With the completion of the Bahrain Grand Prix this past weekend, the 2023 Formula 1 (F1) World Championship is now officially underway. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen won rather easily from pole followed by teammate Sergio Perez (+11.987 seconds behind) in what proved to be an ideal start for the Austrian team. Fernando Alonso (+38.637) rounded out the podium with a surprise top three result for Aston Martin, confirming the pre-season rumors of the team’s rapid rise over the winter. Carlos Sainz (+48.052) led the way for a disappointed Ferrari in P4 after teammate Charles Leclerc (19th, DNF) suffered an engine failure during the race. Lewis Hamilton (+50.977) rounded out the top five in what proved to be a frustrating race for Mercedes.
Qualifying is the first entirely representative session of the weekend and is split into three sections: Q1, Q2, and Q3, with each session’s slowest five drivers being eliminated until Q3, which functions as a top ten shootout. Q1 made fans excited as only 1.188 seconds separated the fastest and slowest lap. For comparison, last year's Q1 session at the same track had a difference of 2.163 seconds. These may seem like small margins, but in racing two seconds per lap is a long time. However, this gap did increase as track conditions improved and the top teams turned their car up. Max Verstappen’s 1:29.708 lap time was enough to secure the top spot in qualifying. It is worth noting that Fernando Alonso out-qualified both Mercedes drivers, showing that the team may be fully clear of the midfield by a decent margin.
The race got off to a fun start with both Mercedes picking up positions and the Ferraris challenging for the lead before the field settled into the first stint. 19 of the 20 drivers began their race on the soft (fastest, least durable) tire; Kevin Magnussen started on the hard (slowest, most durable) tire. Most teams then opted to stop twice for two sets of hard tires as that compound seemed to be the best for the race.
Red Bull dominated the race from the first lap onward, with Verstappen leading all but the first lap he pitted. The pace of the Austrian team is an ominous warning that the championship may not be as competitive as many had hoped: at least not at the top. Another team whose pace created headlines was Aston Martin. While Alonso benefitted from Leclerc’s retirement from the race, he still beat the second Ferrari and both Mercedes on merit; the latter took an especially painful hit to their pride as Aston Martin use Mercedes engines.
The weekend was massively disappointing for Ferrari and Mercedes even without the miraculous pace of Aston Martin. The part that failed on Charles Leclerc’s car was actually a replacement part because the original showed issues after qualifying. This lack of reliability may force Leclerc to take a third version of that part; and because the regulations only allow for two to be used, he could face a penalty that will drop him 10 places from wherever he qualifies. Sainz also suffered excessive tire degradation, an issue the team will be hoping to quickly fix.
On the Mercedes side of things, Toto Wolff (Team Principal of Mercedes) admitted that the team may struggle to make the car competitive at any point this season as their concept may actually have a lower ceiling than other teams. However, Wolff is notorious for playing mind games. George Russell (7th, +55.873) did express similar pessimism about the season, though, predicting that Red Bull would win every race this season. Despite the downbeat quotes coming from his team, Lewis Hamilton has also spoken about the large amount of work the team have to do, but he believes they can catch Ferrari and Aston Martin. With updates on the way for race four (Baku, Azerbaijan) and six (Imola, Italy), a lot of attention will be paid to the progress of Mercedes.
The race brought a few other surprises. Esteban Ocon (18th, DNF), was first assessed a five second penalty for being improperly positioned in his starting spot, was then given an additional ten second penalty for not serving his first penalty correctly, and finally another five second penalty for speeding when trying to serve the original penalty. He eventually retired from the race, seemingly to save the wear on the car and because of how far back the penalties put him. Lance Stroll (6th, +54.502) did eventually race through his injuries and put in a strong performance, outpacing George Russell to add to the pain Mercedes felt this weekend. Finally Guanyu Zhou (16th, +1 lap) set the fastest lap in a car that qualified 13th, a notable result as midfield cars usually aren’t close enough to the front to pull this off even with fresh tires and low fuel.
And with that, the 2023 season is underway. The Drivers and Constructors Standings are as follows:
Round 2 will take place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, March 17-19.