Formula 1 Focus: Horner stays put, paving the way for another year of Red Bull dominance

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Formula 1 Focus: Horner stays put, paving the way for another year of Red Bull dominance
Horner isn't going anywhere any time soon
Horner isn't going anywhere any time soon
Profimedia
There's always something happening 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.

Written on the eve of the new season, this week's edition looks at whether, with Christian Horner staying put, anybody can pose a serious threat to Red Bull in 2024 or whether we should all be expecting another campaign dominated by Max Verstappen.

Red Bull avoid entering new season in turmoil

Horner's relationships with Newey and Marko have been key to Red Bull's success
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Well, one of the most turbulent winter breaks ever hasn't ended with a bang as many expected it would, with Christian Horner cleared of misconduct after allegations of controlling and coercive behaviour sparked an internal investigation.

It's impossible to say whether it's the right or wrong call given the lack of information available - although it is a surprising decision to me given the reported quantity and severity of evidence against him - but one thing is clear: it's a decision that makes it far more likely that Red Bull's reign at the top won't be ending anytime soon. 

Granted, his departure wouldn't have made Max Verstappen or this year's car any slower, but it would have cost the team a lot in terms of structure and stability. After all, Horner has been the captain of the ship since they came into existence in 2005 and has always been the man to guide them through choppy waters, taking the lead in dealing with the press, with the authorities and with internal disputes, whether between staff or drivers.

One of his key roles is reining in head of driver development Helmut Marko, a controversial figure with famously little time or sympathy for drivers who are struggling to perform. The two, with something of a Good Cop, Bad Cop dynamic, always seem to balance each other out and maintain balance in the team as a result, and whether that balance could remain without Horner is very much uncertain. Marko isn't the biggest fan of Sergio Perez, and without Horner there, I could see the pair falling out and the team parting ways with the Mexican mid-season.

Another man whose Red Bull future would look uncertain without Horner is technical officer Adrian Newey, who reportedly has a clause in his contract that allows him to leave if the team boss does. Losing the man more responsible for their success than anyone would have been a monumental blow, especially if he went to Ferrari as has been rumoured. Such a departure is the most likely way that the Red Bull reign of terror could end, but is far less probable now.

I don't think this is the end of the matter by any means, with the employee that accused Horner apparently keen to now take legal action and submit evidence that wasn't provided for the internal investigation, but for the time being, don't expect to see any less of Red Bull at the front of the field. 

Can the Prancing Horse tame the bull?

Leclerc's team looked strong in testing
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If anyone can join Verstappen and Red Bull at the front, it will most likely be Ferrari, who head into the Bahrain Grand Prix looking best positioned to take the fight to the Dutchman and co. 

I'm not reading too much into the fact that they set the fastest time in testing - they've done so plenty of times in recent years and have never gone on to win the title. Looking at the pace of the respective teams on the long runs and taking into account fuel loads, it seems far more likely that the Scuderia will be two or so tenths slower than the reigning champions at the least to begin with. However, there are still reasons to believe that Ferrari will at least pose a bigger threat to their rivals than they did last year. 

They're quite clearly beginning the new season on a much more solid foundation in terms of their car, with the SF-24 being easier on its tyres than its predecessor was at the start of 2023 and both Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc agreeing that it's much easier and more enjoyable to drive. 

It may not have enough in terms of outright pace to fight for wins from the off, but that's more likely to change this year than it did last year, not only because Ferrari are starting from a stronger position but because there's only so much more that Red Bull can improve before they hit their peak, fully maximising the potential of their cars under these regulations. 

As soon as that happens, the gap at the front will only get smaller if Ferrari make the right calls, and while it took a while for team principal Fred Vasseur to make his mark after taking over in 2023, I'm confident that with a season under his belt, he's going to get the team moving in the right direction.

His job will be made easier by the fact that, with Sainz leaving at the end of the year, he doesn't have to worry so much about giving his drivers equal treatment and can instead give Leclerc all the backing that he wants. With that backing and a better car, I can see the Monegasque winning a few races and taking second in the championship at the least. 

The French Disconnection

Are Alpine in trouble?
Profimedia

Alpine, Renault's works team, have taken some huge risks in the last year in their bid to finally become a top team, changing their entire management structure before adopting a completely new concept for their 2024 car, and those risks look to have backfired massively. 

They were slow in pre-season testing, and while drivers Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly tried to play down the problems the team is facing, many experts have suggested that the A524 may even be the slowest car on the grid. Even if that's not the case, it looks highly unlikely that the team will be quick enough to get either car anywhere near the top 10 in either qualifying or the race. 

Spending huge amounts of time and money in an effort to go from the midfield to the front of the pack only to end up at the back instead would be an unmitigated disaster, bigger than any I can think of in recent times perhaps with the exception of when Ferrari dropped into the midfield into 2020, and would cast the future of the project into serious doubt. 

Ocon and Gasly are both ambitious, highly-rated drivers who will have no desire to be backmarkers and will have plenty of alternative options when their contracts expire at the end of this season. Getting either to renew theirs' and stick around instead would be a tough sell if things are as bad as they look. 

Getting Renault to stick around could too prove difficult considering the lack of progress that their F1 outfit has made in almost a decade at this point. A season fighting the likes of Haas and Sauber would surely make them seriously reconsider things heading into the new era beginning in 2026. 

The French company wouldn't be short of suitors either if they did want to wash their hands of the team, with a consortium led by Wrexham FC owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney buying nearly a quarter of it last year and American racing outfit Andretti still desperate to find a way onto the grid. In short, if 2024 is as bad for Alpine as it looks like it could be, there may be huge implications for the future of the sport. 

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