Red Bull's better tire options further dampen the hopes of Formula 1 rivals at the Bahrain Grand Prix

The pace of the RB20 in the world champion's hands throughout practice and qualifying has highlighted the advantage he has over the opposition at the moment.

Despite the close competition for the top spots on the grid – Charles Leclerc's best lap in Q2 was actually good enough for pole – few expect much hope of holding a candle to him around Sakhir on Saturday.

As Ferrari's Carlos Sainz said about the deficit to Red Bull in qualifying looking closer than last year: “Let's wait until the race. I think that's where they suddenly raised the bar and that's where they were able to go downhill that no one could.” He suffers from a racing pace that no one else can possess.

“I think last year, if you look at the last eight races: in qualifying, we were always there, within reach, and this year we again felt like we were within reach in qualifying. [pace]. In the race? we will see.”

But if the performance deficit to Verstappen has left rivals feeling their chances are slim, there is more bad news for them, because Red Bull also has a tire strategy advantage ahead of the Grand Prix.

After almost slipping under the radar, Red Bull chose to move away from early soft tires in final practice and opted to use hard tires instead.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB20

Photography: Mark Sutton / Motorsport pictures

This means that for the race, Red Bull duo Verstappen and Sergio Perez have a new soft cloth available, while all major rivals have only used one.

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Here is a brief overview of the available frame combinations:

For a high-grip track like Bahrain, it might seem counterintuitive to feel that the extra soft tire is a benefit, but things are that way here because the medium tire is not a particularly good tire for racing.

As Pirelli's Mario Isola explained: “The average is very close in terms of delta time with stiffness but with higher degradation. This means there is no real advantage with it.”

Thus, the characteristics of the medium push the front runners into the soft mode, especially in the starting and opening phase.

“I think the majority of cars, or at least the cars in front of them, will start on soft roads, otherwise they will lose a lot of position on the track,” Isola added.

“The cycle time delta between soft and hard is large. Soft/medium is 1.2 seconds, and medium/hard is 0.3-0.4 seconds, so it means you have 1.5 seconds between hard and soft. That's a lot.” .

He continued: “So if you start from the difficult area and you are in the front, with some possibility of overtaking, you will start losing positions on the track.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing Team, receives Pirelli's first place award from DJ Z

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing Team, receives Pirelli's first place award from DJ Z

Photography: Simon Galloway / Motorsport pictures

The strategy of having the soft tire as the tire of choice in the first stint, with the extra grip off the line – plus the extra tire life it provides – gives Red Bull a very good cushion compared to other tyres.

Sainz estimated Red Bull's advantage was around two or three seconds during that first stint.

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In addition, it also indicates that Red Bull has chosen the same soft-hard strategy that it used so well to dominate last year. Others with a couple of difficulties available may choose the more conservative route.

Red Bull's car design, long-term form and tire strategy choices all culminate in letting the rest of the field accept that there is one clear favorite and that is the first Formula 1 race of 2024.

“The gap in qualifying was probably a little closer to Max than we all expected, but I think the race pace is what's most important. We're probably expecting a half-second deficit,” said George Russell, who will start the race from third. “That's what we thought after the test.”

When asked by if he had seen anything in the data this weekend that would give hope that someone might take the fight to Verstappen, Isola was quick to respond.

He smiled, “Max is so strong, I can’t tell any lies.” “You can see that in the lap times, both in testing and yesterday. I hope the others are close but I think he still has the advantage.”

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