and that Mercedes is committed to both drivers this year - that sort of thing.

Of more interest is arguably the chance to probe Mercedes and Hamilton a bit more on how it came to this. When did Hamilton make his mind up? What was the turning point? We know why Ferrari would appeal - but why does it suddenly appeal more than Mercedes? And why did Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff find out so late - on the Wednesday morning before the Thursday evening announcement?

Bahrain will be the first chance we’ve had to quiz Hamilton directly about his Ferrari move.

Will the late Williams gamble pay off?

The Williams FW46 is the one car that we didn’t see even a glimpse of during the launches.