With the 2023 Formula 1 season well and truly over but 2024 car launches only a month or two away, it feels like forever ago that each team broke cover for the first time in pre-season testing in Bahrain ahead of a fresh F1 season untainted by record-breaking dominance.
Aston Martin were up, McLaren were down and Alpine were running interference like nobody’s business, but how accurate a barometer was each team’s performance in pre-season testing?
Navigating pre-season quotes can be a minefield in itself, team principals and drivers to try and be both as optimistic and non-committal as possible but look close enough and there some interesting quotes for every team.
And to fully embrace the spirit of this exercise, we’ve ordered them based on our pre-season testing rankings from February, reflecting the pecking order we expected at the start of the season.
1. Red Bull
Expectation: Verstappen shocked fear into every non-Red Bull fan when he proudly boasted the RB19 was a definite upgrade on his record-breaking 2022 car which won the championship with four rounds to spare.
“Our goal is to win and then win the championship,” Verstappen told the media. “It’s been very good, I think the car has been working really well so very positive days for me and just enjoying driving the car.
“Overall, I think it’s definitely an improvement to last year, we’ve had really positive test days and we learned a lot and hopefully we just start off the weekend well.”
“Today was a promising start to the 2023 season, everyone’s hard work over the winter has really paid off as the car hit the ground running in terms of balance,” his race engineer Gianpierro Lambiase proclaimed on the first day of testing.
Reality: 1st (Verstappen) & 2nd (Perez) in drivers’ championship, 1st in constructors’ championship
It’s incredible but those gushing words were probably an understatement, as the RB19 became the most dominant car in history.
Red Bull scored their first-ever 1-2 in the drivers’ championship and ended the season with the highest win percentage in F1 history.
Expectation: Team principal Fred Vasseur‘s since admitted he knew Red Bull would be incredibly difficult to beat from the opening laps of testing, which matches up to Ferrari‘s comments at the time.
Christian Horner even pumped up the Scuderia saying they looked quick, and Lewis Hamilton agreed, but Charles Leclerc was more reserved.
“I feel we’ve got some work to do,” Leclerc said. “Red Bull seems to be very strong in these three days.
“Everything kind of matches [our expectations], which is a good sign – so this is positive. I think our car changed with a bit of characteristics this year. I expect us to be a bit quicker in the straight and maybe struggling a bit more in the corners.”
Reality: 5th (Leclerc) & 7th (Sainz) in drivers’ championship, 3rd in constructors’ championship
Ferrari started off as arguably the fourth-quickest team, certainly behind Aston Martin and just behind Mercedes on race pace too, with the SF-23 earning an unwanted reputation as a tyre-shredder.
But after briefly being jumped by McLaren, Vasseur‘s influence over the team became increasingly clear as the season went on and Ferrari finished as the strongest team behind Red Bull.
They never quite outdrove the early season lag to overcome Mercedes but finished the season with better highs than their rivals, thanks to Carlos Sainz‘s stellar Singapore victory and awesome podium at Monza.
3. Aston Martin
Expectation: Aston Martin were the undoubted darlings of pre-season testing, finishing second and third on the first two days in Lance Stroll‘s absence and looking well up for the podium fight.
Team principal Mike Krack did his best to downplay expectations for a season-long battle but even the reserved Luxemburger couldn’t hide the excitement around the team.
“I think the gap [to Red Bull] is still substantial,” Krack told the media. “But we have improved our car, we are fighting here with teams that are used to driving on the front, they are very used to high-intensity development.
“We put fuel in for those 57 laps and did the full race with the full set-up, even changing tyres, the same thing we are going to do this week in Bahrain,” Fernando Alonso added.
“At the same time, Ferrari were doing the same simulation as us with the same fuel, same stops and we were faster than them.”
Reality: 4th (Alonso) & 10th (Stroll) in drivers’ championship, 5th in constructors’ championship
Aston Martin certainly lived up to the hype, recording six podiums in the first eight races all down to Fernando Alonso. Although they eventually slipped to fifth in the constructors’ championship, they scored 121 points from McLaren in the same position last year and were an ill-timed pitstop away from potentially winning the Monaco GP.
With a stronger driver alongside the Spaniard they likely would’ve held onto fourth at least, but Aston Martin still recorded one of the biggest leaps in just one offseason in recent F1 history.
For this review in particular, it’s also important to note that Alonso predicted Aston Martin would struggle in the second half of the season.
Returning from the summer break for the Dutch GP, Alonso said he’d be happy with two or three more podiums in the remainder of the season, which he managed thanks to third places at Zandvoort and Interlagos.
Expectation: Mercedes were bullish after their ‘no sidepods’ concept appeared to come good at the end of 2022, capped by George Russell‘s victory in the Brazilian GP, with team principal Toto Wolff saying their aim was ‘definitely to fight for the world championship’.
“You need to provide a good car for a driver that has the ambition to win races and championships and we have that,” Wolff said. “We want to win. At this stage last year, we knew we were in trouble but today, it is very different.”
“We definitely believe eventually we will have a car capable of getting in that fight,” Russell added. “There’s no reason why eventually we can’t get there at some point this year, and we’ve always seen the strength of Mercedes and their development rates.”
“I think we were obviously on the backfoot following the challenges of the W13 but I absolutely believe as the season progresses, we’re definitely going to close that gap and there’s no reason why we can’t fight as the season hots up.”
Reality: 3rd (Hamilton) & 8th (Russell) in drivers’ championship, 2nd in constructors’ championship
Obviously Mercedes‘ championship aspirations came to nought, they were in contention for race victory on a few occasions but failed to capitalise operationally.
Ultimately, it’s another wasted year for the team that’s won 15 titles in the last decade. Mercedes finish 2023 pretty much as they started it, pinning all their hopes on the next car.
Expectation: Alpine just had a weird pre-season testing, they ran a very specialised programme as if they didn’t want to reveal their true pace, and Esteban Ocon‘s optimism reflected the mood a team seemingly looking to advance from their 2022 consturctors’ championship finish.
“The car is much more stable in corner entry, it gives you a lot more confidence to attack the entry and it’s a much better balance. It’s a very good surprise” Ocon said. “From run one we identified the direction to go for and how to optimise it as much as we can.
“So we went from a very uncomfortable position to a very comfortable position to a middle position – we’re still working our way through to find what’s the best compromise that we can get.
“in terms of balance, I think we are pretty much spot on in terms of entries and on braking as well, the car is very good.”
Reality: 11th (Gasly) & 12th (Ocon) in drivers’ championship, 6th in constructors’ championship
In contrast to the perhaps unwarranted optimism in Bahrain, Alpine finished the season just 263 miles away in Abu Dhabi but with justified gloom hanging over the team.
They dropped from fourth to sixth with over 50 points less than in 2022 haul and watched their former future pick up two podiums and a Sprint Race win while neither Pierre Gasly nor Esteban Ocon cracked the top half of the drivers’ standings – the first time that’s happened since Renault’s first year back at Enstone in 2016.
Alpine cleaned house at the boardroom level too, with team principal Otmar Szafnauer, CEO Laurent Rossi, sporting director Alan Permane and chief technical officer Pat Fry all departing in a bloodbath after the Belgian GP.
Expectation: Haas enjoyed a positive pre-season test, looking like they might’ve replaced McLaren as a contender for top-five in the constructors’ championship – and Nico Hulkenberg agreed.
“It’s important for a driver to connect with the car, have a good feeling with it and I feel like that’s what I’ve done in the limited time,” said Hulkenberg.
“That feeling is going to grow stronger race by race because testing was not huge. I think the midfield is very competitive and tight once again. We say that every year but it’s always the case, and small things can have an impact and make a big difference.
“I believe we were somewhere in the midfield. It can be very track-dependent if you’re the upper or lower end, but our job [is] to maximise what we have and score results.”
Reality: 16th (Hulkenberg) & 19th (Magnussen) in drivers’ championship, 10th in constructors’ championship
Hulkenberg was actually wrong on two counts, though in fairness not many people foresaw that the F1 ‘midfield’ would effectively cease to exist in 2023.
Sixth-placed Alpine only recorded eight finishes in the top seven over the entire season and were 160 points behind Aston Martin, but were 92 points ahead of the next-best team.
The bottom four constructors managed just four top-seven finishes combined, so were never close to battling Alpine, the only true midfield team.
However, even against that context Haas endured a difficult 2023. The Bahrain GP foreshadowed the year to come, with Hulkenberg outperforming Kevin Magnussen in qualifying and even reaching Q3, but then being completely undone by the VF-23’s race pace and dropping out of the top 10 even with three retirements.
That terrible Sunday spec meant Haas finished bottom of the pile and need a change of direction for 2024.
7. Alfa Romeo
Expectation: Improvement was the buzzword at F1’s only Swiss team, with both drivers feeling like the C43 was a definite upgrade on 2022.
“Definitely the rear end of the car has become more stable,” Valtteri Bottas said. This was a weakness last year, especially in the higher-speed corners, so that’s good.
“So, I’m confident it’s going to be definitely better than last year. And obviously, we did have quite a few issues from the Ferrari side last year. But so far, nothing.”
His teammate Zhou Guanyu added: “High speed was the weakness we had last year. So we have tried to improve that, which seems to be working well. Now, it seems quite clear the improvement we were able to do.”
Reality: 15th (Bottas) & 18th (Zhou) in drivers’ championship, 9th in constructors’ championship
If the C43 was a step forward from 2022, then the rest of the grid (minus Haas) made a giant leap. Alfa Romeo dropped three constructors’ championship positions and 39 points in 2023, though it’s not clear how much of that was down to their uncompetitive driver lineup.
Alfa Romeo remain one of the more perplexing teams in F1, seeming completely unhurried in such a fast-paced world. They renewed the 10th-best driver pairing on the grid for another season, scored points on just seven occasions and never finished higher than eighth – the lowest best finish of any team. Will it change for 2024? Probably not.
Expectation: McLaren were one of the big losers at pre-season testing, struggling throughout and particularly beset by problems with their brake ducts. So it was a surprise to hear both drivers’ confidence that the team would sort those problems and enter the fight at the front.
“We want to end as a top-four team” Norris continued. “I think that will give us a big big boost of confidence to go into 2024, when we will have the car set up in the new wind tunnel.”
“What they want to be happening in Baku is what we’re wanting to start the season with, if you want to be a top team you know it is where we should have started the season, with those kind of parts to come in. But until then, we’ll just do the best we can, to make the most of what we have now.”
“Obviously, the test wasn’t the smoothest, but I think we will get a better understanding of where we are at come tomorrow,” Piastri told media ahead of the Bahrain GP weekend. “I think we are somewhere in the midfield, and we will see where we are come Saturday night.”
Reality: 6th (Norris) & 9th (Piastri) in drivers’ championship, 4th in constructors’ championship
They may have been the butt of the jokes then, but oh how McLaren were laughing by the end of the season.
It did sound truly ridiculous to hear them talk up battling Aston Martin who were the other talk of the test for the right reasons, and went on to take six podiums in the first eight races.
Norris‘ timestamp wasn’t quite accurate, he finished 17th in two of the three races before Baku and two of the three races after it too, but four rounds later McLaren‘s game-changing upgrades hit the MCL60 and the flying papaya never looked back.
Norris and Piastri combined for nine podiums, a sprint win and fourth place in the constructors’ championship, 22 points ahead of Aston Martin.
Expectation: The James Vowles era felt like a step into the unknown for Williams, with the former Mercedes head of strategy a left-field pick to replace Jost Capito. After an incident-free three days in Bahrain, Vowles hinted he expected Williams to still be short of the midfield fight.
“The last three days have been really successful,” Vowles said. “The car’s in a really good state but no one really can read properly where anyone is, I think at the front it’s fairly evident that there’s some reams really out there.
“But towards the back of the grid it’s going to be a close-knit fight I feel certainly at this event and across the season and it will be about the team getting on top of the problems the soonest and developing the car the quickest.”
Reality: 13th (Albon) & 21st (Sargeant) in drivers’ championship, 7th in constructors’ championship
Vowles’ prediction proved to be accurate, with Williams finishing ahead of AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo and Haas thanks entirely to Alex Albon‘s heroics but almost 100 points off sixth-place Alpine.
Vowles surprised a lot of people with his able leadership of the team which did look a genuine dark horse for the podium immediately after the summer break and shone bright in Las Vegas qualifying.
But a lot of questions remain over the team – is Logan Sargeant too broke to be rescued and do they even have the infrastructure to push further up the grid?
Expectation: AlphaTauri looked off the pace in Bahrain with Nyck de Vries struggling to control the AT04, but the Dutchman was still confident he’d be competing in the midfield for his debut season.
“I think it’s difficult to get a clear read on everyone,” said De Vries. “I mean, the top group is pretty clearly defined, but everything in the midfield is so close that it’s difficult to know where you are.
“I think it will shuffle around a little bit from weekend to weekend, depending on the track characteristics.”
Reality: 14th (Tsunoda), 17th (Ricciardo), 20th (Lawson) & 22nd (De Vries) in drivers’ championship, 8th in constructors’ championship
De Vries never got on top of the car, and AlphaTauri spent much of the season muddling through developments that never had the desired impact. That changed in dramatic fashion with the Americas leg though, with the team recording their four best weekends of 2023 in the final five races of the season.
That catapulted the team from the bottom of the constructors’ championship to just three points off seventh, but the team will still be more more closely aligned with Red Bull from 2024 and questions remain over the driver lineup.
Top Ten F1 Testing Times 2023