Red Bull Rules
With less than a few hours remaining before the start of the 2023 F1 Championship, Sergio Pérez put Red Bull impressively ahead at the top of the order at the end of the three-day winter testing in Bahrain. After ten teams recorded a total of 3,992 laps, the pace of both Perez and world champion teammate Max Verstappen confirmed Red Bull still retains last season’s decisive advantage going into the season-opening 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5.
The 2023 F1 Championship features 23 races, starting in Bahrain and culminating with the season finale in Abu Dhabi on November 26. Joining the international schedule will be the new Las Vegas Grand Prix, scheduled as the season's penultimate race, debuting a week before Abu Dhabi.
Perez's lap of 1:30.305, in the waning moments of the final hour, on Pirelli's softest and quickest tyre compound, was 0.359s clear of the next fastest time, set by Mercedes ace Lewis Hamilton.
Red Bull's 'soft evolution' RB19 advances were unmistakable right out of the box. Both Verstappen and Pérez rejoiced in the instant comfort and familiarity of the car at ultra-competitive speed. After Verstappen took over from Pérez for Thursday's afternoon session, the Dutchman immediately lit up the timesheet as he carved his way to the top with a 1m31.650s on C3 tires.
Verstappen's 157 laps were so spectacular the Dutchman turned over his scheduled Saturday sessions to Pérez. Given their clear perspective and prodigious early speed, Red Bull's Bahrain sessions suggest an ominous advantage. The consensus across the paddock agrees; Pérez and Verstappen will start the 2023 season as substantial favorites to defend their respective world titles.
The new RB19 arriving on the track during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
Over at Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell celebrated freedom from the bone-rattling porpoising they faced 12 months ago. However, even though Mercedes engineers can now confidently develop a more predictable platform, they still face chassis balancing conundrums.
Windy conditions on Friday left Hamilton battling vicious lateral slides between corners. If that wasn’t enough, the Mercedes had a hydraulic issue that sidelined any immediate adjustments.
For Saturday's final sessions, Mercedes engineers burned the midnight oil in the factory simulator to deliver a more forgiving car. Russell's thorough race simulation Saturday morning allowed Hamilton to find more speed that evening. His quickest was 0.3s off Pérez’s marker, with Mercedes using the softest C5 tyre compound instead of Red Bull's harder C4 rubber. Comparing Pérez’s best C4 time with Hamilton's from the same evening gave the Mexican a 0.9s advantage.
So, Mercedes’ deserves sincere congratulations for their hard-fought return to the front, the gap to Red Bull looks too large for Hamilton and George Russell to overcome in Bahrain.
Mercedes presented a bold new sidepod design during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
The case for Ferrari vs Red Bull is more challenging. Despite Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc combining for 417 laps, Leclerc's best effort was 0.7s off Sergio Perez using the identical C4 tire. However, the Ferrari was clocked during the heat of the midday sun, while Perez set his time after sunset when the track's temperature favored the tires.
Longer runs lowered the gap to 0.3s, but Ferrari suffered earlier tyre degradation than its rivals. With the Bahrain International Circuit known for its torturous track surface, the Scuderia might have to wait for less punishing tarmac to take the fight to Red Bull.
New Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur quickly offered his more nuanced response. He revealed his engineers had planned a wide range of setup options, and the SF25’s ominous tire temps were a factor in better understanding the car’s limits.
Frederic Vasseur giving an interview during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
Challenging car limits and experimentation brings us to Aston Martin and its new team leader Fernando Alonso. At 41, he is starting his 20th season as he seeks his 33rd race win, 99th podium and third world drivers championship. Not one to hold back, the Spanish driver arrived to make a difference, and his work was already paying off.
"We've been experimenting a little bit with very different routes on setups", offered Alonso. We always found positives on these new routes, so there is a clear indication that we need to change the philosophy in many things on this car compared to last year's car".
On the final day, Alonso completed 57 laps over three stints, beginning with the C3 compound, then the C1 and finally the C2. His tire wear was exceptional, with Alonso setting the fastest time of his second stint one lap before he returned to the pits for his final pit stop and then delivering the fastest lap of his entire race simulation - a 1:36.125 - with five laps remaining. Mercedes beware.
Fernando Alonso showcased the impressive speed of the new AMR23 during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
The quiet Alpine team chose consistency over outright speed, with Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon delivering a respectable long-run pace that ranks the team among the top five challengers entering the new season.
Alpine opted not to use either of the two softest compound tires during the tests and, on the first day, only used the C1 and C2. Alpine set their fastest lap on the C3 tires, with rival teams believing the car carried a significant amount of fuel based on Alpines’ past testing methods. Now confident of their baseline configuration, the team’s planned Bahrain GP upgrade package is set to unlock more performance in P1.
McLaren expects an extended season-long struggle after new team principal Andrea Stella revealed their design office missed its aerodynamic efficiency targets over the winter. Bahrain test times back that up, with both drivers’ best efforts relegated to the second half of the timesheets.
The team set the fastest times on the slower C3 compound. If that wasn't enough, reliability issues due to the lack of mileage and front winglet repairs swallowed up final day testing time. McLaren will have to make the best of the opening three races before scheduled aerodynamic upgrades arrive before the fourth GP of the season in Baku.
Last adjustments before Lando Norris goes out on the track during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
Alfa Romeo looks to turn around last season’s disappointments. First, Zhou Guanyu hustled the C43 to the top of the timesheets on the second day. Valtteri Bottas then delivered a cracking race simulation on the morning of the final day, thanks partly to their switch from pull-rod rear suspension to a push-rod design. Their long-run performance also looked confident, marking the team as a perpetual midfield threat.
While Williams will start 2023 at the back of the grid, there were two signs in Bahrain they won’t remain there. First, the FW45's mileage delivered the 2nd highest lap count over the three days, and thanks to the steady duo of Alexander Albon and rookie Logan Sargent, Williams increased in performance compared to last year’s test was the biggest of any team, a 2.3s gain.
McLaren, Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams participating in a test start during the 2023 F1 Pre-season Testing in Bahrain. Image Courtesy: HOCH ZWEI Photoagency
Haas also seems to have discovered firm footing, with three days of respectable mileage. Kevin Magnussen was seventh fastest overall using the C4 compound during a full race simulation, while the experienced Nico Hulkenberg is ready to collect points from Bahrain forward.
While AlphaTauri’s Bahrain test produced an impressive single-lap pace, the team, unfortunately, remains a questionable long-run threat. Both Nick De Vries and Yuki Tsunoda are determined racers and know they must quickly find a balanced and potent race setup if they expect to rise from the bottom of the 2023 pecking order.