in

Can anyone in F1 catch Red Bull in 2024?

can-anyone-in-f1-catch-red-bull-in-2024?
Can anyone in F1 catch Red Bull in 2024?
  • Laurence Edmondson, F1 EditorFeb 14, 2024, 09:14 AM ET

    Close

      • Joined ESPN in 2009
      • An FIA accredited F1 journalist since 2011

How do you beat a team like Red Bull? That’s the question facing Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin this season, and the one Formula One desperately hopes will be answered in order to inject some excitement back into its championship after two dominant championship victories for Max Verstappen.

Red Bull won 21 of 22 races in 2023, and in Verstappen’s hands the all-conquering RB19 rarely looked under threat. Based on the results of the past two seasons, the current set of technical regulations, which were introduced in 2022 and will run until the end of 2025, appear to belong to Red Bull, just as the previous sets dating to 2014 belonged to Mercedes and the early 2000s belonged to Ferrari.

There is hope for Red Bull’s rivals, though. Although the reigning champions extended their advantage from 2022 to 2023, the rest of the field began to bunch up behind them, and there’s a belief that the stable regulations from 2023 to 2024 could allow the leading edge of that group to envelop Red Bull.

It might sound like wishful thinking given that Red Bull shifted its focus from 2023 to 2024 relatively early in its campaign last season in order to focus on another big step this year, but some rival engineers believe the law of diminishing returns could apply to Red Bull’s progress. If they’re right, development of this year’s RB20 could plateau while those behind are still making big gains.

Speaking at the end of the 2023 season, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff likened catching Red Bull in 2024 to the challenge of climbing Mount Everest. While the evocative language was undoubtedly meant to underline the difficulty his team faces, the success rate of climbing the world’s highest mountain has hovered around 60% for the past two decades. Put simply, with the right preparation and favourable conditions, it is doable.

Below, we analyse Red Bull’s four closest rivals and the reasons for optimism for each one ahead of the new season.

Mercedes

Once F1’s most dominant team, Mercedes has been knocked off its perch since the introduction of new technical regulations in 2022. The rules, which were designed to encourage exciting racing, put added emphasis on generating downforce by using air flowing underneath the car.

The aerodynamic relationship between the floor of the car and the track surface — which is often measured in tens of millimetres — has proved more volatile than most engineers anticipated and harder than expected to accurately replicate in simulations. Mercedes’ initial car concept for 2022 promised significant performance at low ride heights when it ran in the wind tunnel, but as soon as the team tried to access that downforce on track, it suffered uncontrollable aerodynamic instability that resulted in the car bouncing at high speed.

Mercedes was forced to run the car further away from the ground and pivot its development to finding more downforce at those higher ride heights — something that is much more difficult to do. Some success at the end of 2022 led to a belief within the team that it should continue to focus on finding downforce at higher ride heights, despite the inherent engineering difficulty, and so it ploughed on with its existing car concept for another year. The team actually hit its targets over the winter, but when it turned up to the first test of 2023, it became clear its rivals — notably Red Bull — had moved the goal posts by finding even more performance and stability at lower ride heights.

Mercedes quickly realised it had been too conservative in its conceptual approach, and set about modifying the car to run at lower ride heights, notably with a new front suspension geometry and floor at the Monaco Grand Prix. However, it was still limited by some of the design elements baked into the car that could not be changed midseason and ultimately had to run the car’s suspension very stiff to achieve performance from lower ride heights — exacerbating some of its less desirable handling traits.

play

2:24

Toto Wolff reveals the W15 for the 2024 season

Toto Wolff speaks about Mercedes’ W15 for the 2024 season and his hopes for the coming year.

Based on the knowledge of how it ended up in a developmental cul-de-sac over the past two years, Mercedes hopes it can unlock significant performance this season with a redesigned monocoque, new rear suspension and a continuation of the developments it brought in Monaco and Austin.

Ferrari

By the end of the 2023 season, Ferrari was emerging as Red Bull’s most consistent rival from race to race. For a team that has spent the past few years struggling with everything from its development direction to its race strategy, the second half of the campaign provided reason for optimism. At those final 11 races, Ferrari secured six pole positions and outscored every team on the grid bar Red Bull.

The pole-position statistic also tells the story of Ferrari’s struggles in 2023, though, as only one of those six was converted into a victory. A lack of race pace stemming from the way the Ferrari treated its tyres was a critical failing of last year’s car, and in the early part of the season was particularly bad. The team appeared to make a breakthrough at the Italian Grand Prix and at outlier street circuits with smooth track surfaces, such as Singapore and Las Vegas, Ferrari had a car that was either faster than or a match for Red Bull.

Drivers complained of rear instability in the first half of the year, resulting in a need to set the car up with masses of understeer. This particularly impacted Charles Leclerc, who prefers a car with a tendency to oversteer, but after the team refined the setup following an update at the Japanese Grand Prix, he took three poles at the last five races — again proving the underlying performance of the car.

Much like Mercedes, Ferrari has committed to a different car concept for 2024, but arguably the gains it needs to find are smaller than its rival. What’s more, with team boss Fred Vasseur entering his second year in charge, there is hope that changes he initiated at Maranello in 2023 will start to bear fruit in 2024.

play

1:09

Leclerc: New Ferrari definitely a step forward from last year

Charles Leclerc reacts to Ferrari’s new SF-24 for the 2024 Formula 1 season.

The relative performance of Mercedes and Ferrari will be all the more interesting this year following Lewis Hamilton‘s decision to move from Brackley to Maranello in 2025. Whether that acts as added pressure or an added incentive remains to be seen.

McLaren

After making the biggest in-season step in performance of any team in 2023, there is a renewed optimism at McLaren. A big update for last year’s Austrian Grand Prix catapulted the team to the front of the grid — especially at high-speed circuits — while another major upgrade for Singapore helped round off some of the car’s sharper edges and made it a capable challenger in slow-speed corners, too.

In January, team principal Andrea Stella said simulation data for this year’s car suggests the upward trajectory experienced in 2023 will continue at the same rate in 2024. If that’s the case, it will allay fears that McLaren might have simply harvested low-hanging fruit in 2023 before a plateau in development this year.

What’s more, the 2024 car has benefited from McLaren’s new wind tunnel, which the team started using in September last year. The new facility has long been billed as the last major piece to complete McLaren’s jigsaw, although it’s worth remembering that the significant gains found in 2023 came from the Toyota-owned facility in Cologne, Germany, which the team has used for several seasons.

Since this time last year, when McLaren knew it had failed to hit its targets over the winter, the team has overhauled its lineup of senior engineers, replacing technical director James Key with a technical committee. Two vital members of that committee, Rob Marshall from Red Bull and David Sanchez from Ferrari, only joined at the start of January, meaning the pool of ideas will likely deepen once they become familiarised with their new home.

In the meantime, McLaren seems genuinely confident it can build on the success of 2023 and continue to be a challenger at the front of the grid in 2024.

Aston Martin

Although it was distant, Aston Martin emerged as Red Bull’s strongest competitor at the start of the 2023 season. Significant upgrades from Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren saw Aston lose ground in the first half of the year and then by the second half it almost lost the thread of its development entirely.

The team was forced to go back to basics, turning some race weekends into glorified test sessions, but as painful as the drop in performance was, Aston Martin emerged with a handful of strong results toward the end of the year, including a podium finish for Fernando Alonso in Brazil.

The team also had to deal with the upheaval of moving into a new factory midway through the year, which appeared to create some short-term pain but should offer serious long-term gain in 2024 and beyond. A new open-plan design office is designed to aid the free flow of ideas among engineers, while updated manufacturing capability should see upgrades reach the car quicker than ever before.

Ahead of this season, technical director Dan Fallows is confident lessons learned during the 2023 campaign have proved valuable in the development of the 2024 car, but unlike Mercedes and Ferrari, the underlying concept has remained the same. That could prove beneficial early on as Aston Martin deal with more of a known quantity while Mercedes and Ferrari take time to understand their new beasts.

For Aston Martin to remain competitive throughout the season, though, it will be imperative that Lance Stroll ups his game in 2024. He scored just 74 points to Alonso’s 206 last season, and while he was undoubtedly unlucky on occasions, the deficit between Aston Martin drivers accounted for the gap to Mercedes and Ferrari in the constructors’ championship at the end of the year.

To add a bit of pressure, Alonso, who was so critical to the team’s eight podiums in 2023, is out of contract at the end of the year with various options open at other teams.

boxing-pound-for-pound-rankings:-which-fighter-made-a-bigger-impact?-teofimo-or-beterbiev?

Boxing pound-for-pound rankings: Which fighter made a bigger impact? Teofimo or Beterbiev?

which-mls-coaches-could-be-feeling-the-heat-early-in-2024?

Which MLS coaches could be feeling the heat early in 2024?