BAHRAIN — Well that was over rather quickly, Red Bull crowned champions after just one race. George Russell of Mercedes was the driver waving the white flag, which might seem an overreaction were team principal Toto Wolff not of the same mind.
One of our worst days in racing is how Wolff described the Bahrain Grand Prix, his mood leavened only by the anecdote that no winner in Bahrain has ever gone on to win the title when the race has opened the season.
On the basis of the sample so far, three days of testing and one race weekend, Max Verstappen looks likely to shred that anomaly. With the world champion and his car in the sweetest of sweet spots the field is justified in its despair.
Thank goodness for Aston Martin providing Fernando Alonso with a chance to dream late in his career and the boss’s son an opportunity to justify his selection. What each makes of it before the big beasts hit their development stride will determine the shape of the early races, for it appears only Aston Martin have the wherewithal to take advantage of any Red Bull slips.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is just about the only figure in the paddock expressing caution about his team. We can put this down to one of two things, or both. There is either a deep English reserve at play that warns against talking up Red Bull’s chances so absurdly early. Or he is plagued by superstition and fears the tempting of fate.
Verstappen had the Bahrain GP won after three corners and pulled away at almost a second a lap. Team-mate Sergio Perez was caught on the dirty side by fast-starting Charles Leclerc to lose a place off the line but once he had it back on lap 26, he was as untroubled as Verstappen. The Red Bull was not as emphatic in its dominance over the first two days as it was in testing, but there was never any danger of it being bettered in the race.
Bahrain GP 2023 standings
- 1st: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
- 2nd: Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
- 3rd: Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
- 4th: Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
- 5th: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
- 6th: Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
- 7th: George Russell (Mercedes)
- 8th: Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo)
- 9th: Pierre Gasly (Alpine)
- 10th: Alex Albon (Williams)
- 11th: Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri)
- 12th: Logan Sargeant (Williams)
- 13th: Kevin Magnussen (Haas)
- 14th: Nyck de Vries (AlphaTauri)
- 15th: Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)
- 16th: Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo)
- 17th: Lando Norris (McLaren)
DNF: Esteban Ocon (Alpine), Charles Leclerc (Ferrari), Oscar Piastri (McLaren)
This was as big a setback for Mercedes as the porpoising that ruined 2022. At least then they had hope that a winning solution might be found. In Bahrain they ran out of scientific road, all performance options exhausted with the present design.
Wolff’s mea culpa in the Bahrain paddock on Saturday night was one of the most astonishing in recent memory, Mercedes’ failings compounded by the gains made by an Aston Martin, not only powered by the same engine and gearbox, but birthed from the same wind tunnel. Three years ago Aston Martin (in their former guise as Racing Point) were accused of stealing wholesale the Mercedes design concept. Maybe a bit of reverse cloning is the order of the day, within the rules of course.
“It is pretty clear which direction we need to go,” Wolff said. “We just need to make the data work. The most important thing is to establish a solid baseline so there are no surprises. We have not been standing still. We have already looked at different concepts. There is no constraint by the budget cap.
“We just need to decide which development concept to go with and put all our efforts into it. We are not going to develop two cars side by side. We are going to develop one car. We will decide in the next days and weeks which one it will be.”
Will Lewis Hamilton stick around?
Hamilton has been with the full works team since 2014 and attached his whole career to Mercedes as an engine supplier. That he is out of contract at the end of the season draws reasonable questions about his future. But Wolff does not share the doubts bubbling around a contract void and a dud car.
“He is an integral part of the team, picking the team up. We are sticking together. That’s not going to change. We have won six constructors championships with him, six drivers championships. The relationship is holding.
“We just need to dig deeper than ever and provide both drivers with a car to fight with. They are doing everything they can. There is no point talking about the driver situation for 2024. We have all to push in the same direction, the drivers, engineers and management, rather the throwing in the towel.”
How long will the Fernando Alonso bounce last?
As long as it takes Mercedes to join the dots in the wind tunnel and Ferrari to max out the best-in-class engine. Formula One is a test of endurance as much as speed, and measures the capacity of teams to develop over the season. Aston Martin have made an astonishing leap over the winter, finding more than two seconds of pace. It is now about how much speed they can extract through the upgrade process.
The old rule of thumb suggests a period of at least three races for the engineers to properly understand the performance parameters of the cars, what makes them quick, or slow. This arguably gives Alonso a free hit in Saudi Arabia and Australia before Ferrari at least begin to pull the threads of their season together. That doesn’t mean Aston Martin will fall behind necessarily, only that their rivals are more practiced at pacing the necessary response.