Bahrain GP conclusions: Believe Aston Martin hype, Wolff’s biggest challenge?
Max Verstappen started the 2023 Formula 1 season as he finished the last by winning the Bahrain Grand Prix, with Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez in second and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in third.
But it was a troubling day for Ferrari and Mercedes, whose problems at the Sakhir circuit felt eerily similar to their 2022 shortcomings.
Here are our conclusions from Bahrain…
Mercedes’ prolonged struggles risk tipping Hamilton into retirement
Lewis Hamilton does not take kindly to the suggestion – particularly when it comes from fellow World Champions whom he probably feels should know better – but it is undeniable that he is reaching a critical point of his Formula 1 career.
After the success he’s had, Lewis could swallow one lean year and 2022 was his answer to Michael Schumacher’s 2005 – a form of retribution for his previous crushing dominance.
The difference, in Michael’s case, was that he was back where he belonged right from the beginning of the following year, free to chase an eighth World Championship.
As for Hamilton, as he referenced after qualifying a distant P7, Mercedes started six tenths behind last year and start six tenths behind now.
Now 38, might another year of limited opportunities prove too tough to take?
There were moments in Bahrain when Hamilton’s questioning of Mercedes’ car concept seemed to stray into the territory of rebellion and Toto Wolff’s admission after the first qualifying session of the season that they had got it wrong was out of step with the words of his technical team, still confident in the long-term potential of the zero-pod, on Friday.
Therein, perhaps, lies the rub – the friction point that could determine Hamilton’s F1 future with a new contract yet to be agreed.
Is Wolff’s challenge now – possibly the greatest in his time at Mercedes – to find the right balance between the long-term prosperity of the team and the short-term view of a driver with no time to waste?
Hamilton has been insistent that he will remain in F1 for as long as it takes to secure that eighth title – “to take back the Championship that was taken from me,” as he put it in the latest series of Drive to Survive – but there may come a stage when reality interferes with his intentions.
With Verstappen and Red Bull almost certainly booked in for more success across the remainder of the current rules cycle, and in the face of an ever-rising George Russell threat within Mercedes, a momentous decision may have to be taken some time soon.
Surely he will not stick around long enough to see himself reduced to the status of an also-ran.
Aston Martin’s rise puts some of their rivals to shame
Sport is littered with tales of people throwing money at problems and then being surprised when they remain unresolved.
In an F1 context, the Toyota team of the 2000s remain the most glaring example of excess, the major car manufacturer who arrived with everything and withdrew years later having achieved nothing.
Why do projects like Toyota fail? Because sport, fundamentally, is not about money.
It is about people. Flesh and blood.
Lawrence Stroll gave the modest F1 team formerly known as Jordan/Force India the money. Then he provided the people – best in class, like technical director Dan Fallows, from teams of title-winning calibre.
The result, after a couple of years of teething troubles, is what we see now.
It couldn’t possibly have failed – not really, with this commitment and level of investment – but the rate of the rise has been astonishing.
The most arresting aspect of Aston Martin’s emergence as a major force is that it was almost accepted – by all, it seemed, except for Mr Stroll – that a sudden surge of this kind was a thing of the past.
Without a significant rule change, no team could dream of bridging the gap between F1’s haves and have-nots in a single winter and certainly not in an era when the midfield teams are known by the collective ‘Class B’.
We are constantly told that F1 is a technical and complicated sport.
Perhaps Aston Martin’s breakthrough – while still waiting for their “game-changing” new factory to open for business, remember – teaches us that it is actually a simple sport complicated by committees, power struggles, egos, stubbornness, an excuse culture and a general unwillingness to take the sensible path.
Take Mercedes, whose determination to make the zero-pod work has left Hamilton sounding disillusioned.
Take McLaren, whose wait for a new wind tunnel and simulator for a better future has almost become an excuse to forget the present.
With a first podium of 2023 already achieved, Alonso is finally set to be rewarded for his refusal to stop chasing that setting sun.
Believe the hype: Aston Martin are here to stay – and the overnight nature of their rise has put some of their rivals to shame.
Red Bull’s focus on bringing the bottom up could make Max’s life even easier
After the controversy of Interlagos last year, Red Bull may have been well advised to keep Verstappen and Perez apart when and wherever possible going forward.
But their preparations for the new season pointed to a concerted attempt to bring them closer together on a more regular basis in 2023.
With both drivers complaining about the RB18’s balance at various points last season – Perez happier with the slower rotation in the early rounds before development turned in Verstappen’s direction – Helmut Marko revealed a conscious effort to please the pair of them in the design of the RB19.
“We seem to have found a solution that allows both drivers to show their qualities,” the Red Bull adviser announced during testing.
To underline this renewed focus, Red Bull took the unique step of allocating the entire final day of testing to Perez – in the best, most representative conditions seven days before the opening qualifying session.
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Having been eliminated from Q2 on his Red Bull debut in Bahrain in 2021 and managing fourth on the grid last year (three tenths off the team leader) Perez started the first race of 2023 alongside Verstappen on the front row, a tenth and a half away from pole.
Despite winning 17 of the 22 races last season, only five times (Imola, Barcelona, Baku, Spa, Suzuka) did Red Bull hit the heavenly heights of a one-two finish.
The first of 2023 is already on the board and, by bringing the bottom up, Red Bull open up more possibilities for the team to better control and manage races and eliminate external threats this year.
Provided that Perez can stay loyally at his side – fast enough to support but never to threaten him – Verstappen’s life may be about to become even easier.
Ferrari are reliant on Leclerc’s genius keeping them afloat until weaknesses are addressed
Over at Ferrari, the first race of the Fred Vasseur era turned out to be not so different from the final days of Mattia Binotto’s management at Maranello.
The car is still quick over a single lap, its race pace is still inferior to that of its competitors and it is still prone to an engine failure.
Oh, and Charles Leclerc is very much still the beating heart of this team.
Carlos Sainz’s gradual improvement throughout last year had given him hope that he could make a far smoother start to 2023 in a car more suited to his driving style, but even in that statement he revealed a fundamental weakness.
No truly great driver – and due apologies to admirers of Sebastian Vettel – ever finds themselves unsuited to and unable to gel with a particular racing car. The very best always – always – find a way to make it work.
It transpired in testing that tyre management was a weakness of the Ferrari and while in qualifying Sainz again demonstrated his capacity to challenge Leclerc over a single lap, the race was the arena in which Charles’ greater finesse, touch and feel made itself felt against Carlos’s more abrupt, harsher technique.
Sainz would express his concern after the race about the pace of the Aston Martin, but Leclerc had him, Alonso and Hamilton all covered quite comfortably until his retirement.
After being forced to run their engine in a detuned state following a series of failures in the middle of last year, Ferrari were targeting a return to full power from the start of 2023 and a DNF so soon indicates there is more work to be done.
While lacking the renewed hope of his Bahrain 2022 victory a hard-earned P3 would have represented a solid start to the season for Leclerc, something to build on as he waits for the car’s limitations to be addressed.
Already he starts 25 points behind Verstappen. But on the evidence of Sainz’s performance here, Ferrari will be heavily reliant on Leclerc to keep their title hopes afloat.
Who is going to lead McLaren out of this mess?
When was the last time chief executive Zak Brown was McLaren’s representative for the mid-race ‘live from the pit wall’ check-ins with the television commentators?
Before he left to manage Sauber in anticipation of Audi’s F1 arrival in 2026, that responsibility routinely fell to Andreas Seidl in his role as team principal.
At their first grand prix without him, the re-emergence of Brown as McLaren’s race fell apart around him – Oscar Piastri retiring after 13 laps and Lando Norris pitting every five minutes or so to give his engine gas and air – served only to underline the lack of leadership within the race team following Seidl’s departure.
Following the news of his exit, McLaren wasted no time in promoting Andrea Stella – a respected engineer and Alonso’s former race engineer at Ferrari – as his successor.
The logic was understandable – maintaining stability, preserving everything good about Seidl’s tenure – but seemed to overlook the fact that the team principal position is an increasingly nuanced and specialised role requiring a broad skillset and a certain type of character.
Is it still possible for a humble engineer to rise through the ranks to the head of an F1 team and lead them to glory?
A glance across to Ferrari, who accepted Binotto’s resignation 14 days before Stella’s appointment late last year, may provide a clue to the answer.
McLaren had been expecting a challenging start to the season but their lack of pace throughout the opening weekend and the chaotic nature of their race hinted this may be more than just a blip.
And it is uncertain exactly who is going to lead them through it.