Formula 1 Focus: Verstappen strikes fear into rivals, fans and F1 itself in Bahrain

Verstappen remains on top of F1
Verstappen remains on top of F1AFP
There's always plenty to talk about in the non-stop world of Formula 1 and Flashscore's Finley Crebolder gives his thoughts on the biggest stories going around the paddock in this regular column.

The new season is here, but sadly, for anyone who is not a diehard Max Verstappen fan, the opening race of the 2024 campaign suggested it may not be all that different to last year's, with the reigning champion and Red Bull picking up where they left off.

Here are my main takeaways from the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Newey's gamble produces gold 

Adrian Newey took a huge gamble in deciding to ignore the mantra that you should never change a winning team and instead move Red Bull away from the design that won them both titles with ease last season, and it looks to have been a stroke of genius.

There were doubts as to whether that was going to be the case when the team didn't exactly dazzle in practice and qualifying in Bahrain, even if Verstappen did take pole position. However, those doubts were immediately eradicated on race day with the Dutchman soon pulling away from the rest of the grid and never looking back while teammate Sergio Perez fought his way up to second and stayed there without too much trouble.

Watching them continue to dominate, I couldn't help but be in awe of Newey, who for the third year in a row looks to have outdone his counterparts, all of whom are some of the world's best in their field. While they've all spent the winter trying to emulate his masterful design from last year, he's gone and come up with another one. 

His finest work this year may be yet to come too, with major upgrades set to be introduced when the sport heads to Europe in the spring. With those upgrades, the team will reportedly be taking a step towards the high-potential but troublesome "Zero Sidepod" concept that Mercedes tried and failed to make work for two years before giving up. But you'd have to be a brave man to bet against Newey doing what they couldn't and pulling it off. 

When it first emerged that Christian Horner's position was under threat due to accusations of inappropriate conduct from a colleague, I felt that the biggest danger for Red Bull, if he went, would be losing Adrian Newey too, given their close working relationship. After Bahrain, I feel more certain about that now than ever.

Tsunoda rages at RB and Ricciardo

While it was plain sailing for Red Bull in Bahrain, the same can't be said for their sister team - now known as 'RB' - with their team orders causing the notoriously short-tempered Yuki Tsunoda to throw his toys out of the pram more than ever before.

Tsunoda and teammate Daniel Ricciardo were both stuck behind the Haas of Kevin Magnussen heading into the closing stages of the race and with the Japanese driver struggling to get past the Dane and the Aussie on quicker tyres, the team decided to swap their drivers to give themselves the best possible chance of gaining a place. I thought that was perfectly reasonable of them but Yuki disagreed and had no qualms about making that clear.

After initially ignoring the instruction, he reluctantly let Ricciardo pass while complaining to the team, ramping those complaints up when Ricciardo failed to get past Magnussen. He then took things a step further by aggressively passing his teammate and coming inches from hitting him after they crossed the finish line. "What the f*ck? I'll save it... He's a f*cking helmet," said Ricciardo on his radio, and Red Bull would have almost certainly been thinking the same.

Tsunoda had made the perfect start to what could be the most important season of his career by comfortably out-qualifying Ricciardo but undid all that good work by displaying the immaturity and petulance that he's been told he needs to put behind him time and time again. Such an attitude most likely cost his team a position - if he'd made way immediately, Ricciardo would have surely passed Magnussen - and very nearly resulted in a dangerous collision. 

With Red Bull watching both RB drivers like a hawk this year to see whether either would be a better option for them than Perez, what they'll be looking at is not only which one is faster but which one would be more willing to play the team game and play second fiddle to Verstappen if need be. In Bahrain, Tsunoda came across as someone who wouldn't. If that doesn't change, he won't be getting a promotion regardless of how well he drives.

F1's rise in danger of being derailed

A combination of a thrilling 2021 season and Netflix's Drive to Survive series made Formula 1 bigger and better than ever a couple of years ago, providing the perfect launch pad for the sport to finally crack America and go global. However, Verstappen's utter dominance last year slowed that rise considerably, and with it now looking like we may be in for another such season, there will be serious concern within the sport of that rise being halted altogether.

The majority of newer fans - mainly American - were drawn in by the epic title fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021. However, those same fans were already beginning to lose interest by the end of 2023 after not getting such a contest again for two seasons. TV viewing figures in the US were 10% lower last season than in 2022 and the latest Drive to Survive series suffered a 23% drop in viewers in its first three days. Those numbers will surely continue to fall if we get another year of domination from Verstappen, which now seems a highly likely possibility.

Given that, I imagine that it's not long before F1 begin to push Red Bull to swap out Perez for someone more capable of challenging Verstappen and that they're already thinking about how they can help the rest of the grid close the gap on the reigning champions through regulation changes.

If you're newer to the sport, such direct manipulation from the powers that be may seem far-fetched, but it's actually been happening for years. Former owner Bernie Ecclestone regularly used his authority to try and get the driver lineups he wanted, and new regulations were introduced on multiple occasions during the final years of Ferrari's dominance in the early 2000s and Mercedes' dominance in the late 2020s to try and level the playing field.

It may already be too late to prevent Verstappen from dominating the 2024 campaign unless Ricciardo gets back to his best and is given Perez's seat mid-season. In the months to come, I'm very much expecting to hear stories of Red Bull being pushed to sign one of the many top drivers available in 2025 and of regulation changes being prepared for the start of the next year, if not sooner.

Whether such an intervention is fair given that Red Bull and Verstappen have earned their place at the top of the pile is very much up for debate, but in the world of Formula, fairness can often be sidelined in favour of business, and a one-man show is certainly bad for business.



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