The opening race of the 2023 Formula 1 season in Bahrain has left spectators with much to talk about as Red Bull stormed to glory once again – leaving Ferrari, Mercedes, and the rest in the dust.
It was an eye-opening affair for some of the top teams on the grid, with engine failures hampering numerous drivers on the day and an abrasive Bahrain track surface shredding the tyres much quicker than expected.
Red Bull has come out on top and will be looking to hold onto that dominance in their search for a third world title with Verstappen, while McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes all play catch up and some previously ‘midfield’ teams raise eyebrows for what could be a major shakeup this season.
As we look ahead to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in two weeks’ time, here are five talking points from a hectic weekend in Bahrain:
Red Bull’s sheer dominance
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen left the rest of the field in his rear view mirrors on Lap 3 of the opening race to comfortably win the Bahrain GP.
Having got off the line well, he went into the first turn ahead of Charles Leclerc, who made minor contact with Sergio Perez to move up into second.
The 56 laps which unfolded after that were a masterclass in racing by the 25-year-old who is already coined to have a fighting chance at his third title in 2023.
After securing victory, his teammate Sergio Perez (P2) joined him on the podium amid a double celebration for the Milton Keynes-based team.
Verstappen described it as “exactly the start we wanted, a one-two-finish” and said it was a straightforward day for the team.
“I’m incredibly proud that we have achieved this as a Team,” he said after the race.
“I could see early on that we had the pace in the car, I was able to build a gap from the start and then just managed it for the rest of the race, it was a straightforward day for us.
“It also feels good to finally win in Bahrain, I haven’t had the best history here. Looking ahead to Jeddah, it’s a completely different track with different conditions, there’s a lot of long straights and fast corners, so it will give us a completely different picture of where everyone is on the grid but at least this was a very good start for us”.
Perez admitted that his start hindered his performance, knocking him back by 10 or 12 seconds in third and said very early on he knew it was “game over” catching Max.
“My start wasn’t ideal, Charles was a little too aggressive, pushed me to the right and I did my best to avoid him,” he explained.
“That meant my first stint wasn’t ideal, Charles was very strong on that new tyre and it was difficult to get through him quickly enough. I think that’s where I lost out to Max, I was behind him by about 10 or 12 seconds and after that it was game over on catching Max, it was all about getting Charles.
“It was important to get by him, minimise the damage and get that P2 for the Team. There are a lot of improvements we can still make to try and make our car better, there is still plenty of work going on behind the scenes.
“On this tarmac, we have been very strong but Bahrain is a very unique circuit and things will be closer at other circuits.”
Aston Martin on an upward trajectory
Aston Martin have been the ones to watch since pre-season testing gave viewers a taste of what their new machinery could do. The opening Bahrain Grand Prix solidified that for the team and delighted fans watching across the globe as Fernando Alonso landed a P3 finish.
After qualifying fifth fastest on Saturday, behind the Red Bull and Ferrari men, Alonso benefitted from Charles Leclerc’s retirement to lift his AMR23 into the top three during Sunday night’s battle.
He reminded F1 spectators of the sheer extent of his racing skills as he delved into on-track scraps with Mercedes’ George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.
Speaking after a stellar opening race for the team, Alonso said: “It’s a perfect start for this project. We didn’t expect to be that competitive.
“I think the aim in 2023 was to get in the mix with the midfield, maybe leading that midfield and get close to the top three teams eventually.
“Even a podium maybe was not on the radar in 2023, and we found ourselves with the second best car today in Bahrain, of the whole weekend, just behind Red Bull. This is a little bit of a surprise, but we are extremely proud, happy with the job done at Silverstone in the factory.
“A big congratulations to everyone. Let’s enjoy this moment and build from here hopefully a good 2023 campaign, and get closer and closer to the top guys”.
Problems in the McLaren garage
McLaren had a disastrous first run of 2023, with rookie driver, Oscar Piastri, having his first race cut short on Lap 14 due to issues with the engine.
Lando Norris’s race was also hampered by a PU issue that the team had to manage for the remainder of the race – which led to multiple pit stops to top up the engine’s pneumatic system.
The team was relatively downbeat on their potential heading into the season-opener, but a Piastri DNF and a P17 finish for Norris could not have been foreseen.
Commenting on the issue for Piastri, McLaren Racing CEO, Zak Brown, said: “It looks like he has some sort of electrical issue, he had a gearbox-related issue on track which I think was electronic related.
“We changed steering wheels but that doesn’t seem to have done the trick so we will have to diagnose what it is, but appears to be electrical related.”
Speaking on Sunday evening, Norris said: “A very tough race. We had a few issues we had to manage, which really took us out of the race but we tried to stay in it for as long as possible, just in case there was a Safety Car or something and we might have had a chance at the end. I think the pace was alright otherwise.
“Just too many issues today to fight for points, so we’ll go again next time”.
However, an upbeat Piastri added: “Obviously not the finish to the weekend that I wanted but there are positives to take, and the car seemed to have better pace in the race.
“I still learned a lot and I’m glad I’ve now made my debut, and experienced some of the F1 race weekend firsts. I’m now looking forward to having a better weekend in Saudi Arabia”.
Ferrari’s day went from bad to worse when Charles Leclerc slowed to a halt on track on lap 41 – on route to a likely podium finish.
It was a promising effort from the prancing horses, with Leclerc and Sainz holding on to P3 and P4 before things took a turn.
Although the Monegasque was out of the running with 16 laps to go, the team held out hope for Sainz who was putting in great laps in third. That was up until Lap 46 when Alonso swept around the Spanish driver who couldn’t match the Aston Martin’s pace, demoting him to fourth for the remainder of the race.
Speaking afterward, a visibly disappointed Leclerc told reporters: “We definitely had the car to fight for the podium. I mean, honestly, the podium was there.
“We had a good gap behind, I was managing the pace, everything felt good, so it is a shame. Now I just hope we can look into it, understand what went wrong and don’t have this problem anymore…”
Carlos Sainz added: “It was a challenging Sunday. We knew already from testing that it was going to be tough here in Bahrain and now we need to focus on improving for the upcoming races.
“Time to put our heads down, work hard and see how we can close the gap to the top. It’s only race one, so we’ll keep pushing no matter what”.
Mercedes cling to ‘fourth best’
Mercedes, like McLaren, didn’t have the most positive outlook on their potential heading into race one of the 2023 season, however, they can be best pleased with how they finished in Bahrain – Hamilton 5th, Russell 7th – despite finishing 50s behind Verstappen.
Mercedes struggled with tyre degradation for most of the weekend on an abrasive Bahrain track and Hamilton later confirmed that the team was ‘in the dark’ on their race runs ahead of lights out.
Despite a good start on Sunday, Hamilton was unable to fight the pace of Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin and both Ferrari men.
Speaking to the media after the race, Hamilton said: “The Ferraris were just quicker than us today, we’re the fourth fastest team. We was close for a second and then just couldn’t hold on to him”.
In a statement released later that evening, the 38-year-old said: “We did the best we could today. We are the fourth fastest team right now, and the Ferrari and Aston that we were battling were just quicker than us. It was close for a second with Sainz, but I couldn’t hang on and he just went away in the final laps. Big congratulations to Fernando and the whole Aston Martin team too. They did a great job today.
“It was a fun tussle we had for a moment, but he was too quick. We are lacking a lot of downforce, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to add more to the car. As soon as we put more load on the front and rear, we will be able to pick up our pace.
“We’ve just got to keep working; we know we are not where we need to be. I’ve got to stay positive, keep my head up and keep pushing the Team. I will be a positive light for them and get the best points I can”.
Racing will resume in two week’s time at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix for Round Two of the 2023 Formula 1 season.