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F1’s longest season set to kick off after an eventful off-season

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen prepares for the first practice session ahead of the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, on February 29, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

After the most dramatic offseason in recent Formula 1 history comes its longest ever season.

Thursday practice for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix launches the first of 24 race weekends. Champion Max Verstappen — sixth in the first practice — is among several drivers raising concerns about the impact of a relentless schedule.

As practice got underway, the focus remained on Red Bull and its team principal Christian Horner. He remains in charge after the team’s parent company in Austria said on Wednesday that a grievance made against him was dismissed after an internal investigation.

Also this offseason, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton stunned the series by announcing he is moving to Ferrari next year. The switch surprised his current team, Mercedes, and even his parents. Also, Netflix star Guenther Steiner was removed from his role leading the Haas team.

It’s been a lot for drivers and F1 fans to follow even before a marathon season begins.

All three past and present champions on the grid — Hamilton, Verstappen and Fernando Alonso — agree 24 races push the limits of what F1 drivers and team members can take.

“When I started we had 16 races,” said two-time champion Alonso, who has a record 377 career race starts. “Now we are up to 24 and this is not sustainable for the future for anyone.” “I feel already that we are way over the limit of races,” said Verstappen, who questioned if some drivers might “start shortening their careers” over the workload.

Since Liberty Media took over F1 before the 2017 season, the number of races has risen from 20.

The growth is driven by Liberty’s strategy of staging races in destination cities like Las Vegas, Miami, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and, from 2026, Madrid.

Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez voiced concern for staff on F1 teams who, he said, seemed exhausted at the final races last year.

“I remember seeing a lot of zombies in Abu Dhabi, after Vegas,” he said. “We are trying to basically put some points across that it’s not only for the drivers, to be honest. There’s a lot of mechanics, engineers and basically they travel the world weekend after weekend, a lot of hours on the planes.” This record season means an extended goodbye for Hamilton, who is leaving Mercedes at the end to join Ferrari, and raised concerns over how the expanded calendar might worsen F1’s impact on the environment.

Daniel Ricciardo was a surprise leader in the first practice for Red Bull’s second team, the newly renamed RB, formerly known as AlphaTauri. The two McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri were second and third fastest.

Practice in Bahrain was widely seen as a continuation of last week’s preseason testing at the same track as teams tried out setups and strategies. The daytime conditions were not representative of qualifying and the race, which will be held in the evenings.

Testing was twice disrupted by drain covers flying off and leaving debris across the track — prompting Verstappen to voice concerns over safety — but that problem has been solved for now.

Rain isn’t a major concern in Bahrain so problem drains at two corners have simply been filled in with concrete.

Modern F1 cars’ powerful ground-effect aerodynamics generate grip between the floor and the track surface but that force can also pull loose items away from the ground.

Carlos Sainz Jr.’s Ferrari was badly damaged by a water valve cover in practice for the Las Vegas GP in November, underlining the risks to drivers. (AP) DDV

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