Winners and losers from 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, in front of the '1' sign. Bahrain, March 2023.

Max Verstappen parks his Red Bull RB19 in front of the '1' sign. Bahrain, March 2023.

When the flag drops, something else stops – and that was the case in the first qualifying session of the 2023 Formula 1 season at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Saturday.

When the green light shone to signal the start of Q1, all the rumour and conjecture of pre-season fizzed away to leave a battle of pure performance and provide, at last, firm answers to the biggest questions from the winter.

Here’s our pick of the winners and losers from qualifying in Bahrain…

Winners

Max Verstappen/Red Bull

So in the end and after all that, there wasn’t too much for Max Verstappen and Red Bull to worry about in qualifying in Bahrain.

The sudden emergence of Aston Martin in the hands of Fernando Alonso had caused concern throughout practice, augmented by the sense that Red Bull had lost something and weren’t quite as formidable as they looked in testing.

But it was alright on the night – Verstappen’s advantage of three tenths over the one-shot Ferrari of Charles Leclerc making for a quite comfortable pole position.

The big bonus? Sergio Perez was encouragingly close to Verstappen and starts from second, theoretically giving Red Bull the perfect platform to control the race.

Now play nicely, boys, and whatever you do don’t mention Brazil…

Ferrari

The general consensus after testing seemed to be that Ferrari had fallen slightly behind where they finished 2022, so it was a pleasant surprise to see them retain their place as the second-fastest team on pure pace.

Leclerc will line up alongside Carlos Sainz on the second row, quicker by a tenth and a half, but the sight of the Monegasque climbing out of his car with time left to run in Q3 was a curious one.

Ferrari’s severe treatment of the tyres became a theme of testing and Leclerc’s move to sacrifice his last run and save an extra set possibly revealed how worried the team are for the race ahead.

Until tyre management is addressed, are the Scuderia destined to qualify with one arm tied behind their back?

Aston Martin

So it wasn’t to be, the greatest overnight underdog story F1 had seen since Brawn GP, but don’t let Aston Martin’s failure to challenge for pole in Bahrain overshadow the progress they have made.

This, remember, is the team who finished four places and 460 points behind Mercedes at the end of 2022 qualifying ahead of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton for the first race of 2023.

A gap of half a second exists between fifth-placed Alonso and Lance Stroll in P8, but the latter will have grown in many people’s estimations this week in driving through the discomfort of an injured wrist.

This is just the start and having made this stunning breakthrough – the shattering of the glass ceiling most thought was no longer possible in F1 – you suspect Aston Martin are now here to stay.

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Nico Hulkenberg

Nico Hulkenback and, it transpires, better than ever.

Eyebrows were raised last year when Haas turned to a 35-year-old veteran – out of a full-time seat for three seasons – to replace Mick Schumacher.

But on his qualifying debut for his new team the Hulk displayed the same plug-in-and-play quality that saw him excel in Covid cameos for Racing Point/Aston Martin over recent years.

A Q3 appearance was an outstanding achievement and left team-mate Kevin Magnussen – the returning hero of last season out in Q1 – fearing the VF-23 car is simply better suited to Hulkenberg.

Losers

Mercedes

Mercedes had hoped that by eliminating porpoising over the winter they would unleash a monster, but on this evidence the eight-time Constructors’ Champions still have a mountain to climb.

Sixth and seventh for Russell and Hamilton was not exactly ‘the empire strikes back’ and going slower than an Aston Martin – a customer team running the same engine, gearbox and rear suspension – was the F1 equivalent of being kicked in the head with your own shoes on someone else’s feet.

As Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff acknowledged after the session, they started six tenths behind last year and start six tenths behind now.

Progress, eh?

McLaren

McLaren need Lando Norris more than ever right now and his P11, in this car, was one of the great underrated performances of Bahrain qualifying.

Ultimately, though, it papered over the cracks and a truer indication of where the team currently stand could perhaps be found in the fact that just eight hundredths kept debutant Oscar Piastri off the bottom of the timesheet.

Improvements are needed and fast.

Pierre Gasly

P18 on the grid was not the debut Piastri would have been dreaming of, but there is always somebody worse off than you.

As we know, he could so easily have found himself in the Alpine in which Pierre Gasly qualified dead last for his first race with his new team.

Six tenths was also the magic number at Alpine as Gasly fell in Q1 while team-mate Esteban Ocon bludgeoned his way into Q3 with another of the quietly brilliant performances of the day.

Impressively, Gasly’s P20 in Bahrain was an even worse result than the 17th on the grid he managed on his Red Bull debut back in 2019.

He will hope his latest big move is ultimately remembered more fondly.