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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Verstappen eyes 4th title as foes face brutal reality

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PARIS—Max Verstappen looks set to cruise to a fourth consecutive drivers’ title with Red Bull as the dominant team again this year when the curtain rises on Formula One’s longest-ever season in Bahrain.

Whatever the outcome of an independent investigation into allegations of controlling behaviour by team boss Christian Horner, Red Bull have built a crushing level of momentum and a stunning car that oozed potential in pre-season testing.

With stable unchanged regulations and no changes to the driver line-ups, a year of deja vu is in prospect as the F1 circus embarks on a daunting and unprecedented run of 24 race weekends stretching to early December.

Verstappen’s mental strength, the team’s well-oiled winning habit, the design genius of Adrian Newey and an overall sense of ambition and hunger for more success are unlikely to be affected by a leadership change.

After sweeping to a record 21 wins in 22 races last year, with Verstappen claiming a record 19, plus 12 poles and nine fastest laps as he accumulated a staggering total of 575 points, Red Bull have every reason to believe they can stay on top.

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In such a demanding calendar, much will depend on the form of Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, who won twice last year before fading, if the team hope for a clean sweep this time.

After his imperious form in 2023, the 26-year-old Dutchman has every reason to begin this year with a swagger, but he will need help from the Mexican for the team to smash all their own records in an invincible season.

‘Crush competition’

All of their rival teams have improved their cars, as seen in pre-season testing, but none arrived to shine last week with as many updates and revisions as those seen in Red Bull’s RB20, a car that marks the team’s 20th birthday.

“It’s a team that operates at its best when they are winning,” said former Red Bull race winner Daniel Ricciardo, who remains this year with the re-named Red Bull junior team, RB, having shrugged off the Alpha Tauri label.

“When they’re winning, it’s like they just want to crush the competition completely. It’s not like ‘ok, now we’re winning, let’s go on holiday’. It’s like ‘let’s really put our feet down.”

Ferrari, entering a second season under the guidance of Frederic Vasseur as team principal, who has recruited seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton to replace Carlos Sainz in 2025, will be aiming to improve on their one triumph last year.

They believe they have a more reliable car that will transfer qualifying speed into race performance, but as Charles Leclerc admitted after he topped the times on the final day of testing, they have some way to go to catch the runaway Red Bulls.

‘Brutal sport’

Hamilton’s Mercedes team have also improved their car and both he and team-mate George Russell declared it as more “driveable” and comfortable.

“It’s not the ‘diva’ that it has been for the last two years,” he said.

McLaren, similarly, made optimistic noises after testing, but according to Lando Norris remain significantly adrift of Red Bull and Ferrari while of the chasing pack, Aston Martin hold no great hopes.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” said two-time champion Fernando Alonso, 42.

“But Max is world champion and Red Bull are dominating. I think 19 drivers in the paddock now think they won’t win. It happens that way for 99 per cent of your career. It’s a brutal sport.”

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