It doesn’t feel like more than a few weeks ago that the 2023 season was wrapping up in Abu Dhabi, but after the drama of conflict of interest allegations and a short Christmas break, the new year has already been packed full of storylines.

Car launches are one thing, but Guenther Steiner’s dismissal as Haas team principal and fresh contracts for Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris now feel like distant memories following news of Lewis Hamilton’s blockbuster move to Ferrari in 2025, and the ongoing investigation being faced by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

It might add up to a less quiet off-season than in the past, but for many of those involved in the news cycle, the return of track action is going to be a welcome point of focus, with testing kicking off on Wednesday at the now-traditional venue of the Bahrain International Circuit.

Before pointing out some of the main topics to look out for on the track, there is another one that was raised by Fernando Alonso that feels like it needs addressing as I make my way to the Middle East. And that’s the fact that a World Championship that claims to be the pinnacle of motorsport gives drivers just one and a half days of testing each before the opening race.

“I’ve been thinking all winter about this, how unfair it is that we only have one day and a half to prepare our championship,” Alonso said. “There is no other sport in the world with all the money involved and all the marketing and the good things that we say about Formula 1, and being closer and closer to the fans… I cannot understand why we don’t go to Bahrain for four days, which could be two and two for the drivers.

“If you go to three, which is an odd number, you cannot divide between the drivers. I don’t know why we don’t go with two cars, because we are in Bahrain, and we race there the following week.”

Granted, each race does come with practice time, but Alonso’s got a point. Not just from a preparation standpoint for the drivers, but also in terms of building interest and excitement for the coming season.

Those various stories I mentioned earlier have played a role in keeping Formula 1 in the limelight, but with the ever-expanding schedule now seeing the first race weekend begin at the end of February and run into December, there is little room for F1 to be missed.

I look at the IndyCar schedule and feel the excitement builds over a longer period and increases the value of that opening race, but also each individual event, too. From an F1 perspective, giving teams more time to work on new cars, creating a buzz during a bigger break and ramping that up with more winter testing opportunities – akin to the extended pre-seasons seen in other sports – could work. It certainly feels like a better balance could be struck, rather than more races simply crammed in.

All of that will be moot, though, if Red Bull is roped into a championship battle this season, because excitement will build rapidly. And this week will provide the first indicators of whether that’s a realistic proposition.

The RB20 is absolutely the car to watch. Not because others can’t have done something special themselves, but because of the calculated risk that has been taken by the technical team working underneath Adrian Newey.

A change of concept was unexpected, but there was a striking different between the car Red Bull unveiled in Milton Keynes last week and pretty much anything else that was seen up to now.

Strong evolution would have appeared to be the safe bet, with Red Bull setting such a benchmark last season that it would be extremely tough to catch if it just made solid strides compared to the RB19. To go in a different direction shows both a confidence in the work it has done, but at the same time it does open the door to some more unknowns.

Max Verstappen called it “controlled aggressiveness”, and it would be foolish to even suggest that Red Bull might have got something wrong given the way the team has dominated this set of regulations, but it certainly gives it more to understand and hone and therefore how consistently it is running – more so than the lap times it is doing – will provide an indicator into how well the new car is performing.

The same is true for rivals who have generally gone in a similar direction to last year’s all-conquering car, but with plenty of their own innovations. There’s a real split in the field between teams that have talked up significant changes in design – Ferrari, Mercedes, Aston Martin, Alpine and Stake are describing their cars as all-new – and the rest.

Haas and AlphaTauri in particular have warned of accepting slow starts as part of longer-term targets, while James Vowles often repeats how comfortable he is to see Williams end up last as long as it is putting the pieces in place to eventually become a frontrunner once again.

With McLaren also promising a further step forward mid-season, whether the two factions are providing either a case of pre-season optimism or trying to lower expectations in order to exceed them, another key question at this stage is how similar to those launch designs will the cars that hit the track on Wednesday be?

So much of the performance comes from the unseen part of the car – the floor – that there could be significant gains made by teams that look like they have been relatively conservative with their overall design, but the reality tends to be that the cars that appear at launches are noticeably different from those that actually run. You can include Red Bull in that, too.

After 2023 ended with all 10 teams covered by less than 0.7s in Q1 in Abu Dhabi, the promise is for another extremely close year – Red Bull pending – which means any team struggling for mileage could well be on the back foot in the opening rounds. Lap times can be deceiving but lap counts rarely are, at least in highlighting problematic cars or reliability issues.

But perhaps the most telling aspect comes from the drivers themselves. Their quotes after jumping out of a car at the end of the day often hint at confidence or concerns, and there are a few who might be that little bit more transparent this year.

The start of Hamilton’s final year with Mercedes is full of tension due to how wrong the team has got its car over the past two years, with last season proving especially frustrating for the seven-time world champion given the feedback he’d provided. If Mercedes hasn’t provided a better car for Hamilton and George Russell, we’re likely to know it quickly.

And although Carlos Sainz at Ferrari similarly has just one more year to score big results with his current team, it’s his countryman Alonso who could also give a bit away. Knowing he’s a key player in the driver market, Alonso has stated his commitment to Aston Martin but if further gains aren’t made after last season he doesn’t exactly have time on his side to wait to see progress. And his use of the media to make certain points is well-known.

Everything that’s been unfolding off-track will only add to the importance of what is happening on it. Even amid stable regulations, with just three days of running to prepare and the gaps so small between teams, the pressure’s on.