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Red Bull the main focus as F1 testing starts

F1 pre-season testing: Red Bull main focus as teams prepare for new season

Red Bull will be the focus of attention when Formula 1 pre-season testing starts this week in Bahrain - for reasons both on track and off.

For one thing, the future of team principal Christian Horner is in doubt as a result of an internal investigation being conducted by Red Bull into allegations that the 50-year-old has engaged in inappropriate and controlling behaviour towards a female colleague.

For another, the car Red Bull unveiled at the team's Milton Keynes base last Thursday was a bit of a "wow" moment, even if chief technical officer Adrian Newey insisted that he did not consider it to be any kind of enormous step forward.

The 10 teams have just three days of testing to prepare for the start of the season and can run only one car at a time. So each driver should have no more than a day and a half to become acquainted with his new car in Bahrain.

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso was bemoaning this at the launch of his Aston Martin car a week or so ago. The Spaniard called the paucity of running "unfair".

Alonso is guaranteed to be at the centre of attention this season, given the vacancy at Mercedes next season following Lewis Hamilton's decision to switch to Ferrari. As Alonso put it: "There are three world champions on the grid and I am the only one available."

But the driver market is a discussion for a little way down the road. Right now, even the stars without a seat for 2025 will be focused more on their new steeds than their futures.

Normally, it is hard to divine a clear picture of relative performance from pre-season testing because of the variables of fuel loads, engine modes, track condition, tyres and so on. But last year, the fact that Red Bull's RB19 was in a league of its own was clear from pretty much its first serious run.

By the end of the three days last year, the identity of the 2023 world champion was in not even the slightest doubt, even if no-one expected Max Verstappen and Red Bull to produce the most dominant season in F1 history.

The nine other teams - not to mention everyone with an investment in a competitive, exciting world championship in what will be F1's longest ever season - will be hoping against hope that the same thing does not happen again this week.

What looks so special about Red Bull?

The car launches, held over the past two weeks, were notable for one overriding irony. Many of the cars bore a strong resemblance to last year's Red Bull and incorporated a number of its design features. But the car that looked least like last year's Red Bull was this year's Red Bull.

Horner, whose presence at the launch in the context of the allegations surprised many, said: "It's an evolution of last year's car but it's not conservative and you can see the guys have been quite aggressive in certain areas and still pushing the boundaries. And [we are] conscious that our opponents are still going to be pushing very hard."

The Red Bull maintains the same overall aerodynamic philosophy as before. But Newey and his team have been thinking outside the box.

Red Bull have opened up the sidepod undercut - a crucial part of the design, which guides airflow to the floor edge and rear of the car - even further than before by removing altogether the horizontal cooling duct at its front.

Instead, air intended for the radiators now enters through two narrow vertical slats below the horizontal part of the initial sidepod bodywork. The idea is to free up further space for more air mass to flow down the side of the car - and therefore create more downforce and performance.

Towards the back, the car has two huge tunnels running backwards from the cockpit to the rear of the car. These are reminiscent of a feature on last year's Mercedes but much more pronounced.

The assumption is that these channel air through the car in a way that not only serves for cooling but ensures it disrupts the downforce-producing external air as little as possible, and probably finds a way to enhance it, as it exits towards the rear.

So, has Newey produced another masterstroke? This may not be immediately obvious - and the hope for a competitive year rests on that. Because if the car is as obviously superior to the rest in testing, as its predecessor was, it promises to be a very long year.