Red Bull’s bold design and secret ‘sandbagging’: what can we expect from F1 testing?

After one of the most frenetic off-seasons in recent Formula 1 history, teams and fans will see the 2024 crop of cars out on track for the first time in Bahrain this week.

Pre-season testing is often peculiar: plenty of flow-vis paint and aero-rakes appear on cars to measure initial performance. Varied lap times, fuel load and set-ups mean the leaderboard at the end of each day should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But for the drivers and teams, it’s invaluable. With 24 hours of running over three days, each driver should receive 12 hours of time in the car, with the focus fully on the performance and reliability of their 2024 challenger.

So with just nine days to go until the start of the new season, beyond the ongoing investigation surrounding Red Bull boss Christian Horner and some intriguing media sessions with the likes of Lewis Hamilton after his move to Ferrari, what else can we expect from testing in Bahrain?

The Independent takes a look at the main talking points this week:

Red Bull’s design boldness

Rather than a natural evolution of their all-conquering 2023 car, which won 21 out of 22 races last year, Red Bull raised an eyebrow or two from those who were paying attention to the RB20 at their launch last Thursday, amid the Horner situation.

Instead of playing it safe, Adrian Newey and his team of designers have gone bolder and brasher. Their RB20 has features of Mercedes’ approach (which catastrophically failed) from the last two years, with vertical sidepod inlets similar to the Silver Arrows “no sidepod” project and a bulge under the engine cover, similar to Mercedes’ cooling system in 2023.

Not evolution but “great innovation”, as Horner put it. Max Verstappen, too, acknowledged the similarities with Mercedes’ voyage into the design unknown when saying: “I would still call it a Red Bull style... but I know what you mean.”

Max Verstappen is the favourite again this year in a new-look Red Bull car (Getty)
Max Verstappen is the favourite again this year in a new-look Red Bull car (Getty)

It definitely adds an extra layer of intrigue to this week’s test which was not anticipated. Red Bull still have a huge advantage and are undoubtedly the massive favourites this year, but it will be fascinating to see if their approach pays off – in a way it didn’t for Mercedes.

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton: the last dance

Mercedes have changed their approach as well. New sidepods – similar to Red Bull’s undercut solution of the past two years – have allowed the cockpit to be pushed back by 10cm, a request of Lewis Hamilton as he embarks on his last dance with Toto Wolff and his team.

It will be the underlying narrative to the entire season, particularly if Red Bull sail off into the sunset again. How will the most successful team-driver pairing in F1 history finish off their time together? Will George Russell receive preferential treatment over the seven-time world champion? And when will Mercedes, inevitably, start pushing Hamilton to the sidelines as they focus on 2025?

By that point, of course, Hamilton will be off to the scarlet red of Ferrari. So much as the Brit will be desperate for a fairytale ending – even a first race win in two years would be an achievement – he will undoubtedly have half an eye on all matters Scuderia too.

Lewis Hamilton embarks on his final year with Mercedes (Mercedes)
Lewis Hamilton embarks on his final year with Mercedes (Mercedes)

It is a similar situation for Carlos Sainz at Ferrari; the only difference being that he will be using the first half of this year as an audition for potential suitors. He is currently seatless for 2025.

McLaren change tack with low-key launch

Last year, McLaren unveiled their car in an impressive event at their HQ in Woking. Yet, in the first race of the season in Bahrain, neither car finished amid a host of issues.

Their fightback was more than admirable last year, as they went from the laughing stock of the grid to genuine frontrunners and were perhaps unfortunate not to win a race amid Verstappen’s dominance.

This year, team principal Andrea Stella has kept things close to his chest. No lavish launch. Just one 30-minute virtual media session. And even the photos of their MCL38 car were from a distance, making it difficult to draw any real conclusions about their approach.

Asked why McLaren have gone low-key this year, Lando Norris bluntly replied: “Because we can! You’ll see in one week, two weeks… be patient!”

Do the papaya have something game-changing up their sleeve? The first indications will come this week.

Amid the chasing pack, will we get an Aston Martin-esque surprise?

Aston Martin were the surprise package in testing last year. From seventh on the grid in 2022, Lawrence Stroll’s multimillion-pound investment seemed to reap the rewards, as Aston stormed to the upper echelons of the field.

Fernando Alonso’s podium at the season opener in Bahrain was a huge moment for the team. And though they dropped off a tad midway through the season, the Spaniard claiming fourth in the drivers’ championship was a massive achievement for the team in royal green.

Fernando Alonso was on the podium in Bahrain last year (Getty)
Fernando Alonso was on the podium in Bahrain last year (Getty)

So, can anyone do similar this year in what is becoming a highly saturated space at the front of the pack? Williams are showing signs of steady development under James Vowles, spearheaded by Alex Albon, while Alpine have long promised top performance in words but not yet on track.

Can a midfield runner spring a surprise? And if so, will a heavyweight outfit make way?

Not all will be as it seems...

F1 folk love a colloquial term amid the intricate mechanical dialogue of the sport and testing brings up the same phrase every year: sandbagging.

It gained a lot of attention with Mercedes’ often underwhelming lap times and performance in testing, amid their hybrid-era dominance. Sandbagging describes the process when a team deliberately puts in slower lap times than expected to hide the true potential of the car.

It’s why the leaderboard, come Friday night, will not tell the whole story. Teams have different approaches and priorities throughout the three days, as well as variable fuel loads and tyre choices.

Then again, Red Bull were the quickest team in the last three years at testing and Max Verstappen went on to win the world championship in all three years. So lap times do matter – until they don’t.