So now, we wait.
F1’s three days of pre-season testing came to an end on Saturday ahead of next weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the opening round of the 2023 campaign.
Testing had never seemed so uneventful with most teams getting straight down to business and experiencing few issues in Sakhir, but with Red Bull and Max Verstappen looking strong and Fernando Alonso shining in a much-improved Aston Martin, there are already clear clues to how the new season could develop.
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The standard, for better of worse, has never been higher
Pre-season testing, we are reminded every year, is not the time to chase fast laps. It is for reliability, systems/aero checks and establishing a solid foundation for the campaign ahead.
It is also the time for a good crisis, bringing the opportunity to gleefully write off a team’s hopes and dreams for the season before the first race even happens.
As testing stories go, nothing will ever beat the sense of dread that swallowed McLaren-Honda whole twice in three years in 2015 and ’17.
Mercedes’ discovery of the bouncing monster last year came close, as did Red Bull’s power unit pain in the first winter of the hybrid era in 2014, but on each occasion the fall of the empire was cushioned by the fact that the car was still comfortably third in the competitive order.
These tales of impending doom make for the most compelling testing talking points – but this year?
The tremors were few and far between, no team has been totally consumed by crisis and over three long days of testing nothing much at all happened.
Only three times in three days did the red flag wave for a car stranded on track and while Mercedes and McLaren stand out as the teams most dissatisfied with their winter’s work, both seem hopeful – for now at least (more on the latter later…) – that their weaknesses are nothing they can’t develop out of existence.
Some teams may be happier than others, but overall the standard across the pit lane – with every team averaging in excess of 100 laps a day – has never been higher.
Which, considering that this was the second time in three years that only three days of winter running were deemed necessary, should perhaps spark a debate over the necessity for pre-season testing.
If the teams can look this polished and professional straight out of the box is there an argument for dropping pre-season testing entirely, leaving FP1 at the opening race as the first time the cars run in anger?
Provided a situation like Melbourne 2015 – the most amateurish grand prix weekend of recent years, in which only 15 cars started and most teams seemed unprepared despite three winter tests – can be avoided, that may provide the injection of unpredictability F1 so desperately needs.
The teams may be relieved to have had the opportunity to quietly go about their business – but if three uneventful days in Bahrain have just set the tone for the year ahead, 2023 could be a long season.
Red Bull will start 2023 as the overwhelming favourites
The major problem with the widely accepted pre-pre-season narrative that Ferrari and Mercedes would close the gap to Red Bull in 2023? It assumed that Red Bull had already reached the ceiling of the new regulations in 2022.
The Constructors’ Champions may have won all but five races, but there was many a time last season – some quite late in the year – when Verstappen would express his frustration with the characteristics and behaviour of the RB18.
Could it be that one of the most dominant title-winning seasons ever witnessed was just a platform for more? Were Red Bull in 2022 merely skimming the surface of what is possible in the first year of the revised ruleset?
The evidence so far would suggest that, far from being caught, the best have got even better – the RB19 a more refined evolution of its predecessor, reliable and ominously, inevitably fast in the hands of Verstappen.
For an indication of the inner confidence within Red Bull, look no further than the fact that Verstappen’s winter running was already done come close of play on Day 2 – altered from the original and even bolder plan for Max to finish at lunchtime.
Verstappen, it seems, is certain that whatever happens it will be alright on the night of Bahrain qualifying and the decision to hand the entire final day of performance running in the best, most representative conditions to Sergio Perez – whose fastest lap was quicker than last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix pole position tine – was intriguing in the context of how last year ended.
Red Bull were left disappointed in Abu Dhabi last November, having made it their mission to have both drivers in the top two positions in the Championship for the first time in their history.
With Perez ultimately missing out on P2 to Charles Leclerc, does the move to give Verstappen’s wingman the best possible preparation for Bahrain reveal Red Bull’s intentions for 2023?
As well as raising the bar even higher, are the team also hopeful of bringing the bottom up and making Perez a more reliable and consistent contender?
Alonso has finally made an inspired career move
Fernando Alonso has a reputation for making bad career moves, but the logic behind each of his decisions seemed relatively sound at the time.
He wasn’t to know, for instance, that Red Bull were about to emerge as a major force in 2008, that Ferrari were about to deliver a series of there-but-not-quite cars in the early 2010s or that McLaren and Honda would prove so horribly incompatible in 2015.
When his latest – likely final – roll of the dice was announced on the first morning of the 2022 summer break, many took pleasure in that silly old fool Alonso making the same mistake again.
At 41 and with his hopes of a third title long gone, they said, Alonso had taken the money – another washed-up World Champion signed by Aston Martin to make Lance Stroll look good.
Yet Fernando saw what others did not – the enormous potential of and commitment to the Aston project, the team’s impressive recovery from a dreadful start to 2022 – and with a car fusing the best ideas from Red Bull and Mercedes, designed by people who used to work for Red Bull and Mercedes, he looks set to have the last laugh.
Comparisons to the Brawn GP wonder of 2009 is a stretch, but Aston appear to be firmly in the top four and – potentially in the right circumstances – could even slot quite nicely into the competitive chasm separating Ferrari and Mercedes from Red Bull.
A full decade after his last victory, might Alonso be poised to become a grand prix winner again in 2023?
All he needs is a car that gets him close; Fernando will do the rest.
On another Aston Martin-related note, with Stroll possibly set to miss the start of the season through injury the choice for the second seat in Bahrain – despite talk of a return for Sebastian Vettel, who after an emotional farewell in Abu Dhabi would surely not want to suffer the indignity of being dropkicked back into retirement by his old foe Alonso – is said to be between reserve drivers Felipe Drugovich and Stoffel Vandoorne.
An F1 return for Vandoorne – once a special talent whose spirit was crushed by Alonso at McLaren in 2017/18 – at the circuit where he made a stunning debut in 2016 would make for a fine story, but his Formula E commitments opened the door for Drugovich this week.
With the 2022 F2 Champion assuming driving duties in testing – completing a total of 117 laps in the AMR23, albeit none in representative conditions as Alonso took charge – it would be quite an insult if Aston were to pick anyone else to race next weekend.
Whomever they choose, for a third season in four the Silverstone team may find that a substitute is better than at least one of their regular drivers…
Spare a thought for Lando and Oscar
Having seen their momentum slow in 2022, McLaren’s drive fearlessly forward has stuttered to a complete halt in the early weeks of 2023.
Some were left utterly aghast when the team unveiled what was described as a Red Bull RB18 clone at the launch of the MCL60 earlier this month and the mood music surrounding McLaren is of a team at odds with itself.
It is one thing for a team like Racing Point – impatient, keen to cut corners and with no real history to speak of – to brazenly copy another team’s car as they did with the Championship-winning Mercedes in 2020.
It is quite another for McLaren, with all that heritage and tradition for innovative thinking, to do it when they have repeatedly emphasised a determination to bridge the gap to F1’s leading teams.
McLaren are meant to be trying to beat ’em, after all, not join ’em.
Racing Point’s adventures with the pink Mercedes revealed that while it is perfectly possible to effectively copy another team’s design, developing a full and intimate understanding of the car – as well as establishing a coherent development path – is a different matter entirely.
So while Zak Brown and Andrea Stella are hopeful that McLaren will upgrade their way out of a tough start to the season – the story of overheating brakes melting a wheel brow in testing sounds very familiar – will the team know exactly where to turn to reclaim their place at the head of the midfield?
Another disappointing start would increase the pressure beyond the point of no return on technical director James Key, who – tellingly – was conspicuous by his absence at the car launch and whose first real attempt for McLaren in 2022 was noticeably out of step with technical trends adopted by other teams.
Can this really be the same Key who produced some creative and technically interesting cars in his Toro Rosso days?
Or could it be that the move to an orange Red Bull came from above and was seen as a safe bet to keep the team ticking over on track until the new wind tunnel and simulator can be fully utilised?
McLaren, by their own admission, are in for a challenging start to 2023 and their uninspiring approach to car design – in the company’s 60th anniversary year no less – should ensure sympathy from the wider F1 fanbase is in short supply.
Spare a thought for Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, two of the most exciting talents on the 2023 grid who look set to be trapped in mediocre machinery for the foreseeable future…
Porpoising can’t be eliminated, only controlled
With most teams caught by surprise by porpoising this time last year, steps were taken to reduce the physical effect of the phenomenon on the drivers’ bodies.
Following a technical directive at Spa last August, changes have been made to the diffuser and floor for 2023 with the aim of making porpoising a thing of the past, but even the FIA’s Nikolas Tombazis was doubtful that the new measures would totally eliminate it.
Mercedes, the biggest bouncers of last year, appear to have brought porpoising under control, but with the Ferrari, Alpine and Alfa Romeo seen suffering aerodynamic oscillations in Bahrain it is clear by now that the problem can never be fully tackled.
Porpoising is simply a natural side effect of today’s ground effect cars and further attempts to eliminate it would most likely be futile.
It remains to be seen how the 2023 cars will react in certain conditions on bumpier circuits, but the early signs are that the worst of it – drivers holding their back at the end of a race before telling the media that they risk walking with a cane before they hit 30 – is over.
It is here to stay, even if to a lesser degree – so time for the teams and drivers, rather than stamping their feet for regulation tweaks as in 2022, to just deal with it.