Formula One

F1 starts longest season with Red Bull still team to beat


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F1 starts longest season with Red Bull still team to beat

READY TO ROLL. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc during testing at the Bahrain International Circuit.

Hamad I Mohammed/REUTERS

Formula One action revs up with a record 24 races as seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton also starts his farewell season with Mercedes before heading to Ferrari

LONDON, UK – The longest season in Formula One history, a record 24 races, revs up for a Saturday start, March 2, in Bahrain and what could be a long haul for rivals hoping to close the gap and beat Max Verstappen’s dominant Red Bull team.

The evidence from the three days of testing at Sakhir circuit last week was that the champions, winners of all but one of the 22 Grands Prix last year, were set to pick up where they left off.

Despite team principal Christian Horner fighting for his future in the face of allegations, which he denies, from a female employee about his conduct, Red Bull have looked untroubled.

Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren. and Aston Martin all made the right noises about their new cars, confident gremlins had been removed and performance improved, but the real proof has yet to come.

The suspicion is that when the flag drops on Saturday night, with the first two rounds of the season in the Middle East held a day earlier than usual to accommodate Ramadan, Red Bull will be first across the line.

As McLaren team principal Andrea Stella told reporters in Bahrain: “There’s one car that seems to have found a big step. Unfortunately, (that’s) the car that was already the quickest last year.”

The calendar is as follows:

1. Bahrain (Sakhir) – March 2

The Middle East’s first race celebrates its 20th anniversary, held on a Saturday to accommodate Ramadan. The track is abrasive, with wind also a factor. Lewis Hamilton has won five times in Bahrain. Fernando Alonso is the only driver still racing who took part in the 2004 debut.

2. Saudi Arabia (Jeddah) – March 9

Sergio Perez won last year, one of only three that Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen did not win. The Corniche layout is the season’s second longest and the fastest street circuit. It will also be held on a Saturday.

3. Australia (Melbourne) – March 24

Albert Park is a home race for McLaren’s Oscar Piastri and RB’s Daniel Ricciardo but no Australian has ever won in Australia. Hamilton has been on pole a record eight times in Melbourne and McLaren have won a record 11 times.

4. Japan (Suzuka) – April 7

Held in September last year. Red Bull clinched the constructors’ title at Honda-owned Suzuka in 2023 with Verstappen’s second successive Japanese win. The figure eight circuit is a home for RB’s Yuki Tsunoda. It has been 20 years since Ferrari’s last win, with Michael Schumacher in 2004.

5. China (Shanghai) – April 21

Absent from the calendar since 2019, when Hamilton won for Mercedes, Shanghai hosts a sprint race for the first time. Sauber’s Guanyu Zhou will be the first Chinese F1 driver to race in front of his home crowd.

6. Miami – May 5

The fifth round of the season last year and a key moment. Verstappen and Perez were on two wins each, but Miami began a record run of 10 in a row for Verstappen. This year, Miami hosts a sprint for the first time. One of three home races for Williams’ Logan Sargeant.

7. Emilia Romagna (Imola) – May 19

Cancelled last year due to flooding, the anti-clockwise track is fast, bumpy and narrow. Named after Ferrari founder Enzo and son Dino, the track is also a memorial to Brazilian triple champion Ayrton Senna and Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, who died over the 1994 race weekend.

8. Monaco – May 26

Now perhaps overtaken by flashier new venues, Monaco has history and glamour and is home for many drivers. The shortest track is also the race with the most laps and least overtaking. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc can become the first home winner.

9. Canada (Montreal) – June 9

The race came after Monaco and Spain last year. A home race for Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll and team owner father Lawrence. Hamilton picked up his first F1 win here and has a joint record (with Schumacher) of seven in Montreal. Verstappen has won the last two.

10. Spain (Barcelona) – June 23

The start of a European triple-header with Austria and Britain. Verstappen recorded his first F1 win here in 2016. Hamilton shares the record of six wins with Schumacher. Alonso and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz are the home drivers.

11. Austria (Spielberg) – June 30

Red Bull’s home race and a sprint race again. Only 10 corners and the shortest race in terms of time. Verstappen has won four times in Spielberg, which attracts a large contingent of his Dutch fans.

12. Britain (Silverstone) – July 7

On the calendar since season one in 1950, and a home race for Hamilton, teammate George Russell and McLaren’s Lando Norris. Hamilton has won a record eight times and been on pole in seven with 13 podium appearances.

13. Hungary (Budapest) – July 21

Hamilton has won a record eight times. Verstappen took his first F1 pole here in 2019, Alonso his first win in 2003.

14. Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps) – July 28

Norris and Verstappen both have Belgian mothers, making Spa something of a home race. Verstappen has won three times in a row. A lap is the longest in F1 and one of the fastest.

15. Netherlands (Zandvoort) – August 25

Verstappen’s home race. He has won every year since it returned to the calendar in 2021. Zandvoort, in the coastal sand dunes, is distinctly old school.

16. Italy (Monza) – September 1

The Temple of Speed outside Milan hosts Ferrari’s home race. Hamilton and Schumacher share the record of five wins each at a circuit with long straights and 11 corners.

17. Azerbaijan (Baku) – September 15

Held in April last year and won by Perez for the second time in three years. It remains his most recent victory. Baku’s street circuit has been on the calendar since 2016 and Perez is the only repeat winner.

18. Singapore – September 22

The only race Red Bull failed to win last year, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz victorious. The hot and humid night race is one of the season’s biggest physical challenges.

19. United States (Austin) – October 20

The start of the second triple-header of the year, Austin will again be a sprint race. All the races at the undulating anti-clockwise Texas track have been won from the front row of the grid. Sargeant scored his only point so far last year.

20. Mexico (Mexico City) – October 27

Verstappen has won five of the last six Mexican GPs, last year becoming the first driver to win 16 races in a season. Hamilton sealed his 2017 and 2018 championships in Mexico.

21. Brazil (Sao Paulo) – November 3

The only circuit to have hosted a sprint every year since the format debuted in 2021, Interlagos will again have a sprint this year.

22. Las Vegas – November 23

The famed Strip made its F1 debut last year as the penultimate race, and on a Saturday night. A loose drain cover played havoc with practice. The start of the third and final triple-header this season.

23. Qatar (Lusail) – December 1

Verstappen clinched his third championship in a row in a Saturday sprint last year. Qatar was the 17th round in 2023 and held in October, when the extreme heat proved a problem for the main race. The weekend is again scheduled as a sprint.

24. Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina) – December 8

Verstappen has won this for the last four years, in controversial circumstances in 2021, when he beat Hamilton for his first title.

Panic buttons

The hope, for fans wanting closer racing at the front and yearning for change after Red Bull’s run of 38 wins in the last 44 races, is that the gap – if as feared – will close as the season progresses.

The regulations have been stable for a while and that in itself usually sees a tightening of the field.

“There’s more races now so there’s more track time, more data, more understanding, more looking at other cars and seeing what developments they bring,” Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo told Reuters.

“I don’t think anyone’s pressing any panic buttons. It’s a long season and developments can make big changes.”

Ferrari, the only team to beat Red Bull last year, lapped fastest in testing but Mercedes were also buoyed by a much less “spiteful” car than its predecessor.

“We’re looking alright,” Mercedes technical director James Allison said after testing. “I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that (Red Bull) have got their noses and perhaps a bit more of their face in front of those of us that are chasing.

“But I think we’ll make a good fist of the chasing and hopefully just develop strongly through the year.”

Driver speculation

The season will be seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s farewell to Mercedes before the sport’s most successful driver heads to Ferrari in 2025 as replacement for Spaniard Carlos Sainz.

Who takes over Hamilton’s seat will be a talking point for months to come, as will uncertainty over Verstappen’s future team mate with Mexican Sergio Perez out of contract at the end of this year.

Speculation is swirling around before a wheel has turned in anger and, with more than half the grid coming to the end of contracts, will run and run.

China returns for the first time since 2019 and Italy’s Imola is back after last year’s race had to be cancelled due to flooding.

There will again be six sprint weekends, with Miami and Shanghai new to that, and a revised format with the 100km race held on Saturday before qualifying for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

There are no rookie drivers and, remarkably, no changes to lineups since the end of 2023.

There are new team bosses, with Netflix “Drive to Survive” favorite Guenther Steiner replaced by Ayao Komatsu at Haas and Laurent Mekies now in charge at the rebranded Visa Cash App RB (previously AlphaTauri).

Sauber-run Alfa Romeo are now racing as Stake F1, where gambling laws permit. –

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