BAHRAIN — The advice to Sergio Perez from his boss at Red Bull: post quicker lap times. Christian Horner did add that the same instruction applies to the field if they want to disrupt the pattern of the epoch and threaten the ­hegemony of the double world champion Max Verstappen.

The opening race of any season echoes to the sound of drivers bailing out of questions about ­performance; we don’t know what the other teams are doing, etc. The answer rings especially hollow in the context of Red Bull’s obvious dominance and the indubitable excellence of Verstappen. Horner’s claim that last week’s test which Red Bull carried out without blemish was the most impressive he had experienced in his 17 years with the team ought to make a few knees buckle.

“It is one of those rare ­occasions where engineers come up with a list of things to try and we managed to tick most of the boxes,” he said. “In terms of mileage and the compressed amount of time we had [three days], what we achieved I think is probably the best I can remember. The drivers were happy with the balance they had. They are now working with their engineers on fine tuning.”

Verstappen submitted to a ­number of pre-season interviews in the Bahrain paddock with selected media. In 15-minute slots he laid out a vision that sees the fire blaze with an intensity that precludes a long career. He won’t be hanging about like Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, he warned, which begs the question of how many titles he might acquire before retiring to the Monaco waterfront to walk the dog.

Since the present regulations are not due for revision until 2026, it would not be a stretch to see Verstappen rattle off five in a row, never mind the hat-trick he is chasing this year, by which time he would still be a mere stripling of 28 years. Given the potential of ­Verstappen to overwhelm the ­immediate future, there is already a degree of energy being spent on how the drivers might respond.

Questions about Hamilton’s unsigned contract extension at Mercedes, Lando Norris’s commitment to McLaren, and the prospects of Perez at Red Bull are all part of the salon chatter here in Bahrain. Hamilton rebuffed suggestions he could reverse out of his relationship with Mercedes. Norris ­defended his decision to sign a long-term deal with McLaren until 2026, but that would come under serious pressure were a seat at Red Bull to become available.

The value of Perez is measured in commercial returns as much as points. His arrival at Red Bull two years ago saw annual sales of the eponymous energy drink rise by 60 million units in Mexico. For a ­product that requires little R&D ­investment, that amounts to a chunk of profit per tin, which of course finds its way back to the team one way or another.
However, that is unlikely to ­sustain a relationship that became seriously strained last season. Verstappen refused to make way in Brazil in response to a Perez spin in Monaco that was deemed ­deliberate and denied him a shot at pole. Perez warned here that unless the love flows two ways Verstappen cannot rely upon his strategic support this term, which is a risky play by one so heavily outscored.

Should Red Bull deem Perez no longer worth the trouble, a ­scenario that will reveal its answer as the season progresses, expect conjecture about a replacement to intensify accordingly. If McLaren continue to labour, so might their hold on Norris despite the contract between the parties. And what of Ferrari in this regard?

The idea that Charles Leclerc would race anywhere else is not as absurd as it was a year ago when Ferrari turned a 46-point advantage after four races into a 146-point deficit by the season’s end. Ferrari have cleared out the management group with a new team principal and strategy crew. The power unit is considered the class of the field, which both advances the prospects of Leclerc and team-mate Carlos Sainz and makes failure even more intolerable.

Ferrari's Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc arrives for a pit stop during the first practice session of the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 3, 2023. (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / AFP) (Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images)
A driver of Leclerc’s talent won’t want to keep settling for second place (Photo: Andrej Isakovic/AFP)

Outside of top-three world, ­Friday’s practice sessions here at the Bahrain International ­circuit in Sakhir underlined the juicy thread provided in pre-season testing by Alonso. The Spaniard is kryptonite to Lance Stroll, a ­team-mate prepared to drive 1,000bhp through the father and son dynamic at the heart of the team.

When four-time world ­champion Sebastian Vettel ­questioned the receipt of new parts on Stroll’s Aston Martin car instead of his own last season, the answer from above took the shape of a suggestion that Vettel’s own father should buy a Formula One team.

Alonso laughed off the ­question of parental bias at the team launch last month. It seems that the ­undimmed desire and talent of another two-time world champion driver many would back if he were given the chance to share ­Verstappen’s Red Bull riches, ­renders the discussion meaningless. Even Lawrence Stroll ­recognises how his and Aston ­Martin’s interests are best served by a driver who ended yesterday’s second practice with the day’s fastest time, half a second quicker than his team-mate.

Verstappen and Perez, who topped the first session, were neatly tucked in behind Alonso, just a couple of tenths back and separated from each other by a mere two ­thousandths of a second, with Leclerc fourth. Hamilton was six-tenths off the pace in eighth, but three-tenths quicker than team-mate George Russell in 13th, a ­performance that ­underwrote the latter’s prediction that Mercedes are probably not fighting for the win here. The promised redesign of those skinny sidepods cannot come soon enough.

Graphic: Brett Dietrich/i
Graphic: Brett Dietrich/i

Three drivers to watch in 2023

Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso during a preview day ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir. Picture date: Thursday March 2, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story AUTO Bahrain. Photo credit should read: David Davies/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder.
Alonso could well be fighting for wins again this season (Photo: David Davies/PA)

Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin): Skipped through the paddock gates like a man 20 years younger. He says he feels 21 again, which is a huge part of the fascination as the two-time world champions enters the last chapter of his career with Aston Martin.

The pace exhibited in last week’s test in Bahrain surprised even him, suggesting he might have to revise upwards his view that he will not be challenging for victories this season. If the random variable intervenes, Alonso will be all over any opportunity that presents. It might even happen here should the Red Bulls suffer a mechanical just as they did a year ago.

Oscar Piastri (McLaren): After all the fuss surrounding his exit from Alpine to McLaren much is expected of a young Australian carrying a big reputation from racing’s junior categories.

Piastri won the 2020 F3 championship in his rookie season and followed that up with the F2 title in 2021, only the fifth driver to win those championships back to back.

Managed by Australia’s Mark Webber, who engineered the switch from Alpine to McLaren, the stars seem aligned. All Piastri has to do now is show F1’s fourth highest earner, Lando Norris, a clean pair of heals in a car that struggled in testing.

Pierre Gasly (Alpine): Arguably the most explosive pairing on the grid. Pierre Gasly and Estaban Ocon have been at it since they were six years old flinging karts about their native Normandy. So tense is the competitive relationship the team has advised that only one set of parents may be present at any one race.

Both have risen through the junior categories on the basis of talent, not wealth, and each believes he is the better man. Empowered by leaving the Red Bull yolk, Gasly feels for the first time less of a boy and more of a man, and is minded to prove it at Ocon’s expense.

And my predicted F1 winner is…

  1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
  2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
  3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

Apologies for the lack of imagination here but one of the great F1 drivers in the best car makes the outcome a formality. If the Red Bull proves as good as feared, Perez is nailed on for second, which leaves Hamilton to close out the podium places in an improving Mercedes.

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