Practice in Bahrain starts a marathon F1 year after a dramatic off-season

Practice in Bahrain starts a marathon F1 year after a dramatic off-season


After the most dramatic off-season in recent Formula 1 history comes its longest-ever season.

Thursday practice for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix begins the first of 24 race weekends this season. Champion Max Verstappen is among several drivers raising concerns about the impact of a relentless schedule.

Ahead of practice in Bahrain, the focus is on Red Bull and its team principal Christian Horner, who is set to continue in his job following an allegation of misconduct against a team employee. The team's parent company in Austria said Wednesday that a grievance made against him had been dismissed after an investigation.

Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner arrives at the Bahrain International Circuit ahead of the first practice session of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in Sakhir on February 29, 2024. 

Also this off-season, seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton stunned the sport by announcing he is moving to Ferrari next year. The switch surprised his current team, Mercedes, and even his parents. Netflix star Guenther Steiner was removed from his role leading the Haas team.

It's been a lot for drivers and F1 fans to follow even before a marathon season begins.

All three of the current and former champions on the grid - Hamilton, Verstappen and Fernando Alonso - agree 24 races push the limits of what F1 drivers and team members can take.

"When I started we had 16 races,” two-time champion Alonso, who has a record 377 career race starts, said Wednesday. "Now we are up to 24 and this is not sustainable for the future for anyone.”

"I feel already that we are way over the limit of races," said Verstappen, who questioned if some drivers might "start shortening their careers” over the workload. Since Liberty Media took over F1 ahead of the 2017 season, the number of races has risen from 20.

The growth is driven by Liberty's strategy of staging races in destination cities like Las Vegas, Miami, the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah and from 2026, the Spanish capital Madrid.

Aston Martin's Spanish driver Fernando Alonso arrives at the Bahrain International Circuit ahead of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in Sakhir on February 28, 2024.

Verstappen's Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez voiced concern for staff on F1 teams who, he said, seemed exhausted at the final races of last year.

"I remember seeing a lot of zombies in Abu Dhabi, after Vegas,” he said Wednesday. "We are trying to basically put some points across that it’s not only for the drivers, to be honest. There’s a lot of mechanics, engineers and basically they travel the world weekend after weekend, a lot of hours on the planes."

The record season means an extended goodbye for Hamilton, who is leaving Mercedes at the end of the season to join Ferrari, and raised concerns over how the expanded calendar might worsen F1's impact on the environment.

Preseason testing last week at the same track in Bahrain was twice disrupted by drain covers flying off and leaving debris across the track - prompting Verstappen to voice concerns over safety - but that problem has now been solved for now.

Modern F1 cars' powerful ground-effect aerodynamics generate grip between the floor and the track surface but that force can also pull loose items away from the ground.

Carlos Sainz Jr.’s Ferrari was badly damaged by a water valve cover in practice for the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November, underlining the risks to drivers.