Max Verstappen holds off the field in qualifying for F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Heading into the 2024 Formula 1 season, the one overarching question was this:

Can anyone catch Max Verstappen?

Three days of pre-season testing and three practice sessions offered little answers. At moments during pre-season testing other teams laid down some impressive lap times, most notably Ferrari, but still Verstappen was lurking, his times on part with thoses of his rivals and on a harder compound. Thursday’s second practice session saw Mercedes take a big step forward, with Lewis Hamilton topping the timing sheets followed by teammate George Russell.

Had 2023’s dominant force in F1 been caught?

That day may indeed come, but it did not come today. On an evening in Bahrain Verstappen again put himself at the front of the field, putting the RB20 on pole position for the first race of the 2024 F1 season. He edged out one of the Ferrari drivers, Charles Leclerc, as well as one of the Mercedes drivers, George Russell.

Here are the full results from Friday’s qualifying session:

24 race weekends remain, and it may very well be that the field will catch Red Bull and Verstappen.

But not just yet.

Alpine – Losers

The quotes following Q1 told the story at Alpine.

From the F1TV commentary box came the opening set of comments from Alex Jacques, who described their difficult Q1 session as a “tale of woe for the French manufacturer.” Both Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly failed to advance out of Q1, and that was just the start of the bad news. Ocon came across the line in P19, with Gasly behind him in P20.

For Gasly, that marks the second year in a row that he started the season at the back of the field. In last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Gasly also started last, behind rookies Oscar Piastri, Logan Sargeant, and Nyck de Vries.

“It’s a sorry state of affairs for Alpine,” added Jacques.

“Yeah disaster out lap,” said Gasly over the radio after Q1. His teammate took a more optimistic view. “Ok guys, only round one. We keep going, we keep pushing. I got faith in you guys,” said Ocon:

Alpine have been on the back foot coming out of pre-season testing, and in many ways since last year. The team struggled with the power unit on the A523 a year ago, going as far as to request a waiver from F1 on the power unit freeze implemented during the season. That request was denied, and the team limped to a finish in the middle of the field. They were fast enough to stay ahead of Williams in P6, but too slow to catch Aston Martin and McLaren in front of them.

That led the team to take a new approach with the A524, their challenger for the 2024 campaign. So far, the returns have been mixed at best, and the team has made it clear that they expect a “challenging” start to the season. The model they might look to follow? McLaren from last season. A year ago it was McLaren who struggled out of the gate, pointing to planned upgrades to the MCL60 to improve their form.

Alpine now has to believe that they too can follow that path forward.

Nico Hülkenberg – Winner

Screenshot 2024 02 27 at 10.56.42 AM

Be warned, friends.

You are going to see a lot of this picture this season.

A year ago qualifying was a strength for Haas, and that trend seems to be continuing into 2024. Both Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hülkenberg pushed their VF-24 into Q2, and Hülkenberg advanced into Q3 as well, before qualifying tenth.

“At the end of last year, I still managed to put it into Q3 a few times and we knew from last season qualifying was our strength. It looks like we’ve not lost it, but we need to fix the race day issue from before,” said Hülkenberg in the post-qualifying team report. “Obviously, that’s the most crucial point for us this season, and we pretty much only focused on that in testing, and also in the winter to dial-out that characteristic that we had last year. It feels better but tomorrow is the real test to see if it actually is better, so exciting times ahead.”

The bigger questions for Haas will come tomorrow, as Hülkenberg noted. The team indeed spent the bulk of their pre-season testing schedule working on their race pace, hoping to solve the tire degradation issues that plagued them a season ago. So while this is a good start, and the fact that the VF-24 seems to have the strong one-lap pace of its predecessor is a very good thing, their bigger hurdles will come tomorrow.

However, the team also took a pragmatic approach to Q3, once Hülkenberg had made it into the third and final session.

“From FP3, we focused on our low-fuel performance and after the sessions we thought if we could do a good job, we can get into Q2 – we achieved that so I’m very happy. What a lap from Nico in Q2 to get into Q3, so again I’m really happy with that also. In Q3 we had, let’s say, a calm state of mind to know that we’re not racing Mercedes or McLaren tomorrow, so we kept one new set of tires for Nico for Saturday, and we’ve given ourselves the best chance,” said new Team Principal Ayao Komatsu. “I’d like to think that all the things we’ve been learning from pre-season testing and from yesterday’s high-fuel runs, we can put it into practice tomorrow and try and score some points.”

We will see if that pragmatic approach — as well as their focus on race pace — pays off in a few hours.

Sauber – Losers

Alpine was not the only team to see both drivers eliminated in Q1.

The same fate befell Stake F1 Team Kick Sauber.

Both Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu were eliminated after Q1, with Bottas finishing in P16 just on the outside looking in, and Zhou behind him in P17. Zhou was undone with a hard snap on his final push lap, as his C44 jerked through Turns 14 and 15, costing him precious time. Had he avoided that moment, he might have survived for Q2.

It was a bit of a letdown for the team, as the C44 had shown some pace during pre-season testing as well as the practice sessions this week. Zhou even posted a P3 on the final day of testing, albeit on the softer C4 compound that is not available this week.

Perhaps the team can make up some ground on the track tomorrow, and their race pace will exceed the one-lap pace they showed on Friday. But this is not the start to the season the team they wanted to see.

Ferrari – Winners

Verstappen grabbed pole position on Friday, and there will also be a Mercedes in the front two rows (more on Russell in a second).

But the other two cars in the first two rows? A pair of Ferraris. As noted above Leclerc qualified second behind Verstappen, and right behind him when the lights go out Friday night will be teammate Carlos Sainz Jr., who qualified in fourth.

That could give Ferrari an advantage at the start, with the duo having the opportunity to push each other off the start and into Turn 1.

Following qualifying, Sainz made it clear that they are happy with the SF-24, and they pace they have heading into the first race of the season:

There may be some disappointment on Leclerc missing out on pole, because the team felt P1 was within grasp.

But the points are awarded tomorrow.

VCARB – Losers

Coming out of pre-season testing, and then following Thursday’s first practice session of the year, there was hope that Visa Cash App RB F1 Team could be this year’s surprise package. Both Daniel Ricciardo and Yuki Tsunoda showed impressive pace in the days leading up to qualifying, and the first practice session of the year gave VCARB fans a ton of hope:

With both drivers up in the top five after FP1, VCARB fans started to dream.

However, those dreams did not materialize on Friday. While both Tsunoda and Ricciardo advanced to Q2, their nights ended there. Ricciardo finished in P14, and Tsunoda just missed out on Q3, and will start the Grand Prix in P11.

It may be fair to note that a season ago, rookie Nyck de Vries was eliminated in Q1, and Tsunoda was eliminated in Q2. So getting both drivers into Q2 this season does seem like a step forward. Plus, the points are handed out tomorrow, and both Ricciardo and Tsunoda are within striking distance of adding to VCARB’s account as the year begins.

Still, they probably wanted to see a little more on Friday.

George Russell – Winner

After FP2, it seemed that Mercedes was going to get a driver to the top of the board, and maybe even on pole.

They came close, but it was George Russell who came in closest, qualifying third. Lewis Hamilton, who topped the timing sheets ahead of Russell during FP2, managed to advance to Q3 but could only qualify ninth.

Still, getting both cars into Q3 — and Russell to the front of the field — gives Mercedes a very good chance at a great result on Saturday.

More importantly? The team, and both drivers, seem much happier with the W15 than its two immediate predecessors.

“Everybody at the factory has done a great job to give Lewis and I a car that we are much happier with. It’s a base that we can build upon. We’ve still got some catching up to do to be at the very front, but starting P3 for tomorrow’s race is a good place to be,” said Russell in the team’s post-qualifying report. “It’s clear how tight it is between a number of teams, including ourselves, Ferrari, the McLarens, and Aston Martin. It is exciting knowing that if you put the whole lap together and find a tenth or two, that will add up to several positions on the grid.”

The team also made it clear that their focus was on Saturday, and not Friday. Mercedes made some changes to both cars, hoping to maximize their race pace on Saturday.

“I struggled throughout qualifying as we have in the past couple of years. The car is feeling really great, but I just went a little bit in a direction to help my race pace. I wasn’t feeling as comfortable with that yesterday so that was the focus,” described Hamilton. “I’ve definitely sacrificed more single-lap performance than I hoped too but I hope that pays off tomorrow. It’s a lot of work to do to get past a lot of quick cars that are starting ahead of me, but I’m sure it’ll be fun.”


For Toto Wolff — seen here giving us yet another meme in the early part of the season — the margins are slim, but there are reasons to be hopeful. “Behind Verstappen, the gaps are so close with several other teams. Just a couple of tenths makes such a big difference. It’s about the absolute tiny margins and if you find even small gains, then you are right in the game,” said Wolff. “We hope that tomorrow will be a little bit better but we are still learning so much about this car.”

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