With the dust settling on Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, The Hindu looks at the major talking points from Sakhir and what they could portend for the rest of 2023.
Red Bull triggers nightmares
The 2023 Red Bull is an evolution of the 2022 car that won both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. It was the class of the field and enjoyed a significant advantage towards the end of the year, clinching both titles relatively easily.
In pre-season testing, the car was quick and racked up mileage without major trouble. Although Max Verstappen complained during Friday’s practice that the car was not as good as it had been during testing, the team worked overnight and sorted things out for Saturday’s qualifying.
Last year, the Red Bull was better on race day than in qualifying, but Verstappen comfortably took pole position in Bahrain with a three-tenths advantage over the next best car — the Ferrari driven by Charles Leclerc, who was third.
The reigning champion duly cruised to victory, leading a 1-2 for Red Bull with Sergio Perez second; it was a statement win but an even more pressing concern for rivals was the 38-second gap between Verstappen and third-placed Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin.
Over a 57-lap race distance, this equates to an advantage of almost seven-tenths of a second per lap. While a considerable gap in itself, what might give the other team principals nightmares is the fact that the Red Bulls were not even at full tilt towards the end.
However, a possible silver lining is that this advantage may be track-specific. The layout and abrasive surface of the Sakhir circuit is very tough on rear tyres. The Red Bull appeared to suffer less rear tyre degradation than its rivals. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz suggested that Jeddah’s smooth track in the next race could bring teams closer together.
Even if this were true, Red Bull’s pace advantage seems handy — and should it go on an unchallenged run over the first few races, the defending champion will be very hard to catch.
Aston Martin’s great leap forward
Aston Martin had struggled with its car concept in 2021 and 2022, finishing seventh in both seasons. But it was also developing its infrastructure during that period, setting up new facilities. Pre-season testing showed that the team had made a step up, and with two-time world champion Alonso joining the outfit, it was seen as the dark horse ahead of the season.
The team’s 2023 car looks heavily inspired by Red Bull’s concept. The fact that its technical director Dan Fallows is an ex-Red Bull employee is not lost on keen followers of the sport. The team has made the most significant leap this year, finding more than two seconds a lap from last year at the same venue, allowing Alonso to get onto the podium in Bahrain.
Although he was helped by Leclerc’s retirement, the Aston’s pace suggested that Alonso could have placed third on merit. The team has lofty ambitions — and banking points when Mercedes and Ferrari are struggling could help it fight for third place at the least.
More importantly, in terms of the big picture, Aston could also split the opposition to Red Bull, making the defending champion’s life easier.
The Ferrari conundrum
F1’s most famous team had high hopes of setting things right ahead of 2023. Last year was a missed opportunity, with poor reliability and strategy errors costing it dearly. Indeed, the team could not run its power unit at full capacity in 2022 because of concerns over its reliability.
Under a new team principal, hired to sharpen the race operations, there was a lot of work done to address this issue. However, the old gremlins returned to haunt the Prancing Horse on Sunday as Leclerc’s chances were destroyed by a power unit failure.
More worryingly, the team was nearly three-tenths off the pace in qualifying, and in the race, Leclerc suggested Ferrari was a second slower per lap.
After the steady improvement from 2020 to 2022, anything less than a close fight for the title will be a step in the wrong direction for the Italian team.
Mercedes, McLaren lose ground
After pre-season testing and the first race, it is crystal clear that Mercedes and McLaren are the two teams in a worse position than they were in last year. Both have regressed and now face an uphill battle to return to where they were.
After the race, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff called it one of the worst days in racing and felt that the team had lost a year by going down the wrong path. Mercedes’ response to the new regulations was a concept completely different from its rivals’, an approach that has not paid off. The team started 2022 poorly before fighting back towards the end of the year and almost beating Ferrari in the constructors’ standings. However, this year, the team is only the fourth-fastest car. Worryingly, Lewis Hamilton said after the Bahrain GP that Mercedes did not listen to his feedback on his problems driving the 2022 car when developing the 2023 version.
To make it worse, Aston Martin, which uses a Mercedes power unit, rear suspension and gearbox, has overtaken the main team in the pecking order.
Elsewhere in the paddock, McLaren has been steadily slipping down the competitive order. From fourth in 2021, it slid to fifth last year.
This year things have worsened, and it was evident from the comments made by the team during the car launch, when it tried to downplay expectations. The reality is even further off its predictions. Lando Norris produced a magical lap to qualify 11th, but was a sitting duck in the race, lapped by the race-winner before finishing 17th.
Debutant Oscar Piastri had a baptism by fire, qualifying only 18th and retiring from the race. The car has not been driver-friendly for a while, and only Norris’ immense talent has been able to squeeze results out of it. Daniel Ricciardo, despite his quality, struggled in his two years with the team before being sacked, with a year still left in his contract.
There is a real danger the team could slip below the top five, and it remains to be seen how long a generational talent like Norris will put up with a slow and challenging car.