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2024 F1 season: Lewis Hamilton’s last dance with Mercedes as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen seeks third world title in a row

By Sam Joseph, CNN

(CNN) — The fearsome sound of V6 engines being fired up at the Bahrain International Circuit can only mean one thing – Formula One is back.

The 2024 campaign will be the longest F1 season in history, featuring 24 race weekends.

After Red Bull Racing superstar Max Verstappen cruised to his third straight World Drivers’ Championship last year, the winter break has produced an abundance of headlines. Here is everything you need to look out for in F1 this year.

How to watch the season opener in Bahrain

The 2024 season starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix after three days of testing in the Middle Eastern nation last week.

F1 race weekends normally run from Friday to Sunday, though in Bahrain, first and second practice will take place on Thursday February 29, third practice and qualifying will happen on Friday March 1 and lights out for the race will be on Saturday March 2.

US viewers can catch every round of the record-setting calendar on ESPN. Qualifying in Bahrain begins at 11 a.m. ET while the race starts at 10 a.m. ET the following day.

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which takes place a week later, will also follow the Thursday-Saturday schedule. Both race weekends are being shifted forward by 24 hours to accommodate Ramadanthe holiest month of the Muslim calendar., which begins on March 10.

Hamilton’s last dance

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s 2024 season heralds the end of an era.

Hamilton stunned the motorsport world when it was announced that he would be leaving Mercedes at the end of the year to join Ferrari for the 2025 campaign.

“It’s been a crazy few days which have been filled with a whole range of emotions. But as you all now know, after an incredible 11 years at Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team, the time has come for me to start a new chapter in my life and I will be joining Scuderia Ferrari in 2025,” Hamilton said on his social media channels earlier this month.

“I feel incredibly fortunate, after achieving things with Mercedes that I could only have dreamed of as a kid, that I now have the chance to fulfil another childhood dream. Driving in Ferrari red.”

The significance of Hamilton’s impending switch was described by F1 broadcaster Will Buxton on social media as the “single biggest driver transfer in the history of the sport.”

However, before the British driver heads to Maranello to replace Carlos Sainz at the Italian outfit, he has a 12th and final year with the Silver Arrows to focus on.

“I want to help Mercedes win once again,” Hamilton wrote. “I am 100% committed to the job I need to do and determined to end my partnership with the team on a high.”

After dominating F1 through the turbo-hybrid era and winning eight Constructors’ titles in a row from 2014 to 2021, Mercedes ceded its position at the top of the sport to Red Bull in the 2022 season after failing to adapt to the new technical regulations introduced that year.

Ferrari have often looked like the team most likely to challenge Red Bull in recent times, with Mercedes’ only win in the previous two years coming through Hamilton’s teammate George Russell in November 2022.

Hamilton himself has not won a race since the penultimate event of the 2021 campaign in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the week before he saw an eighth Drivers’ Championship brutally snatched away from him in Abu Dhabi on the final lap of the Grand Prix.

While it might appear as though Hamilton is jumping ship at the right time, the 39-year-old will be looking to end his illustrious Mercedes career on a positive note.

Can Verstappen and Red Bull do it again?

Red Bull’s 2023 F1 season was the most dominant of all time. The team won 21 out of 22 races, with Verstappen claiming victory a record 19 times en route to a third drivers’ title.

Such was the Dutchman’s dominance, weekends often had a predetermined feel, regardless of where Verstappen started the race, such was the Dutchman’s dominance.

“What’s particularly impressive this year [2023] for Max is that, even if he hasn’t always started at the front, he’s always had the confidence within himself that he can get to the front,” F1 correspondent and presenter Lawrence Barretto told CNN Sport in October.

“And that comes from not only his belief in his own ability, but his belief in the quality of the car and the quality of the team.”

It helps that Verstappen was driving the RB19, a remarkable feat of engineering that many have called the best F1 car of all time and one that has resulted in one of the most potent driver-car combinations the sport has ever seen.

The debate over whether such dominance is good for F1 will rage on, though there will be much interest in whether this year’s offering, the radically redesigned RB20, can replicate this level of control over the rest of the field.

“It’s always going to be hard to try and replicate the year that we’ve had but we always try to learn, try to grow,” Verstappen told CNN at the team’s car launch. “That doesn’t necessarily mean winning the same amount of races but I do think it can be a very competitive car and now it’s up to us to extract the most out of it.”

Red Bull’s season preparations were disrupted by an external investigation into team principal Christian Horner over allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Horner told CNN that he fully denied the allegations. He was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the investigation, the team’s parent company, Red Bull GMBH, announced on Wednesday.

“I’m just pleased that the process is over,” Horner told Sky Sports News, speaking for the first time since the investigation was completed.

“I can’t give you any further comment, but the process has been conducted and concluded.

“Within the team, [unity] has never been stronger,” he added.

It is worth keeping an eye on whether Mercedes and Ferrari can mount some sort of challenge this season, but initial signs at testing last week indicated that Verstappen and Red Bull will continue to dominate.

Silly season

For the first time in F1 history, there have been no changes in any team’s driver lineup between the end of the previous season and the start of the upcoming campaign.

However, the driver market – often referred to as ‘silly season’ by F1 fans – for the 2025 season may make up for that.

As it stands, only Verstappen at Red Bull, Russell at Mercedes, Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, Alex Albon at Williams and Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri at McLaren are known to have contracts with their current teams that extend beyond 2024.

This leaves 14 potential vacancies on the grid for 2025, though one of these spots will be filled by Hamilton at Ferrari.

Two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who is currently employed by Aston Martin, has been linked with a remarkable switch to the Silver Arrows, while 17-year-old Mercedes academy driver Kimi Antonelli is one of the favorites for the role, even though he is yet to compete in his first race in the junior Formula 2 category.

Mercedes could also look to current Ferrari driver and two-time race-winner Sainz, who became collateral damage in the Hamilton saga, though the Spaniard will almost certainly have options across the grid.

Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez will face scrutiny this year after a disappointing 2023 season that saw him finish almost 300 points behind teammate Verstappen in the drivers’ standings.

If the Bulls decide that a change is necessary, one of the most coveted seats in the sport will become available. Daniel Ricciardo – currently with Red Bull’s sister team RB (formerly AlphaTauri) – has been heavily tipped to make a return to the team he drove for from 2014 to 2018.

Aston Martin, Alpine, RB, Sauber and Haas each have both of their drivers on expiring deals and will have choose between attempting to retain their pairings or looking elsewhere in order to move up the grid.

Contracts are also no guarantee in F1 – we have seen deals torn up and buyouts occur in the past. Albon is arguably the grid’s hottest commodity after dragging Williams to seventh place in the Constructors’ standings last year.

Team principal James Vowles confirmed that Albon’s contract runs to the end of 2025, but expect to see the Thai driver’s name linked with the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull throughout the season.

Can a midfield team break into the top three?

In recent years, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari have established somewhat of a ‘Big Three’ in F1, with the teams forming the top three of the Constructors’ standings in seven out of the last eight seasons. Remarkably, only four grands prix have been won by a team outside of this trio in the last 10 years.

Heading into this new campaign, McLaren appear the most likely disruptors to the ‘Big Three.’ After starting the 2023 season on the backfoot, McLaren claimed nine podiums between its two drivers after a mid-season surge in car development and finished fourth overall behind Ferrari.

Aston Martin is also a team looking to make some noise after a promising 2023 season. The 41-year-old Alonso finished on the podium eight times last year and initially appeared to pose a threat to Red Bull’s dominance, though the car’s competitiveness tailed off towards the end of the season.

The team’s position in the standings, however, will likely depend on the fortunes of Lance Stroll – son of team owner Lawrence Stroll – who only accounted for 74 of Aston Martin’s 280 points in 2023.

Alpine are another team to look out for. The French outfit received investment from some big names in the sports world in October – including Kansas City Chiefs superstars Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce – and possesses a reliable driver lineup with Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon behind the wheel. The team will be keen to drop its midfield label and challenge the top three on a regular basis.

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