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Formula 1 2024: Will anyone beat Max Verstappen?

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Formula 1 looks very familiar as we enter the 2024 season, so where does the intrigue lie? Join experts Damien Smith and Edd Straw as they discuss the stories set to define the year ahead…

Refining perfection

DS: The champion team comes into 2024 on the back of an unprecedented season. Max Verstappen says he’s not bothered about chasing records, whether it be championships or Lewis Hamilton’s mark of 103 wins. He appears to live in the moment. So where do you think he goes from here?

ES: In the short term, he will just want to keep doing what’s he doing. Although he doesn’t care about records, he does care about winning. Certainly it could be more of the same for the next few years, before the new power unit rules for 2026 create a reset. Verstappen is the critic-in chief for certain elements of F1’s drive for entertainment. For example, he doesn’t like the sprint races. But for now, while so many wins are on offer, he will be doing all he can to take them. DS For the first time ever, the grid will be the same one that finished the previous season. And we don’t have any big rules changes this year. So more of the same is the fear. I can’t see anyone stopping Verstappen becoming a four-time world champion.

ES: At least it is extremely unlikely that Red Bull will be as dominant as last season. The only question mark is its second driver, which could become a weakness if one of the other teams does step up to challenge. But Red Bull should roll serenely into this year, and it would be a surprise if they don’t win both championships.

DS: Sergio Pérez wasn’t good enough too often last year and he has been lucky to keep his drive. Some have suggested Red Bull’s patience could even run out mid-season in 2024.

ES: Red Bull looks at it that the drive is Pérez’s to lose. The team would be happy if he trundles around as a functioning number two, picking up points, which he didn’t do well enough last year. In terms of alternatives, it has Daniel Ricciardo in the fold at the second Red Bull-owned team. He wouldn’t be any worse than Pérez and has a certain appeal off-track. But it’s a problem that Red Bull hopes will solve itself, with Pérez just sorting himself out.

Hamilton’s curveball

Lewis Hamilton shaking hands with Charles Leclerc

DS: It’s not unprecedented for a team to race on with a driver who will be leaving for another at season’s end. Fernando Alonso won a world championship for Renault in such circumstances in 2006 before his ill-fated move to McLaren. But this is a very odd situation for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton ahead of his move to Ferrari in 2025, whatever they say publicly. He basically doesn’t have faith in Mercedes any more.

ES: It makes a difference. Regardless of the rhetoric of how much he wants to drive for Ferrari, which I’m sure is true, the number-one objective is still surely success. I can’t believe he would be confident that Mercedes will get back to the front in the next few years and go to Ferrari. He has to believe at the very minimum that Ferrari is equally likely to and realistically more likely to achieve that. You have to assume what he’s seeing at Mercedes isn’t convincing him, at least not enough. If it was so essential to drive for Ferrari for emotional reasons, surely he would have made that decision earlier.

DS: I do wonder whether he will see out this season with Mercedes.

ES: You would like to hope he will after the initial shock has calmed down, but we don’t really know. Team boss Toto Wolff said he only knew a couple of days before the announcement. There will be an effect, but I think he will see out the season. What’s interesting is the dynamic in the team, because it’s a great opportunity – the opportunity – for George Russell. He always saw this as a chance to be Hamilton’s team-mate for a few years, Hamilton to then retire and it to be his team. Now Hamilton is going but Russell has this strange transitional year. It’s a chance for him to assert himself. He’s teetering on the edge of either becoming a great grand prix driver or just a very good one, which is a key difference.

All eyes on Sainz

Carlos Sainz on podium with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez

DS: Hamilton’s decision has also opened up a big seat at Mercedes for 2025. Carlos Sainz Jr will be central to what happens next, because he needs a new drive. Again, it’s a strange situation for Ferrari this year, with the big change for 2025 hanging over the team.

ES: It’s particularly odd for a driver like Sainz, who’s very active off track in the way he works with the team. It’s in his interests to perform as well as he possibly can this season. We don’t know where he’s going to go. He may never get a car as competitive as a Ferrari for all we know. He will need to maximise results, but he’s always been the de facto back-up driver to Charles Leclerc. So I don’t think it changes a huge amount for him in terms of 2024. Except his long-term ambition to usurp Leclerc as number one is off the table. You can’t say Ferrari should have kept Sainz over Hamilton, because of who Hamilton is, but they do lose a lot in letting Sainz go. He’s a very good all-round driver.

DS: Leclerc has just committed himself to a long-term future at Ferrari. It was announced before the Hamilton deal. He must have known this was coming. Like Lewis, he has always been close to team principal Fréd Vasseur. Where will his mind be at?

ES: The big question is whether he knew this was on the cards before he signed his new deal. Either way, he needs to see this as an opportunity. Hamilton is coming into Leclerc’s team, and in F1 terms he’s an old man, even if he’s still operating at a high level. Leclerc will be thinking ‘I can beat him here’. Leclerc can also learn from Hamilton. But for now, both Ferrari drivers have to focus on the task in hand, which is taking on Red Bull.

The rise of McLaren

McLaren F1 car cornering at Qatar

DS: McLaren went from hopeless at the start of last season to a true force – a remarkable mid-season turnaround. Both Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri made the most of a transformed car. They are a brilliant pairing at different stages of their careers. But I wonder if McLaren is ready to take the next steps, not only to become a race winner but also a championship contender. Norris has committed his future surprisingly early, ruling out a lot of distracting speculation. But Edd, do you believe McLaren is truly back?

ES: It’s on the trajectory that could mean so. It seems perfectly possible that it could win a few races this year. McLaren was the most convincing, behind Red Bull, in showing it understood this set of technical regulations with the changes it made last year. Principal Andrea Stella says the team is still seeing loads of fruitful development. It just needs to make the car easier to drive, less peaky and better in slow corners. McLaren could be the second-strongest team, as it was at times last year. There’s a sense of dynasty building at the team. Probably 2026 is the focus for a championship push, but there is reason for optimism. As for Norris, there are some break clauses in his new contract should the team slump. But there’s no reason why Mercedes or Ferrari are better places to be than McLaren. The new deal was also a means of telling the team ‘I’m still your main guy’ in the wake of Piastri’s impressive first season.

The big wildcard

Aston Martin F1 car cornering at Spa

DS: Aston Martin had an odd season in 2023. It overachieved to start with, then fell away and became inconsistent in its competitive level. The investment that team owner Lawrence Stroll has made in terms of personnel, the factory and the wind tunnel – which will be completed this year – should start to be felt. But it’s hard to judge what we should expect from the team this year. 

ES: It’s probably the hardest one to predict. Aston’s span is second best to being stuck in a midfield battle with Alpine. The big question is whether everything that has been thrown at that team can be pulled together to become self-sustaining. It brought in a lot of ideas from other teams, which can serve you very well, but is it continuing to generate those ideas for itself? Aston did get it together again towards the end of last season. So much is right about the team. But one thing that is up for question is the presence of [Lawrence’s son] Lance Stroll in the second seat beside Fernando Alonso. He’s competent, but he’s not worthy of a drive in a top team. It’s the biggest wildcard on the grid.

Four at the back

F1 cars approaching the first corner at the Red Bull Ring

DS: Of the rest, we have a manufacturer team in Alpine that has woefully underperformed; the newly renamed Stake Kick Sauber (formerly Alfa Romeo), which is in a holding pattern before it becomes Audi in 2026; a second comically renamed team – Visa Cash App RB! – that raises awkward ‘copycat’ questions that won’t go away; and Haas under new management following Guenther Steiner’s departure. But the most heartening story at the other end of the grid is the revival of Williams under James Vowles – admittedly from a low base. Alex Albon has rightly gained a lot of credit and there’s plenty of room for more improvement this year.

ES: There are some fundamental limitations with the car that it needs to get right. It was prone to front locking in slow corners, for example. If you said to Williams ‘you will repeat last year and be seventh out of 10 again’, the team would probably be content with that right now. What it can aspire to be is seventh on a pace-based merit. Too many times last year, Albon had to drag a time out of the car when it wasn’t quick. It overachieved. So to manage the same result purely on merit would be a good sign. It’s a bit early to expect more. It’s a long way back after years of underinvestment.

What are we hoping for?

Max Verstappen F1 donut celebration

ES: The recovery of McLaren is the most tantalising aspect, especially with two exciting drivers in Norris and Piastri. Overall, I’m anticipating a season that is a bit less predictable. After all, if Red Bull didn’t exist, last year would have been a classic season. There should be more races where the result is open to the end.

DS: Yes, I agree. There are reasons for optimism in 2024 for Mercedes, Ferrari, certainly McLaren and also Aston Martin. I’m keeping the faith.

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