Fernando Alonso will start fifth for the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday, which many fans were slightly disappointed by after they thought there was a chance he could start on the front row of the grid.
Alonso topped FP2 and FP3 in Sakhir so the Aston Martin hype train was seriously chugging along going into qualifying.
Ahead of Alonso is the Ferrari pair of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, with Max Verstappen heading a Red Bull front row lockout from Sergio Perez.
On paper, Verstappen should cruise to victory at the season-opening Formula 1 race, but there is still a chance Alonso could give Red Bull problems.
Aston Martin long run pace makes Alonso a big threat
If Ferrari‘s fears about high tyre degradation come true, Alonso will be the biggest threat to Red Bull.
In pre-season testing, he had the fastest full race simulation and on Friday, during the long runs on the soft tyre in FP2, Alonso and Verstappen both averaged a 1:37.2.
Ferrari and Mercedes were a few tenths behind per lap, but they may be closer come Sunday given their improvements since FP2.
Realistically, if Verstappen is leading after Lap 1, he should comfortably win. However, if he’s not, Alonso could do something spectacular.
Just think, if Perez or Leclerc are in first place, then the pace might not be that fierce at the front, so we might have a six or seven-car train during the first stint.
If Alonso remains fifth, or makes one of his demon starts to move up the order, he will be nicely placed and an aggressive strategy could see him jump a car or two.
The undercut in Bahrain is very powerful as we have seen drivers gain 2-3 seconds from one flying outlap compared to their rival on old tyres on an inlap, in recent years.
It will be a two-stop race, so an early pit stop from Alonso onto the soft tyres for the second stint could put him right into play. Again, this all relies on Verstappen or the lead car not being too far up the road.
“The whole weekend has been very good for us so far and we are very happy to be starting inside the top five for the first race tomorrow,” said Alonso.
“Last year the team found itself out of Q1 and now we are lining up fifth on the grid. Everyone in the team has done an amazing job and this is a strong baseline to build upon as we start the season.
“We shall see what tomorrow brings, but we have been competitive in all the sessions and we are starting close to the podium positions. If there is an opportunity there for the taking, then we will look to capitalise on it.”
Bahrain GP strategy choices
The front-runners will almost certainly start on the soft tyres to get a good launch and so they can go on the attack on the opening laps. Remember, the free starting tyre choice rule remains for 2023.
Pirelli have changed the C1 compound over the winter, following complaints that last year’s C1 was not performing well enough. This was shown when the teams largely avoided it.
Fast forward to now, and the C1 has been excellent on all cars with good durability and enough pace to make it a strong race tyre.
Instead, it’s the C2 compound which appears to be the weak link, although Red Bull have two new sets of the medium, so may use it at some point during the race.
Depending on how confident the teams are with their tyre wear we should see one of the following options being used:
In Red Bull‘s case, they may have noticed their car favours the mediums because both Verstappen and Perez have just one new set of hard tyres.
Will Leclerc’s new soft tyres be enough of a benefit?
A talking point from qualifying was Leclerc opting to save a set of soft tyres for the race, with the Monegasque admitting pole position may have been possible, had he completed a second run in Q3.
This was a defensive move from Ferrari as it shows they are aware Leclerc won’t be able to beat the Red Bulls on Sunday anyway, so have conceded some track position, and will be fighting to keep Alonso and the Mercedes behind.
It will give him a minor advantage but won’t eradicate any tyre degradation problems Ferrari have.
As for Mercedes, they tend to improve on Sundays compared to qualifying so it really could be a five-way fight for third place, if not more, should Red Bull not execute the perfect race strategically.
“I thought today may be worse than it ended up being,” said Hamilton. “We did some great work overnight and the car felt much better in FP3.
“Overall, Qualifying was OK. I thought we might struggle to get into Q3 yesterday, but we didn’t. We were in a fight.
“We don’t know if we have the same race pace that we showed last year but I’m hoping we can be in the fight amongst the group behind Red Bull. It’s really all going to depend on what our long-run pace is like.
“I am genuinely happy for Aston Martin. It’s amazing to see their progress and the steps that they have taken. I am happy for Fernando as he’s been here way longer than me so it’s good to have him back in the mix! I’m sure we will have some good races.”