Will F1 2024 go back to ‘normal’ as Red Bull flexes its Barcelona muscle?

The 2024 Formula 1 season has become a  three or even four-horse race in recent races, but Red Bull is keen to re-assert its dominance on circuits that suit its car much better.

McLaren and Ferrari had both been closing the gap to Red Bull since their respective upgrades in Miami and Imola. And in Canada, Mercedes joined the fray to make it a four-way battle as it hit a sweet spot with its own iterative upgrades.

The increased competition has injected new life into the series after Max Verstappen’s and Red Bull’s 2023 walkover.

Over the past four races the pole-winning margin to second – a car from a different team every time – was 0.141s, 0.091s, 0.154s and 0.000s, the latter courtesy of the epic dead heat between George Russell and Verstappen in Montreal.

Winning margins have decreased too, all the way down to less than a second at a close Imola showdown that saw Verstappen fend off McLaren’s Lando Norris.

But the elephant in the room is that the past four races all took place on technical circuits with lots of bumps and kerbs that kept poking Red Bull’s Achilles heel, and just a few high-speed swoops where the RB20 could stretch its legs.

Both drivers were clearly struggling with the car’s recalcitrant behaviour, which has badly affected Sergio Perez’s confidence. But Verstappen still won two of the past four races, which could be an ominous sign for the traditional circuits of Barcelona, Austria, and Silverstone that form 2024’s first triple-header.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, lifts the winner's trophy

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, lifts the winner’s trophy

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Charles Leclerc already cautioned that “the strength of Red Bull will be more visible on a track like Barcelona”, and Russell echoed the Ferrari’s drivers warning shot in similar wordings.

Red Bull is confident that they will be proven right.

“Yes, that race will give a clear picture,” Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko told “Barcelona is a proper racing track and therefore it will give us a good indication of what is coming for Austria, Silverstone and so on. We think Barcelona should be ‘okay’ for us, normally.”

Team boss Christian Horner was equally bullish after Red Bull made it through its roughest run of circuits pretty much unscathed, and with two race wins and poles too.

“The last couple of races have been more choppy waters for us, but we have still managed to win two out of the last three races,” Horner said. “We had a pole in Imola, we managed to match the pole time [in Montreal] with a car that both drivers are feeling the deficiencies [of].”

But there is less of a consensus over who will be the Milton Keynes-based outfit’s closest chaser because the differences are so small that it’s too close to call and much more track-specific.

McLaren can claim to have been the most consistent challenger in recent weeks, scoring between 27 and 30 points for five consecutive race weekends. It too is heading to circuits where its MCL38 should be strong on paper, having been a major force towards the latter half of 2023 in high-speed corners.

A lot of its recent form has been down to unlocking a lot more performance in low-speed sections, but the team hopes that hasn’t compromised its high-downforce prowess.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38

Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL38

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“I think we can still be confident,” Oscar Pastri said. “I wouldn’t say we’re weak in high speed, it’s just that others have probably caught up a little bit. I’m pretty confident we’ll be somewhere towards the front. Red Bull will probably be a bit stronger than they have been, but we’ll be in the fight.”

Ferrari showed in Montreal just how heavily set-up or other mistakes can be punished, with both cars going out in Q2. Its nightmare weekend continued on Sunday, with both Leclerc and Sainz retiring from a wet-to-dry race.

But all signs point to its horror show being a one-off, and team boss Vasseur certainly wasn’t going to let one poor weekend disrupt the team’s recent upward trajectory.

“We will have good weekends and bad weekends but what is important is to keep the same approach, continue to develop, continue to fix the issues and not bring down the motivation,” he said.

“We are not world champions after a good weekend and we are not nowhere after a tough weekend. We will be back in Spain and back on the pace.”

Mercedes is perhaps facing the biggest weekend of the three, as it will want to confirm whether or not its new front wing can yield similar gains on a completely different type of circuit, having also brought an updated floor to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

“I really think our performance step is true and it’s real,” said Russell after being in contention for a win on Montreal.

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, 3rd position, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, 2nd position, on the podium with Champagne

George Russell, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team, 3rd position, Lando Norris, McLaren F1 Team, 2nd position, on the podium with Champagne

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“I think we can be in this fight with McLaren, let’s hope we can continue being in the fight with Max, and let’s see with Ferrari, they obviously had a bit of an off-weekend.

Team principal Toto Wolff added: “Since Imola, we’ve taken the right steps and put parts on the car that are working. We seem to be adding performance every weekend. We have new parts coming in Barcelona that should help us, so I would very much hope that we can continue this positive trajectory.”

When asked about Mercedes’ surge, Norris said: “If they’re quicker in the next few races too, and join the fight of Ferrari, Red Bull, and us, then it’s only going to make our life more exciting and more stressful,” Norris said.

“Now there will probably be eight cars which are fighting up there, so it’s exciting for us and everyone watching.”

Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes all duking it out until the summer break is certainly an exciting proposition.

The big question, however, is whether or not Red Bull will be in front of all of them. And by how much?

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