The 2023 Formula 1 season kicked off with the Bahrain Grand Prix after a regulations evolution, but it was normal service resumed for Red Bull as they took a dominant one-two.
Max Verstappen crossed the line 37 seconds ahead of third-placed Fernando Alonso who was the main source of entertainment in the race, battling back from seventh on the opening lap to pass George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz on-track.
Further down the grid the midfield battle began to shake out after testing, free practice and even qualifying was unable to split the teams, whilst a couple of drivers endured nightmare races at the back of the field.
Being the first race of the season, there were a lot of candidates for both lists but one particularly notable omission is Ferrari who just escape the losers column.
Yes, Leclerc‘s power unit failure is worrying and they’re clearly a step behind Red Bull but at least they confirmed their place as the second-fastest team on the grid.
Winner: Aston Martin
A second-ever podium for Aston Martin in F1 as they confirmed they’ve arrived as an F1 frontrunner.
Alonso proved he’s as sharp as ever as he scythed through George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz in what proved to be the best action of the race.
Lance Stroll was vindicated for his much-maligned decision to race after his cycling accident and did well to pass then hold off Russell for sixth place.
Aston Martin still seem slightly behind Ferrari both over a lap and on race pace but for now the third place vindicates everything the team’s worked on over the last year and they look joint-favourites to capitalise if Red Bull slip up.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mercedes are in a bad way.
It wasn’t even the worst race they could’ve had – Hamilton did very well to even get close to Sainz given the pace deficit between the two cars – but Wolff admitting two years’ have effectively been wasted by the team is a crippling blow.
With Ferrari‘s failure, Aston Martin‘s success and Red Bull‘s dominance, the scale of the catastrophe that’s hit Mercedes has been slightly glossed over.
It’s not even clear where they go from here. They need to build some foundation to begin work on their 2024 car but resetting your concept once the season’s started is no easy task and Mercedes could spend the rest of 2023 in no man’s land.
Given the amount of work and emotional investment that went into getting some success out of 2022 and then working on the W14 through the off-season that’s now effectively been wasted, this could be really damaging for Mercedes in the long-term.
A few teams showed better than expected, and Williams were certainly in that bracket.
They were unlucky not to get more out of qualifying after Albon didn’t get a run in Q2 and Sargeant was eliminated by zero milliseconds, but both drivers made up for that with a good start in the race and didn’t look back.
Sargeant looks right at home in the Williams and wasn’t too far off Albon over the race while the team leader did a great job holding Yuki Tsunoda off in the closing stages to secure points in James Vowles‘ first race as team principal.
It appears the only way is up for team, drivers and boss.
Loser: Esteban Ocon
It’s hard to imagine how Ocon‘s race could’ve gone any worse. After a great qualifying session where he was best of the rest, Ocon received a penalty for lining up wrong in his grid box, then sped in the pitlane on his way to serving that, he served it incorrectly so got slapped with a combined 15-second penalty before giving up on lap 41.
Ocon often comes off as a hothead that allows his emotions to dictate how he races and it looked like that was the case in Bahrain, every single one of those was completely avoidable but after making a silly mistake to begin with, he just went full tilt.
On the other hand Pierre Gasly was very unlucky to not be included as a winner, for fighting his way from the back of the grid to ninth and only being denied fastest lap by Zhou Guanyu at the death.
Winner: Red Bull
Red Bull are still the team to beat, but maybe even more than ever.
Verstappen crossed the line 39 seconds ahead of Alonso, and even if Leclerc had survived until the end that gap wouldn’t have been much smaller as Verstappen drove immaculately under little pressure.
They continue to set the bar and though Ferrari and Mercedes haven’t taken the steps forward that they’d have liked, that’s not Red Bull‘s fault.
Loser: The title race
The other side of that coin. This already feels like the 2014, 2015 or 2016 seasons except this time there’s no Nico Rosberg to challenge the world champion within the team.
Mercedes are lost at sea, Ferrari can’t keep it together over a race distance and the Aston Martin threat is really only Fernando Alonso, it could be a pretty dull season at the top of the world championship.
This could be an overreaction. We’ve only seen the cars at one track – and a unique one at that – and Red Bull‘s penalty for breaching the cost cap in 2021 is still yet to really bite.
But if the Bahrain advantage is the norm then they could switch development focus to 2024 well before the summer break and still win both 2023 championships at a canter.
Ominous is an understatement.
Winner: Valtteri Bottas
It was easy to lose track of Bottas‘ performance, but he finished eighth but pretty much the only time he appeared on the live broadcast was when he was overtaken three times in as many laps in the first pit-stop phase.
However, that shouldn’t subtract from Bottas‘ sublime drive after a slightly disappointing qualifying, he never looked like dropping out of the points and it’s a huge boost for Alfa Romeo.
They tailed off in 2022 but they’ve rediscovered their momentum over the offseason and are looking like a team that could challenge Alpine for fifth place.
With the top eight positions expected to be out of reach of the midfield on pure pace, points finishes will be a premium in 2023 so bagging four to start the season is a huge win.
What a catastrophically bad weekend for McLaren, Pirelli‘s pit stop chart tells its own story.
They actually looked like they’d improved in free practice and Norris performed his now customary heroics to qualify the car eleventh. But raceday was a disaster from lap one to lap 55 – Norris was the only driver to finish two laps down.
It’s pretty rare these days to have a team build a car so fundamentally unusable as McLaren have managed to, at least based on what we’ve seen across six days in Bahrain. Even when Williams reached their nadir in 2019 the car worked, just slowly.
But after the wheel brows farce during testing, both cars suffered more problems at the grand prix weekend. Oscar Piastri became the first retirement of the season with an electrical issue just 13 laps in and Norris needing to stop every 10 laps for a hydraulics top-up was just embarrassing. At least he finished, the only way is up.