Max Verstappen began his pursuit for a third straight Formula 1 title in imperious fashion as Red Bull Racing crushed the opposition during a sedate season-opening F1 Bahrain Grand Prix.
Verstappen Makes It Look Too Easy
It is only Race 1 of 23 but Max Verstappen laid down a marker that evoked memories of his dominant second half of 2022.
Verstappen converted pole position into an early lead and breezed away from the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc at a rate of seven-tenths per lap in the initial stages. Verstappen got his lead up to around 10 seconds and merely maintained that comfortable buffer, while slow-starting Sergio Perez eventually overhauled Leclerc to make it a 1-2 for the reigning champions.
Verstappen finished 38 seconds clear of the nearest non-Red Bull driver—and such a benchmark came after being under zero pressure all race in a weekend in which Red Bull was perplexed by the RB19’s tricky balance during practice. It was some statement of intent.
Only one car—teammate Perez—finished within 30 seconds of the winner, and only seven of the 20 cars finished within a minute of Verstappen.
“This is exactly what we were dreaming of and what we wanted to achieve, so it’s a great day for the whole team,” said Verstappen.
It marked the first time in Verstappen’s career that he opened a season on top, while for Red Bull it was its first season-opening triumph since 2011, and first at the Bahrain Grand Prix since 2013. In both of those years it went on to annihilate the opposition and seal both titles with professional ease.
The talk in the paddock post-race was not so much whether Verstappen will win the championship, but how many of the remaining 22 races he will win.
“Red Bull have got this championship sewn up,” said Mercedes’ George Russell. “I don’t think anyone will be fighting with them this year. They should win every single race this year.”
Aston Martin, Alonso Break Into the Top Group
A dreary affair beneath the lights in Bahrain was enlivened by the evergreen Fernando Alonso.
After years of underperforming or unreliable machinery Alonso is finally equipped with machinery to suit his talent. Aston Martin was expected to front the midfield group but on race day the AMR23 was the second-fastest package. Alonso recovered from a so-so first lap, in which he was fortunate that wayward teammate Lance Stroll did not punt him around at Turn 4, to finish on the podium.
Alonso bided his team and passed both Mercedes drivers—including a stupendous move on Lewis Hamilton into Turn 10—and was crafty in eventually overhauling compatriot Carlos Sainz to snatch the 99th podium of his career.
“Obviously it is a perfect start to this project,” said Alonso. “We didn’t expect to be that competitive. The aim in 2023 was getting the mix in the midfield, leading that midfield and getting close to the top three teams. But even a podium was maybe not on the radar in 2023. And we found ourselves the second-best car today in Bahrain or the whole weekend, just behind Red Bull. So this is a little bit of a surprise. We are extremely proud, happy with the job done at Silverstone in the factory, so big congratulations to everyone, let’s enjoy this moment, and build from here hopefully a good 2023 campaign and get closer and closer to the top guys.”
Alonso’s podium was backed up by the presence of Stroll, in sixth, who bagged a strong result in spite of his limited pre-season and residual injuries.
“I’m happy to pick up six [points] considering everything that happened over the last two weeks,” said Stroll. “I couldn’t move and 10 days ago I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t [move] both hands. I didn’t think I would be here right now.”
Deflated Leclerc Suffers Dire Start
Charles Leclerc departed Bahrain with maximum points in 2022 but in 2023 he left with zero after suffering an engine failure during the race. Leclerc was running third—albeit a stretch behind the dominant Red Bulls—when an ancillary component on the SF-23’s engine failed.
“I cannot say it feels good,” said Leclerc. “Obviously there was quite a lot of work on that [reliability] but we need to keep working as it’s the first race and first reliability problem, yeah, not good.”
Leclerc continued that he is “as confident as I can be being second off the pace which is not really confident to be honest. Red Bull seems to have found something really big during the race pace… in terms of quali pace they are actually pretty similar to us so at least we managed to extract the lap time yesterday. But then we come to the race and we are a second a lap off the pace which is huge, so we need to work on that and the reliability.”
Leclerc was asked about the lack of race pace and merely responded: “Performance. We are just not quick enough. It’s impossible to look at the positives on a day like this when you don’t end the race.”
Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz inherited third but was powerless to prevent compatriot Alonso from grabbing the place, and he wound up fourth.
“On our car as soon as you push a bit you cook the tires,” said Sainz. “We have too much degradation, the tires get too hot when we start pushing. It’s as bad as it was last year, but the other two cars have found something that they degrade [less]. As soon as we push, we go backwards.”
‘One of Mercedes’ Worst Days in Racing’
Mercedes was cautious in the preseason over its prospect for 2023 but Bahrain was a firm reality check for the eight-time champions.
Lewis Hamilton was fifth, 50 seconds off the pace, while George Russell was a few seconds further back in seventh place. That would have been sixth and eighth respectively but for Leclerc’s premature exit.
“We are the fourth-fastest team right now, and the Ferrari and Aston that we were battling were just quicker than us,” said Hamilton.
“We are lacking performance and we are a long behind where we want to be,” conceded Russell. “Aston Martin are the surprise package this year and our deficit to Red Bull and those ahead is too big. The positive we can take away is that there is no fundamental problem with the car, other than it is lacking downforce. As silly as it sounds, that is one of the easiest problems to solve compared to what we had to do last year. We are all here to win. If we must sacrifice some races or part of this season to give ourselves a chance to fight in the second half of the season, or even next year, that is what we are going to have to do.”
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff presented a gloomy picture.
“That was one of our worst days in racing,” said Wolff. “It was not good at all; we are lacking pace front, right, and centre. The Aston Martins are very fast, and the Red Bull is just on a different planet. It hurts that they are so far ahead; it reminds me of our best years where we put one second on everyone else. That is the benchmark. We need to put one foot in front of the other to come back but nobody in this team will throw in the towel. We need to dig deep, deeper than we ever have done before. And we can do that.”
Being beaten by the customer Aston Martin team was a particularly embarrassing outcome for Mercedes.
American Logan Sargeant Solid in F1 Debut
Florida native Logan Sargeant picked up a solid 12th place in his Formula 1 debut for Williams.
The team had expected to be Formula 1’s backmarker in 2023 but in Bahrain ran better than anticipated and was comfortably in the midfield. Alex Albon resisted Yuki Tsunoda to round out the top 10, bagging a point, while Sargeant spent much of the race within sight of the pair.
“I’m really pleased with my first race,” said Sargeant. “I feel like everything operationally from the race start to pit stops, VSCs, everything went smoothly and I’m really happy with the pace that me and Alex had today. The team’s done an amazing job all weekend just unlocking that pace. We probably didn’t expect where we are now compared to the test and that’s just a massive testament to the work the team has done and I’m super proud of everyone.”
If Bahrain is a barometer for the remainder of the season then Sargeant should have several opportunities to fight for the lower points positions at more Grands Prix.
Elsewhere in the Field…
• McLaren suffered a dismal start to the year. Oscar Piastri retired early on due to a gearbox problem while Lando Norris had to pit six times in order to regularly recharge the pneumatic system after a pressure leak. Norris joked that McLaren at least had plenty of pit stop practice.
Esteban Ocon quipped “everything went wrong” as he got a penalty for being slightly out of his grid spot, another penalty for serving that penalty incorrectly, then another penalty for pit speeding. He eventually retired, though Pierre Gasly rose from last on the starting grid to ninth on his Alpine debut.
• Valtteri Bottas had a quiet but effective race to eighth place, delivering points for Alfa Romeo.
• Haas was unable to repeat the heroics of 2022 as Kevin Magnussen was 13th with Nico Hülkenberg 15th on his full-time return to Formula 1.