ANALYSIS: Formula 1 Bahrain GP
By Mat Coch
Tuesday 7th March, 2023 - 5:00am
Speedcafe.com Formula 1 Editor Mat Coch offers his take on the opening round of 2023 and what it means for the year ahead.
After the opening round of the 2023 Formula 1 season, there can be little doubt; Red Bull and Max Verstappen are by far favourites for this year’s title.
And really that comes as no surprise as the writing has been on the wall since pre-season testing.
It was only a minor wobble through practice for the Bahrain Grand Prix where Red Bull briefly lost its way that ever created any doubt.
However, 57 laps after the race began, Verstappen and Red Bull were more than 30 seconds clear of anyone else.
It prompted some in the paddock, even within other teams, to openly wonder what the odds are of the Dutchman winning all 23 races this year.
It was a comment made with frivolous intent, of course, but even this early one can imagine it’s entirely plausible, even if incredibly unlikely.
Giving those comments credibility is the simple fact their rivals are nowhere close.
Ferrari’s blunted threat
Ferrari has reliability concerns and a car that, in Bahrain at least, was much harder on its tyres.
On a track surface that is especially coarse, Red Bull nursed two sets of soft tyres before switching to the hards – something Ferrari simply couldn’t make work.
Good tyre deg opens up a world of flexibility for race strategists which, in a tight battle, often proves decisive.
As far as the reliability is concerned, for now it’s best to park that thought to the side under ‘interesting’.
For the moment the issue that eliminated Charles Leclerc from the race is isolated.
The Ferrari power unit was reliable in pre-season and no other teams had issues, so while it was a high-profile failure it is the exception rather than the rule. Thus far.
That could change, but for now, let’s give the Scuderia the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Mercedes without answers
It has not been a kind off-season for Mercedes with things apparently bad enough to tempt Toto Wolff into making some alarmingly negative statements.
He’s effectively said this car is not a contender and cannot be developed into one. So, where to from here?
It’s difficult to know because, as I’ve reported previously, there are limitations on what the team can do.
There is a cost cap now in place so it’s not as simple as throwing resources at the problem any more.
And there are big questions to be answered first anyway.
Are these issues a carryover from last year, disguised in 2022 by the fact the car porpoised such that it wasn’t apparent? Is the premise of the W14 fundamentally flawed? What can be salvaged, what can be modified, and what needs to be scrapped entirely?
These are big, big questions at the start of a new season but of critical importance given we’re facing another three years of stable regulations.
In Bahrain, Mercedes wasn’t even the best Mercedes-powered team.
The rise of Aston martin
That mantle belonged to Aston Martin with Fernando Alonso scoring just his second podium since 2014 at the spritely age of 41.
The Spaniard has lost none of his mojo while his team has certainly found some over the off-season.
To an extent, Aston’s success was predictable, though the timeline is rather shorter than anyone anticipated.
There has been significant development in recent years and high-quality staff have been recruited in key positions.
That is starting to now come together as seen on track in Bahrain – and the new factory isn’t even online yet.
Sure, it uses the Mercedes power unit, driveline and rear suspension, items allowed under the regulations, but it has done a good job with them – certainly compared with the factory team.
Just look at the way Alonso was able to attack when neither Mercedes driver really could, that suggests a car with better downforce numbers.
It’s also inspiring for others in the pit lane; if they can do it, so can we. That’s certainly driving Mercedes at the moment, and to an extent McLaren too.
Tough year ahead at McLaren
This year’s MCL60 is, currently, not a great car. The team knows that and has been working hard to manage expectations heading into the start of the season.
Based on that, Bahrain was perhaps a shade better than expected, there were fears the squad would be circulating at the back with Williams.
That didn’t prove to be the case, but that’s also not a signal that McLaren can ease off. There is work that needs to be done, and it isn’t the work of a moment.
Aside from the car itself, Oscar Piastri made a good account of himself on debut.
It was a brief maiden F1 appearance, lasting just 13 laps, but while he was in the race he kept his nose clean, moved forward, and put manoeuvers on some vastly more experienced drivers.
There was the mistake in qualifying, but his session was by then already compromised by the red flag which meant he’d not run a green set of rubber ahead of his final flying lap.
For a driver who hasn’t competed in anger in over a year, and never at F1 level, a slide a Turn 2 is perfectly understandable under the circumstances, and his team was certainly not beating him up about it – though he did a bit of that himself.
But let’s look beyond the bare facts and extrapolate what it all means.
In qualifying he list time but, corrected for his mistakes, wasn’t a million miles away from team-mate Lando Norris.
In the race, he did everything he needed to do and was even caught in the DRS train behind Norris.
Both of these were on his first weekend in F1, after a year on the sidelines. That’s massively encouraging because he should only get better from this point.
Alpine remains unknown
While Bahrain painted a good early picture of where most teams sit in relation to one another, there is one we don’t have an accurate representation of; Alpine.
Esteban Ocon had a horror race, making two mistakes himself while operational error by the team saw him serve three penalties.
It was a poor performance, of that there’s no doubt, but a rare one and one which team boss Otmar Szafnauer will no doubt ensure his team learns from.
Ocon’s woes masked just what he was capable of, as did Pierre Gasly’s lowly starting position.
Throughout pre-season testing, the team was quietly confident, but in Bahrain the race didn’t play out in its favour at all.
Do the Alpines sit just behind Mercedes, or perhaps ahead? Are they as good as Ferrari even? Evidence put them somewhere in the third-to-sixth region but exactly where just isn’t clear yet.
Otherwise, we have a fair indication of the year ahead, with the caveat that the Bahrain International Circuit is a different beast to Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), and then Albert Park.
Different circuits could bring difficult results, and in the midfield, that’s pretty much guaranteed.
Perhaps Mercedes’ lack of downforce will work in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps the different track surface will suit the Ferrari, though it seems neither will catch Red Bull in a hurry.
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