F1 curtain raiser brings mixed returns for Christian Horner and Red Bull

<span>Max Verstappen and Christian Horner enjoy their race win in Bahrain after a drama-filled week at Red Bull.</span><span>Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images</span>
Max Verstappen and Christian Horner enjoy their race win in Bahrain after a drama-filled week at Red Bull.Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Horner’s career remains in the balance

Christian Horner has endured a torrid month as team principal of Red Bull after the allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him by a female employee. On Wednesday in Bahrain he was cleared by the investigation the team’s parent company had instigated. He must have felt as if the worst was over – only for an email to be leaked on Thursday to F1, teams, press, and the FIA that contained images purporting to show messages between Horner and the employee who made the complaint. Their veracity has not been proved but it was enough to reignite the furore and pile pressure on to Horner.

He and Red Bull battened down the hatches refusing to comment on the leak, nor to confirm or deny whether the messages were real. Other teams meanwhile demanded transparency. F1 and the FIA are understood to be deeply concerned about the impact it is having on the sport. Horner was bullish after the race, insisting he is going nowhere, but given all that has happened his position remains precarious – not least while Max Verstappen’s father Jos, who denied being behind the leaked email, made his position crystal clear on Saturday. “There is tension here while he remains in position,” he said. “The team is in danger of being torn apart.”

Related: Verstappen and Red Bull resume normal F1 business with Bahrain GP one-two – as it happened

Verstappen once more on top

When the weekend opened Max Verstappen was testy in the car, unhappy with the balance on his first time out in practice for the new season. He did not deliver a definitively dominant lap throughout practice, indeed not until qualifying. Then having honed the performance he had the car at his fingertips. He put it on pole by two-tenths from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. It was the race pace that was feared most and so it proved. The Dutchman was up to a second a lap faster than the rest of the field for large parts of the race. The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, described Verstappen and the car as being in a different galaxy and he and several drivers as good as conceded the championship was already decided. What will be of even more concern was that Verstappen almost certainly had much much more in reserve.

Mercedes have progress to make

By the standards of the past two years this remains an optimistic opening for Mercedes. George Russell and Lewis Hamilton managed only fifth and seventh, but they are at least for once happy that the car is a solid and reliable building block. Russell noted that the rear instability that plagued previous iterations has been cured, giving both drivers a confidence to commit to corners they have not felt for some time. Their race was severely hampered by a cooling problem that meant they had to turn the engines down on both cars.

Ferrari lead the chase

Ferrari demonstrated in Bahrain they are at the front of the challenge to catch Red Bull and they, too, believe they are in a far better position this year to close the gap and challenge for wins. The drivers have expressed much more confidence with the car from the off and Carlos Sainz, who was third, finished within 2.5 seconds of the second Red Bull of Sergio Pérez. Notably also his gap to Verstappen at 25 seconds was almost half what it had been at the start of 2023. Clearly it is still a vast gulf but team principal Fred Vasseur expected for a more realistic picture of the gap to emerge at the next two rounds in Saudi Arabia and Australia.

Alpine have a mountain to climb

Even for a manufacturer who has had a five-year plan to return to fighting for championships for getting on for close to five years, this was a woeful start. Expectations had not been high to begin with given that the car, the A524, was overweight, lacking aerodynamic performance and traction and had struggled in testing but with the gloves off the scale of the problem became startlingly clear. Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly qualified at the back of the grid and finished in 17th and 18th. After the race it was reported that two key members of the team have already handed in their resignations, the technical director Matt Harman and head of aerodynamics Dirk de Beer. Alpine have yet to confirm the news but it is believed they both gave in their notice last month. The team principal Bruno Famin admitted the performance had not been unexpected. “We knew the start of the season was going to be difficult and that has been the case in Bahrain,” he said.