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    5. Formula 1 could have become boring – but a shake-up ..


    Formula 1 could have become boring – but a shake-up in the off-season changed the situation

    The 2024 season will be Lewis Hamilton's (left) last with Mercedes. Photo: Getty Images

    Formula 1 ultimately sells itself like a soap opera, a nine-month psychodrama that combines luxurious surroundings with bouts of driven selfishness. Judged by this standard, the 2024 edition has the potential, even before testing this week in Bahrain, to rank as one of the most exciting editions.

    Lewis Hamilton, who spent his entire career with Mercedes-Benz, begins to bid farewell to the Silver Arrows before donning the red robe of Ferrari. At 42, Fernando Alonso says he is an “attractive” candidate to succeed the seven-time world champion. And at the center of it all, Christian Horner, Red Bull's one-man promotional machine, is under investigation for alleged controlling behavior towards an employee, an allegation he vehemently denies.

    It's a reminder of how multi-layered Formula 1 theater can be. Even if you were left cold by Max Verstappen's unstoppable dominance last season, the 12 weeks since his last victory in Abu Dhabi have reminded us that there is little certainty in this world. Hamilton, for all his professed undying love for Mercedes, sees a clearer path to a record eighth title at the Prancing Horse. And the future of Horner, the man who oversaw Red Bull's transformation from party team to ruthless winners, depends on an independent investigation into his conduct.

    We have yet to see the car on the track, but the producers of Drive to Survive already have a year's worth of material. This time there is no need to create any hysteria, which Verstappen once accused the Netflix series of. Hamilton's move to Ferrari is a heaven-sent saga, a marriage between Formula One's most decorated driver and its most eternally glamorous marque. When will he start learning Italian? Will he be able to mold the Scuderia around himself, as Michael Schumacher once did? Will Mercedes keep him out of briefings now that they know he's heading to Maranello? He notes that his 12th and final season will be “emotional” but also full of suspense.

    With Horner, the equation is more complex. The exact nature of the charges brought against him has not been disclosed. So last week Red Bull found themselves in the absurd position of having to start their car when all anyone wanted to ask about was the shenanigans involving the man in charge. Elsewhere in the corporate world, an executive leading such a case can expect to be suspended pending a decision. The fact that Horner was instead put at the center of the team's media spotlight only made matters worse. He looked and sounded exhausted, forced to repeat the same lines about the “ongoing process.” Not surprisingly, he sarcastically asked off-camera if the journalists had any questions about the cooling ducts.

    Christian Horner is under investigation after allegations of inappropriately controlling behavior against a female colleague. Photo: Lynn Sladky/AP

    If the Horner controversy drags on, the “business as usual” façade will not be maintained. That was the clear implication of a statement issued by Formula 1 on Sunday, calling for “details to be clarified as soon as possible.” Storm clouds may still be swirling ahead of the opening race in Sakhir on March 2, so what then? Red Bull cannot afford to see Verstappen's victory marred by yet another uncomfortable cross-examination. Horner may enjoy shaping the narrative – especially on his Netflix platform, where last year he told Toto Wolff to “change his damn car.” But even in his worst nightmares he could not imagine that he would be able to monopolize such headlines.

    You sense that Mercedes is being very careful in protecting Hamilton from Ferrari's too-quick attention. The unveiling of their W15 car was a stunningly low-budget production, filmed in a dimly lit garage and allowing only one mention of the seismic departure of their superstar. After all, there will be plenty of time to explore his motivation for leaving once the 24-race marathon begins. And if Verstappen is on the horizon again, Hamilton is certain, no matter the pace of Ferrari's recovery, to be the only legitimate contender for 2025.

    If you think about it, just three months ago Formula 1 was teetering on the brink of regression. Verstappen's dominance, winning 19 races during the season (for all their pomp, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel never won more than 13), was a turning point. The exciting hype surrounding the Las Vegas Grand Prix could not disguise the shortcomings of the fans: those who were denied the opportunity to participate in the postponed practice were given coupons for goods that would not even buy them a Ferrari jersey. Worse, the movement between the teams became static: for the first time next season, the sport was approaching the same driver lineup as the year before.

    Hamilton's blockbuster Ferrari made all that a distant memory. But that's just the capping offseason storyline, replete with subplots ranging from Andretti's rejection of an offer to join as the 11th team to the ousting of Guenther Steiner just as the Haas leader's profanity had elevated him to cult status around the world. From the boardroom to the track, it feels like Formula 1 is recapturing the charm of the past.

    Before the Red Bull-Mercedes duopoly emerged in 2010, it was the site of endless scams. You had Flavio Briatore's Crashgate disgrace, McLaren's record Spygate penalty, not to mention the complicated power dynamic between the incorrigible Bernie Ecclestone and the aristocratic Max Mosley. The arrival of Liberty Media in 2017 has made the show flashier but perhaps tidier, with the corporate sheen of the American owners a pale substitute for Ecclestone's provocative speech.

    Events of the last 90 days show that the reporting of Formula One is emasculating premature. Hamilton's final stint at Ferrari is a truly exciting prospect and could once again set a date for racing viewing. For the first time in years, the traditional shenanigans are back, with one iconic driver reinventing himself and one talkative team boss under siege. At its best, Formula One is a vast human tapestry, revealing key players at their most ruthless and most vulnerable. This year's epic drama, built on the drama of foreplay, is set to be all that and more.

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