Can Fernando Alonso crash the ‘Big Three’ party at the Bahrain Grand Prix?

Toby Miles
Fernando Alonso in Aston Martin gear. February 2023

Two-time Fernando Alonso in Aston Martin gear. February 2023

No more hiding, secret-keeping and guess-work: the season in here and the Bahrain Grand Prix is about to answer the questions we’ve spent a winter pondering.

The 2023 curtain-raiser at Sakhir, the 19th edition of the Bahrain Grand Prix follows a fascinating three-day test on the same circuit – offering some important clues to the performance of each car.

Reigning champion Max Verstappen will begin his title defence, aiming for back-to-back-to-back Championships with a Red Bull team that has shown no signs of releasing their grip on the series. But going into the longest F1 season of all time, there’s time for a twist or two.

Charles Leclerc was the winner in Bahrain 12 months ago but is the SF-23 capable of another perfect start? What of Mercedes’ comeback attempt, and who has a headstart in the midfield? Let’s set the scene for Race 1, under the lights in Bahrain…

The Big Three will reveal their true pace

The 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix was the scene of a reliability nightmare for Red Bull. A double DNF left them with a 44-point deficit to a flying Ferrari, as Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finished 1-2 and took the fastest lap to boot.

Few would have predicted Verstappen’s Championship-winning 146-point margin at that stage – and it represents a daunting chasm to close. Once again, the pressure to do so falls on Ferrari and Mercedes.

Red Bull’s minor overspend breach of the 2021 cost cap is not expected to bite them until later in the season, with the RB19 being an evolution of last year’s title-winning car looking just as dominant in testing. It topped the timesheets on Days 1 and 3 through Verstappen and Sergio Perez, who were driving as if on rails.

Meanwhile, Ferrari and Mercedes weren’t quite so faultless. The key concerns about the Scuderia’s SF-23 are not pace but tyre-eating tendencies, while a sudden desertion of downforce followed by a hydraulics failure on George Russell’s W14 set Mercedes back.

The true potential of the W14 and SF-23 will be unveiled at the weekend but Ferrari fans will be hoping the winter’s reshuffles and restructurings will pay off. Should tyre degradation still be an issue on Sunday, it could be one of the first major tests of new team principal Fred Vasseur’s leadership.

Mattia Binotto’s successor has reorganised Ferrari’s strategy department in time for Round 1, hoping to fix one of last season’s key weaknesses in comparisons to the shrewd Red Bull pit wall.

Verstappen goes in as resounding favourite in Bahrain, while team-mate Perez will be under intense scrutiny right from the start of the season. Falling further off his Dutch team-mate’s pace is not an option with Red Bull reserve Daniel Ricciardo fronting a queue of drivers who would no doubt be ready to replace him if called upon.

How fast are Aston Martin?

While Ferrari, who hyped their SF-23 as “a single seater unprecedented in terms of speed”, might be harsh on rubber, it’s expected the Maranello engineers have produced a car with at least enough pace to justify a “Big Three” billing.

Meanwhile, some pundits believe Mercedes are under threat… from their own customer team. While Lewis Hamilton admitted some of the W13’s issues have lingered, Aston Martin’s pre-season test could hardly have gone better.

Nothing but positive noises have leaked out of Silverstone through the off-season. Luring Red Bull aerodynamicist Dan Fallows was a major coup, while Fernando Alonso looks poised to spearhead a surge up the grid. The Spaniard was flying in testing, producing eye-catching data on his hot-laps as well as long runs.

Last year, Q1 exits for both cars in Bahrain before P12 and P17 on Sunday was a deflating start to Aston Martin’s second successive season as F1’s seventh best constructor. This time out, Alonso might even have his sights on the podium…

Lance Stroll missing testing due to a cycling accident was a blow to the team but should the Canadian be unable to race in Bahrain, Aston Martin have the chance to hand Brazilian prospect and Formula 2 champion Felipe Drugovich his F1 debut.

The 22-year-old was described as “faultless” by Aston principal Mike Krack, and his debut could be another fascinating sub-plot this weekend.

Bahrain Grand Prix midfield pace a minefield

The 2022 best-of-the-rest battle saw Alpine and McLaren quickly established as the only P4 contenders. After the French team came out on top, this year’s campaign was billed as a rematch.

However, the papaya car is likely to be missing from that fight in Bahrain. If Aston Martin were all positive vibes, McLaren seemed like the grid’s Debbie Downers after testing.

After new team principal Andrea Stella let slip he was “not entirely happy” with the MCL60, Lando Norris and 2023 rookie Oscar Piastri completed the fewest laps in testing and certainly didn’t look capable of closing up to those in front in Bahrain.

With Norris harbouring warranted Grand Prix-winning ambitions, he could be in for a frustrating weekend…

Alpine kept their cards close to their chest last week, particularly when it came to one-lap pace. Their winter objective was to fix the reliability on a powerful package, which seemingly ran without a hitch in testing. How their 2023 machine really compares with Aston Martin’s is the key question.

Sunday will also be the first test of Esteban Ocon and new Alpine signing Pierre Gasly’s relationship. The French duo claim to have settled lingering tensions from their junior racing days but a wheel-to-wheel battle on the Sakhir circuit will reveal whether that mutual respect and friendliness can be maintained.

Dark horses for the Bahrain Grand Prix

Zhou Guanyu finishing Day 2 of testing ahead of Max Verstappen in P1 after a blitz on soft tyres wasn’t to be taken as a sign Bahrain might crown F1’s first Chinese race winner, but it did add to a strong three days for Alfa Romeo.

Valtteri Bottas qualified P6 and finished there in Bahrain last year, eventually leading Alfa to sixth on the Constructors’ standings too. Zhou was a long way behind his 10-time Grand Prix winning team-mate’s pace but pushing him closer would be a welcome confidence boost this weekend. Alfa will be dark horses in Bahrain.

Kevin Magnussen would also like to repeat last year’s Sakhir success, having produced a season-best P5 on his F1 comeback. Partnered by Nico Hulkenberg to form an experienced points-scoring duo, Guenther Steiner will be hoping to break into the top 10 off the bat.

Look out for Haas’ mini pit-wall booth this weekend too, the team cutting to three track-side seats in a cost-saving measure. Steiner assured that every available penny has gone into their VF-23 and with new title sponsor MoneyGram on board, they’re looking much healthier going into 2023.

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Rookie hopefuls

Joining Oscar Piastri to start their rookie season in Bahrain are Dutch talent Nyck de Vries and American hope Logan Sargeant for AlphaTauri and Williams.

Red Bull’s sister team slumped to a disappointing P9 on the Constructors’ standings last season, losing star driver Gasly at the end of the season. Yuki Tsunoda showed strong pace in testing as AlphaTauri clocked more laps than any other team across the three days, however.

Tsuonda will hope to make it three consecutive points-scoring finishes at the Bahrain Grand Prix, while De Vries’ P9 at last season’s Italian GP as a stand-in for Alex Albon at Williams set high expectations for the 28-year-old.

Albon himself was encouraged by William’s pre-season showing, their first trouble-free test in years. Sargeant’s first experience in the FW45 went smoothly, the Florida man demonstrating their new car’s impressive single-lap pace.

With the midfield expected to tighten up this season, Williams will be hoping for a strong qualifying performance in Bahrain before proving their race pace, which was their weakness last season and failed to show signs of improvement during testing.