Halftime Sports

F1 recap: Verstappen domination continues, but off-track storylines steal the spotlight

March 22, 2024

The 2024 Formula 1 season kicked off in Bahrain on the weekend of Feb. 29 with the traditional schedule: Friday practice sessions, Saturday qualifying, and a race on Sunday.

Despite the pressure of high expectations from competitors and fans alike, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has continued his historic run. The three-time world champion picked up the first win of the season with a strong performance, leading all 57 laps of the race. His teammate, Sergio Perez, followed, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz rounding out the podium. In addition to Red Bull’s one-two finish, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren, and Aston Martin both had drivers score points (top 10 finish).

The second race in Saudi Arabia was more of the same, with another Verstappen win—his 100th career podium finish. Red Bull is primed for a repeat championship, with Perez finishing second again. While 21 races on the circuit remain, it may take an act of God to prevent another Red Bull victory.

Carlos Sainz’s hospitalization gives 18-year old an unexpected debut

Despite participating in the initial practice session for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Carlos Sainz left with appendicitis, rendering himself ineligible for the race on Sunday.

In his place, Ollie Bearman, Ferrari’s reserve driver, got a call-up. Despite being the youngest driver in the team’s history, he qualified just outside the top 10 and then finished 7th in the race on Sunday.

“It’s not the circumstances I wanted to make my debut…through the misfortune of someone else, but it was a great opportunity,” said Bearman in a Scuderia Ferrari interview, reflecting on the race.

With several driver contracts set to expire in the near future, Bearman’s future as a full-time driver looks promising. Among these teams, American-owned Haas is regarded as the front-runner. Both of Haas’s drivers, Niko Hülkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, will become free agents after this season. Furthermore, Bearman already has the relational infrastructure with Haas as he’s one of the team’s reserve drivers (F1 allows drivers to be in reserve for multiple teams; Bearman is a reserve for both Ferrari and Haas).

As for Sainz, his operation cruised smoothly, and he will return to the grid for the Australian Grand Prix later this month.

Lewis Hamilton’s new contract

Lewis Hamilton, seven-time World Drivers’ Championship (WDC) winner, has recently announced that he will be leaving Mercedes for Ferrari at the conclusion of the 2024 season. Arguably the greatest driver in the sport’s history, he was instrumental in helping Mercedes win eight straight Constructors’ Championships from 2014 to 2021. 

Despite the glowing resume, Hamilton’s performance has not been up to par recently. While he did finish third (behind the two Red Bull drivers) in 2023, he has finished a mere seventh and ninth in the first two races of the 2024 season (both behind his teammate George Russell). Each off-season, the FIA implements engineering regulations to promote safety and foster a more competitive racing environment. In developing changes to their 2022 car, Mercedes suffered suspension issues, and each solution implemented resulted in unfamiliarity for the drivers. Perhaps Ferrari will give him an opportunity to win the coveted eighth WDC championship. He is currently tied with Michael Schumacher for the all-time lead with seven titles.

With Hamilton joining Ferrari, that leaves Carlos Sainz, an upcoming free agent, out of a job. Sainz, who finished seventh in 2023 and is currently sixth this year, will be highly coveted this offseason with Red Bull, Aston Martin, or even swapping with Hamilton at Mercedes all being options for the experienced driver. 

Christian Horner controversy and the future of Red Bull Racing

In February, Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, received allegations of sexual misconduct. Horner denied the accusations and declined to comment further, and an investigation conducted by Red Bull dismissed the claims made by the whistleblower.

However, only one day after the internal investigation, a Google Drive folder containing explicit photos and texts was leaked to F1’s governing body’s (FIA) president, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, rival team principals, and prominent Formula 1 reporters. Since the source could not be verified, Horner labeled it as speculation.

While the FIA released a statement saying it could not yet provide a comment on the accusations, Max’s father, Jos Verstappen, stated that Horner’s employment will only hinder the team’s success, while denying having a role in the initial leak.

Max Verstappen defended his father against the accusations but reaffirmed his commitment to the team, quieting rumors of a potential move in the off-season.

Adding to the controversy, the employee who initially accused Horner had been suspended from the team for unknown reasons. In response, Horner reaffirmed his commitment to his wife and three children and urged the Formula 1 community to move forward.

As the sport travels to Australia this upcoming weekend, Max Verstappen and Red Bull will look to continue their historic run, while young drivers will look to prove themselves. It’s hard to predict the drama to ensue, but it’s already looking like 2024 will give the next season of “Drive to Survive” plenty of exciting storylines, reminding fans that Formula One is much more than what’s shown on the track.

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