With three races done and a gap of almost a month until the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, now is the time to pause for breath on the F1 2023 season.
The new campaign has started much as the last one finished, Red Bull and Max Verstappen cementing their status at the head of the field and Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton still struggling to recapture their former glories.
New season, same old story? Here our are conclusions from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia…
Red Bull are the new Mercedes
This wasn’t supposed to happen again.
Not in the era of budget caps and weighted aerodynamic research restrictions, levelling the playing field and creating more competition across the pit lane.
That was Liberty’s post-2022 vision for Formula 1 remember, but instead the sport once again finds itself in a position it has seen so many times before with one team and a single driver the masters of all they survey.
In a sense, the continued success of Red Bull and Verstappen should be celebrated for it reminds us that success in sport is not so much about the resources available to a team as such fundamentals as talent, brainpower, organisation and culture.
Domination is bad for business in any sport, though, and after three races the 2023 season is already threatening to be as tough a watch as the worst of the Mercedes-controlled campaigns of the previous era.
Much of the pre-testing talk honed in on the theory that Mercedes and Ferrari in particular had more scope than Red Bull to improve from last season, but those predicting a closer fight did not seem – or rather, did not want – to consider that Adrian Newey and Co had barely scratched the surface in the first year of the ground effect regulations in 2022.
From the moment the RB19 appeared in Bahrain, however, it was obvious the best had got even better, three consecutive victories planting Red Bull’s flag at the top of the F1 mountain.
Those wins were not without a hint of discomfort, Red Bull said to be worried sick about reliability in Bahrain before a driveshaft problem took Verstappen out of Q2 in Saudi Arabia, but these are only minor concerns at this stage.
The increasing desperation for any sort of drama in 2023 has seen Sergio Perez nominated as Verstappen’s greatest threat, but if it dawned in Jeddah that the driver tension of Brazil 2022 has not been totally drained, surely it will not be long before Checo – if he has any more weekends like Australia – is stuffed nicely back into a Valtteri Bottas-type wingman role.
It is pointless – and potentially unfair, considering how Bottas bore the brunt of the public’s frustration in the later years of Mercedes’ dominant period – to attempt to frame him as anything more than that.
Assuming Perez fades, that will leave Verstappen in the same position his great rival Hamilton found himself throughout Mercedes’ dominant period: with the path to destiny laid out before him.
Mercedes are the new Red Bull
In the early years of the hybrid era, each season would follow a roughly similar pattern.
Mercedes would start strong, locking down the World Championship to a straight duel between their drivers by late spring, before another team – usually Red Bull – emerged as an ever-greater proposition as the season deepened.
It may never have been enough to worry Mercedes during the current campaign, but the promise and potential for the next? Tantalising.
Look at the progress from the start of the year to now, Red Bull would always say. Just one more push over the winter…
And sure enough, next season would come – the points reset to zero – and Mercedes’ advantage would, if anything, be even greater than before.
Red Bull? All mouth, no trousers.
This theme continued to varying degrees over seven years until 2021, but now the joy of that season is but a distant memory and if in 2023 Red Bull are the new Mercedes, the role reversal is complete with Mercedes the new Red Bull.
After being restricted to a single victory last year, Mercedes had reason to believe their oft-repeated claims that curing their car of the dreaded porpoising would unlock a world of possibilities in 2023.
Indeed, the W14 went almost nine tenths faster in qualifying in Bahrain last month than its predecessor in 2022.
The problem? Red Bull and Aston Martin – in only the second season of a new rules cycle – found even more, ultimately leaving Mercedes no closer to the front and plunged into crisis before the opening race had even been run.
Can the current car concept be developed into a consistent Red Bull beater over time?
Or are the occasional flashes of pace from the zero-pod chassis – culminating in George Russell’s Brazil 2022 win and including his front-row start in Australia – only ever circumstantial, highly flattering of the package and ultimately misleading?
Despite Toto Wolff’s order to pursue a new development path, rest assured this debate will still be taking place within the four walls of Brackley among those calling for calm and the non-believers agitating for change.
The reactions of Wolff and Hamilton, his prospects of a historic eighth title rapidly fading, to Mercedes’ prolonged underperformance have been fascinating and point to an uncomfortable truth.
Much like Red Bull back in 2014/15, Mercedes are a team visibly struggling to come to terms with their new reality.
Alonso’s refusal to stop chasing the setting sun will be rewarded at Aston Martin
Podium finishes? Like buses. You wait seven whole years for one and then three come along at once.
Fernando Alonso’s reacquaintance with F1’s podium protocol has been one of the great joys of early 2023, mostly because it was so unexpected – by all, it seems, except Fernando and the rest of the Aston Martin team.
There was more than a flicker of amusement in the air when his move was announced on the first morning of last year’s summer break, Alonso – with a history of making bad career choices – walking away from an Alpine on course for fourth in the Championship for a team with just 20 points from 13 races.
Yet, this time, Fernando could see what others could not.
With such investment, commitment, talent and brainpower, it was only a matter of time before Lawrence Stroll’s project had lift off.
And who better than Alonso, the most ferocious competitor of them all, to provide the spark?
The rate of Aston Martin’s has been breathtaking, shattering F1’s glass ceiling in a fashion few no longer thought possible and even taking Alonso himself by surprise.
He expected these kind of results only to be possible from Year Two, which raises all sorts of possibilities about what he and his new team can achieve from this strong starting point.
With next month marking a full decade since his last F1 win, could his next victory be just around the corner?
And what about that crowning glory of a third World Championship? Still unlikely. But if he can keep defying time and Aston Martin’s improvement can be sustained as the new factory opens for business, who knows?
No matter where this leads, Alonso is set to be rewarded for his utter refusal to stop chasing that setting sun.
It’s a long road back for Ferrari and McLaren
As the debate surrounding Mercedes’ car concept continues apace, why is the same conversation not enveloping Ferrari?
The SF-23 follows the same idea as its predecessor – a fundamentally low-drag design that somehow mustered enough downforce to fly at twistier venues in the first half of the season – but the Ferrari has not performed to a race-winning standard for some time now.
Still unreliable (despite the team’s best efforts over the winter), tricky to drive and harsh on the tyres, the car has few redeeming features compared to its competitors on a grid where a growing number of teams are following the Red Bull philosophy.
Could it be that Ferrari’s strong start to 2022 when Red Bull were at their weakest with an overweight and unrefined RB18 – combined with the all-consuming focus on reliability and operational fragilities as the reasons behind their mid-season implosion, with car performance an afterthought – fooled them into thinking this concept had more so much more potential?
Still awaiting a first podium finish of the season, at least Ferrari can consider themselves in a better position than old foes McLaren, who braced themselves for a challenging start after missing development targets over the winter.
James Key, with a reputation for producing draggy cars stretching back to his Toro Rosso days, has paid for those unfulfilled goals with his job in another Zak Brown-led restructure some had hoped was a thing of the past.
In the circumstances, fifth in the Constructors’ standings after three races – purely a reward for Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri staying out of trouble in Australia – represents good damage limitation ahead of a major upgrade in Baku, but it remains to be seen whether new team principal Andrea Stella can replicate the quiet leadership and firm direction of his predecessor Andreas Seidl.
There were moments in recent seasons when it seemed these teams were on a one-way route back to the top, Daniel Ricciardo ending McLaren’s eight-year winless run at Monza 2021 and Charles Leclerc holding a handsome Championship lead after three races of 2022.
Their stumble at the start of this season, however, acts as a reminder of just how far Ferrari and McLaren have fallen – and how both teams face a long road back.
McLaren and Haas driver changes have already been justified
When is it ever OK to kill Bambi?
When he costs your F1 team a place in the Constructors’ Championship for two seasons running, that’s when. Or when he ‘foksmashes’ a couple of chassis in quick succession to ramp up an eye-watering repair bill.
McLaren were accused of taking the fun out of Formula 1 when they dropped Ricciardo, one of the most likeable characters of the modern era, at the end of last season, and Haas almost seemed to commit a form of blasphemy by mistreating Mick Schumacher, the son of F1’s god.
It has taken just three races, though, for their bold decisions to be proven right.
Replacing Ricciardo at McLaren at just 22, Piastri carries himself with the deadly certainty that has characterised some of F1’s greats, his approach making that of Norris – himself one of the standout performers of recent years – look slightly infantile by comparison.
That he secured McLaren’s first Q3 appearance of 2023 in Jeddah in a session where Norris fell in Q1 after an unusual and uncharacteristic mistake, the type that leaves a racing driver questioning reality (did I really just do that?), was a significant early victory in the inter-team battle.
If Norris really is the potential future World Champion that his performances since 2021 have led so many to believe, the mere presence of Piastri in the McLaren garage – someone to finally push him – should drive Lando to an ever-higher level to the overall benefit of the team.
Meanwhile, a team like Haas – with eyes only on the present – had no time to wait and see exactly how good Schumacher could become over time in the right environment.
In that sense, Nico Hulkenberg was not so much a successor to Schumacher as a direct replacement for Romain Grosjean – released with great reluctance by the team at the end of 2020 – filling the gaping hole of experience in the seat alongside Kevin Magnussen.
Any fears that Hulkenberg’s age and three-year absence from the cockpit would compromise his comeback disappeared when he reached Q3 in his first race back in Bahrain – a plug-in-and-play performance straight from his various Covid cameos for Racing Point/Aston Martin – and followed it up with another in Australia.
The Schumacher name on the grid may have been what the people wanted but a grizzly old pro like Hulkenberg is precisely what Haas need.
Sorry, Mick and Danny Ric, but Bambi just had to get it.
– The longer it takes Mercedes to return to race-winning contention, the more likely Hamilton will be tipped into retirement. After all he’s achieved, how long before Lewis decides he doesn’t need this anymore?
– On the other side of the garage, Mercedes’ problems could prove a blessing in disguise for George Russell. His blueprint? Keep calm, stay positive and wait for Lewis and Merc to grow sick of each other. The team leader role will soon come his way.
– The Strolls have finally won Formula 1’s acceptance. Lawrence has built a force to be reckoned with in Aston Martin, while Lance’s determination to return from his pre-season accident has altered perceptions.
– James Vowles is bringing a little bit of Mercedes to Williams, but it helps that the car is a clear improvement on last year. Proof, perhaps, that the success of a team principal hinges almost entirely on the quality of the car.
– One of the underrated stars of 2023, Yuki Tsunoda is finally coming of age. After dragging an uncompetitive AlphaTauri to the fringes of the top 10 in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, a point in Australia was well deserved.
– Whisper it for now, but did his Monza 2022 cameo in a rocketship Williams flatter Nyck de Vries? Tsunoda has made the 28-year-old rookie look distinctly average so far.
– Turns out Logan Sargeant isn’t a younger version of Nicholas Latifi after all. The American boy has some rough edges, but Williams have plenty to work with.
– If someone incurs a grid penalty for exceeding their power unit component pool after one race, as Leclerc did in Saudi Arabia, the problem is not with the team but the rule. Engine-related grid penalties keep ruining races.
– When in doubt, F1 must err on the side of sport over show. The needless red flag finish in Melbourne may have been exciting but left many struggling to take F1 seriously – a dangerous position for any sport.