Max Verstappen the man to beat in Bahrain but 2023 F1 championship is an all-star race
Formula One lifts the curtain on the 2023 world championship this weekend in Bahrain.
The desert circuit of Sakhir kicks off a 23-race season which will visit the Las Vegas strip as well as more erstwhile theatres of speed like Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps and Silverstone.
Max Verstappen is the man to beat. The 25-year-old’s mission is to win a third consecutive world championship, and a second on the bounce for Red Bull in the constructors’ stakes. There are plenty of contenders to take those honours off them, though.
Lewis Hamilton is out to secure a record eighth world championship. Last year was his first winless season, lumbered with a Mercedes that was, at times, almost undriveable. However, Merc had caught back up with their rivals by the end of 2022, giving George Russell his first visit to the top step in Sao Paulo.
And therein lies the danger for Hamilton. Hopefully the new non-porpoising Mercedes W14 is a match for its drivers’ talents, but might it be more suited to Russell’s attacking style?
The initial signs from last week’s three-day test in Bahrain are Red Bull has an even better car this year. They topped the time sheets and looked fast, smooth and reliable on long runs as well as short.
Ferrari looked second best but a way off, with tyre degradation proving an issue. Charles Leclerc is hoping for a more sustained title tilt than last year, when he scored more poles than anyone else – nine to Verstappen’s seven.
This year’s new Ferrari SF-23 looks to have a different philosophy. The previous machine was superlative around corners but slightly down on the straights.
The evolution seems to be the opposite, which could cost them pace on Saturdays but help in races where they need to overtake and defend on the straights.
Sundays are, after all, where the points are. Unless one counts sprint races, and we have double the number this season: Azerbaijan, Austria, Belgium, Qatar, Austin and Sao Paulo.
Who is third fastest? Not Mercedes, it seems. Hamilton and Russell may be bouncing less but the car still looks laggy. Disappointing, given the rules have allowed them 27 per cent more time in the wind tunnel than Red Bull.
No, the biggest threat to Red Bull and Ferrari looks right now to be the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso. How about that? One of the greatest drivers of all time, 41-year-old Alonso has half as many world titles as he should have because he tends to follow the money rather than speed when it comes to his team picks. He has traded Alpine this year for Aston.
Alpine finished 2022 fourth and Aston seventh, but as unlikely as it sounds it seems the racing green team have elevated themselves from the back of the midfield to the front – and perhaps even better than that. The AMR23 was rapid and really kind to its tyres last week on the abrasive Bahrain asphalt.
There are some new faces and they are all potential superstars: Nyck de Vries did one race last year for Williams, finished ninth, enough to make Red Bull swoop in and sign him for Alpha Tauri.
At 28, he’s older than most rookies but was the Formula Two champion in 2019 and the Formula E champ in 2021. If De Vries does well, he could end up taking Sergio Perez’s place at Red Bull, alongside Verstappen.
Logan Sargeant is the only American on the grid and joins slowly-improving Williams. The 22-year-old, from Fort Lauderdale, won the F3 title in 2020 but will need to go some to keep up with team-mate Alex Albon, who would be winning races right now if Red Bull had managed him a bit better.
The most buzzworthy rookie is Australia’s Oscar Piastri, 21, who has both the F3 and F2 titles to his name. Red Bull boss Christian Horner says he’s ‘the new Verstappen’ and regrets not signing him.
There was a tug-of-war over his services between McLaren and Alpine, and McLaren’s lawyers won that battle. It will be interesting to see who wins the next one: Piastri or team-mate Lando Norris.
First appear at Max Verstappen the man to beat in Bahrain but 2023 F1 championship is an all-star race