This was F1’s most dispiriting season opener in decades

Race winner Max Verstappen on the podium/This was F1's most dispiriting season opener in history
Max Verstappen was on average about 0.8 seconds per lap quicker than anyone else in the race - Getty Images/Anadolu

For 24 hours, there was hope that the new Formula One season might not be a straight repeat of Max Verstappen’s crushing dominance of last year. The Dutchman took pole in Bahrain on Saturday, yes, but it was Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari who set the fastest lap of the day.

Not even 10 laps into Saturday’s opening race and those hopes were being cruelly extinguished as Verstappen strolled to a 6.5sec lead in his Red Bull. There was not even the remotest hint of vulnerability over the entire 57-lap distance as he took a 55th career win by 22.4sec. The chasing pack – Ferrari and Mercedes with new-concept cars for this season – would have hoped for even the smallest glimmer but there was none.

This was the most dispiriting start to a Formula One season for decades. Looking at winning margins in the first grand prix of a season alone, this was the largest gap from victor to runner-up since 2014, when Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes beat Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren by 26sec. That at least had the mitigating factor that the other Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton (they won 16 of 19 rounds that year) retired. Excluding that you have to go back to 1996, a time when Max’s dad Jos was on the grid, to find a larger winning margin.

Verstappen’s era eclipses Mercedes domination

It is not just the winning margin that disappoints, though, it is the context in which it occurred. Firstly, Verstappen has now won 29 of the last 34 races. True, Mercedes went through periods of similar success, winning 35 of 40 across the 2015 and 2016 seasons. That was not great to see either, but the wins (20-15 to Hamilton) and championships (one each) were shared between their drivers. Hamilton was always the favourite, but he had genuine competition. The pretence that Sergio Perez could challenge team-mate Verstappen over a season is long gone.

Red Bull enjoyed yet another one-two result at the Bahrain Grand Prix
Red Bull enjoyed yet another one-two result at the Bahrain Grand Prix - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon

The regularity with which Verstappen won in 2023, and with great ease, is a testament to his and his team’s brilliance. Yet its repetition dulls the spectacle, dampens enthusiasm and eradicates any jeopardy. These are all things F1 needs if it wishes to keep the enormous audience of new fans it has earned over the last five years.

The start of any F1 season with all its unknowns brings all of the above to varying degrees. It would be disingenuous to say that anyone truly expected Verstappen to be beaten or even pushed that far in the opening round. Yet so little has changed from the end of last season to this. Ferrari may say that they halved the deficit to Verstappen since the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix, but the gap at the end was where it was at the end of last season. The repeated line that it is a tight and hard-fought battle behind Verstappen does not wash. There is something to enjoy in that but who wins races and championships is what matters.

Mid-field race has become predictable

Even outside of the top five teams, what are the other interesting on-track storylines on the grid? The same 20 drivers are driving for the same 10 teams as they were in Abu Dhabi last year. No team has made a significant jump up the grid like Aston Martin did in 2023. Haas exceeding their very low pre-season expectations is about as good as it got. The only thing that in any way surprises or intrigues is Alpine’s baffling yet predictable tendency to get the worst out of their significant resources.

The Alpine duo of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly finished in 17th and 18th place respectively
The Alpine duo of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly finished in 17th and 18th place respectively - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon

Of course, this was only one race over a long season and Verstappen will have times where it is not so easy. But he will also likely have races where it is easier, and there is no doubt that he did not fully extend his talents on Saturday. He did not need to. His advantage in races has been so large – and usually accumulated so early – that we are robbed of tactical and strategic intrigue. F1 thrives on uncertainty but how many times last season was a Verstappen win under threat? In any case, he is the fastest driver in the fastest car – with seemingly bulletproof reliability – but he also has the best team strategically and operationally behind him. Where are the weaknesses?

Superiority in 2024 will impact 2025 too

The performance gap that Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren need to close appears enormous. We should expect them to improve throughout the year but the reality is that Red Bull are likely to be so far ahead in both championships that they can then (as they did last season) pour resources into developing next year’s car over the RB20. The prospect of this competitive stasis is difficult to stomach – and there could be another 23 rounds of this to endure.