Searching for a reason to get excited about the new F1 season? Try Ferrari

I know, it’s been a tough start to the new Formula 1 season if you’re anything but a Red Bull fan. And let’s be honest, it probably hasn’t been completely fun even if you are.

But for those looking for something to cling onto in the hope of more competitive times ahead, there have actually been some encouraging signs from the opening two races that deserve a bit of recognition.

Sure, Max Verstappen has taken two comfortable victories from pole position, and Sergio Perez has backed him up with second place each time even though it has always been Charles Leclerc starting on the front row so far, but Ferrari is steadily closing in on Red Bull.


Cast your mind back 12 months, and the competitive picture was very different. Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso picked up podiums in each of the first three races – and six of the first eight – “due to other teams underperforming,” as team principal Mike Krack put it.

It’s tough to disagree with him. McLaren was absolutely nowhere at the start of 2023, while Mercedes and Ferrari were both trying to get on top of troublesome cars. For Mercedes it was the extension of problems that team has faced ever since the new regulations were introduced, but at Ferrari it was a little more unexpected after a strong start to the previous year.

Bahrain should have yielded a podium last season of course, but reliability problems struck Leclerc and he lost third place. That also led to a grid penalty that dropped him from the front row to 12th in Jeddah, but Carlos Sainz started fourth and right in the mix.

Last year’s Ferrari was temperamental though, particularly in the first half of the year. While the safety car timing in Saudi Arabia last season didn’t play into the Scuderia’s hands, it did leave a 30-lap run to the flag where Sainz had started fifth, dropped to sixth and ended up nearly 36 seconds adrift of race-winner Perez.

For the sake of making the comparison, it’s also fair to suggest that had Verstappen started on pole position – as he did this year – rather than 15th due to a driveshaft failure, then the gap could well have been bigger. Perez performed excellently and had an answer to Verstappen’s threat in the second half of that particular race, but it was the Dutchman who tended to get more out of the RB19.

This time around, both Verstappen and Leclerc enjoyed far smoother weekends in Jeddah. Verstappen took pole and was never threatened, while Leclerc slotted into third behind Perez and had a lonely run to the flag. There was another safety car, too, but one that was cleared by the end of lap 9, so the sample set was 41 laps of clean running rather than 30.

Ferrari’s not ready to go toe-to-toe with Red Bull every weekend yet, but the team has been on a good trajectory since last year’s Dutch GP. Dom Romney/Motorsport Images

In that context, Leclerc’s final deficit of 18.6 seconds, and the fastest lap to boot, really is reason to be more optimistic.

The halving of the gap should be taken as more of a general sign given all the differences between the two races, but the direction Ferrari has been headed in since the Dutch Grand Prix last year is clearly the right one. Leclerc himself has said momentum has been building since that point, and the team has understood what it needs to be working on from Zandvoort onwards.

It has delivered on that this year with a more complaint car that appears to be a stronger all-rounder, too. Ollie Bearman’s impressive debut is not only a great sign for the 18-year-old, it’s also testament to Ferrari’s 2024 car that the rookie could get into it and feel so comfortable pushing close to the limit almost instantly.

Plus, Jeddah was never likely to be Ferrari’s strongest track this season, although it might have expected to be more competitive in Bahrain. So there is still a lot to be learned about where it could end up closest to Red Bull.

If we remember that it also took until after the summer break last year for the Scuderia to understand where it needed to be focusing and how to make this generation of car work, then it wouldn’t be completely crazy to hope for the current improvement rate to continue. After all, Ferrari ended up third in the constructors’ championship last season, so has more wind tunnel and CFD time available to it than Red Bull to be able to develop this car, and appears to have a reliable idea of how to do so.

All of that doesn’t account for McLaren’s far better starting position than a year ago, either. Under Andrea Stella, McLaren was confident it would make major strides during 2023 and duly did so, and this year it has also promised more performance from the car’s first significant upgrades, with the aim of moving alongside Ferrari to vie for the right to be Red Bull’s biggest threat.

I know, I’m clutching at straws, but even amid last year’s immense dominance, the races where Verstappen was truly pushed by the likes of Leclerc or Lando Norris were far more entertaining. Las Vegas was a particular highlight on a track that worked for Ferrari, and Singapore showed  Red Bull can get its set-up wrong, too.

Simply reducing the deficit over a race distance – as Ferrari appears to have done so far – opens up the possibility for more occasions where Red Bull is under threat if it doesn’t execute perfectly.

Perhaps Mercedes is the only team that isn’t speaking as confidently as it was during pre-season, as the team is still unable to run the W15 in a way that lets it extract the performance it believes to be within the concept. That’s an ongoing struggle since 2022 that it has yet to resolve, and leaves it needing to conduct experiments this weekend to try and understand where to go next.

But with Ferrari and McLaren in better shape and continuing to head in the right direction, there’s a little more confidence that we’ll see some truly competitive races at the front at certain times this season.

(Hey, I said a little…)

Story originally appeared on Racer