After the usual firings and hirings, the new names supplanting more recognizable ones and familiar faces in new places, the 2023 Formula 1 season is set to begin Sunday at the Bahrain International Circuit. Fresh off hosting the three-day preseason test, Sakhir is sure to provide more than a few twists and turns — aside from the usual ones at the 15-turn track — as unexpected technical gremlins are sure to pop up and undo even the best of teams, which is what happened to Red Bull Racing at the start of the 2022 season.
Red Bull recovered from that quite nicely with Max Verstappen winning his second F1 title, and over the three days of testing set down a pace that put every team on notice that they are still the team to beat and do not intend on being caught.
"I think we got a good understanding of our car," Verstappen's teammate, Sergio Perez, told formula1.com. "We did a lot of analysis on set-up, tyres, so I think we did the most we could. … I think we will only find out next weekend where we really are. … It will be great to start the season much stronger than we did last year."
New team principal at Ferrari, Frederic Vasseur, said he was pleased with his driver lineup of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr., and stated that it was an honor to be at Ferrari.
"[But] we will have to deliver," Vasseur told formula1.com. "I don't want to be very happy because I am at Ferrari. The most important is to win. The challenge is in front of us."
In front of Ferrari, according to data collected by F1 during the test, is Red Bull Racing, who posted the best simulated qualifying pace and the best sim race pace. Ferrari were second in race pace but just slightly behind Mercedes in qualifying pace, according to the simulation data, so perhaps this season will get off to a much better start than last season for Sir Lewis Hamilton and teammate George Russell.
Well, not so fast, Hamilton warned.
"We are not quite where we want to be, but it's a good platform to start from," Hamilton told formula1.com. "It's still not perfect, and we are still not able to match the Red Bulls currently, or the Ferraris maybe. But, as I said, it is better."
How to watch the Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix
- Date: Sunday, March 5
- Location: 3.36-mile (5.412-kilometer), 15-turn Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain
- Time: 9:55 a.m. ET
- TV: ESPN2
- Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What about the rest?
Aston Martin: Ranked the fourth fastest team in both qualifying and race pace according to the simulation data, Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll look to have caught Mercedes attention, as Silver Star's driver Russell admitted he and Hamilton are expecting to see a lot of the Aston Martins in their mirrors, and the trick will be keeping them there.
But as happy as Alonso was with the preseason results, he was upset that Stroll was not able to participate due to a cycling accident during training. He is a question mark for the start of the season and Aston Martin have Felipe Drugovich on standby should the Canadian not be able to go at Sakhir. As of now, Stroll has done simulator runs and looks to be ready to go.
"I think we miss him because some of my comments and feelings with the car, we never know if it's just me in a new team and a new car or was [it] just maybe an Aston Martin thing that Lance could spot," Alonso explained to formula1.com. "I hope he can come [back] very soon."
Alpine: There is quiet confidence with drivers Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, and it is interesting to note that the French team did not run soft compounds during the three-day test, yet still flashed some speed.
Alfa Romeo: If Aston is going to be challenging Mercedes, it could be that Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu will be right on the wheels of Alonso and Stroll.
McLaren: Lando Norris and rookie Oscar Piastri managed only 312 laps as issues kept the team in the garage and off the track, making how their Sunday will go anyone's guess.
"It's hard to know [where we are] until we get going," McLaren team principal Zak Brown cautioned. "We set some goals for development which we didn't hit."
Williams: American rookie Logan Sergeant and teammate Alex Albon ran 439 laps over the three days, second only to AlphaTauri, and those laps came with relatively few issues. Their times were faster, by far, than their 2022 testing times and look as if they will be able to make some noise and be right in the middle of the pack.
Haas: Nico Hulkenberg has settled in quite nicely, and teammate Kevin Magnussen has complemented him. As with Alpine, there is an assuredness that while they may not be the fastest, they are certainly not the slowest.
"I cannot [say for] any of the seven teams behind the three big ones who is in front and who is not," Haas team principal Guenther Steiner told formula1.com.
AlphaTauri: Yuki Tsunoda and rookie teammate Nyck de Vries put in the most laps at 456, with de Vries running the most of any of the rookie drivers at 246. Tsunoda put in one flying lap at 1:31.261, the fastest of the three-day session, but whispers along the pit wall suggest the team was using very light fuel loads over the three days, so their true speed is unknown and about to be found out Sunday at Sakhir. But if the intent was to boost morale and give their drivers confidence, it was mission accomplished.
Until proven otherwise, it is unwise to go with anything other than a Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Mercedes driver for the three podium spots. The trick is trying to fit those six drivers into the top three spots, as Red Bull has never been shy about putting Perez on a different strategy from Ferrari to cover all angles. In fact, as horrible as Mattia Binotto was at strategy for Ferrari last season, he managed to use this against the Bulls a few times. Of course, Binotto is out at Ferrari, but it's certainly not something that went unnoticed by the Scuderia.
As for surprises, this race will present more than a few. For as many laps as the cars went, and for all the simulations, the rubber truly meets the road on Sunday. No one will be holding their breath but with it being the first race you can be assured of a technical issue or three popping up and biting somebody. Or several somebodies.
Alonso and Aston Martin certainly turned heads and look to be the ones who can break into the top three, but Alpine is intriguing. Not doing any testing on the soft compound tires is akin to not looking at your hole cards until the flop goes face up. Can they be that sure that they can extrapolate what their speeds will be on softs just from seeing what everyone else gained on softs?
Guess we'll find out soon enough.
For now, boxing the usual suspects of Vettel, Perez and Leclerc looks strong in that order, and boxing four into three spots by adding Sainz, or perhaps even Alonso, seems sane, too.