2023 is expected to be one of the more predictable seasons in the history of Formula One. Red Bull’s dominance – so great Lewis Hamilton reckons they are a second per lap ahead of old rivals Mercedes – appears unlikely to wane despite the whiff of optimism at Aston Martin that Fernando Alonso could mount a title challenge against Max Verstappen.
In all likelihood it will be two-time champion Verstappen who collects a third world title come November. His biggest challenge, it seems, is his teammate Sergio Perez and the bubbling tensions between the two.
In the wake of any other contender for the crown, dominant teams often fall in on themselves. But this is no Hamilton/Alonso ding-dong of 2007, or Hamilton/Rosberg showdown of 2016. Not yet anyway. We still have a long way before Red Bull’s two drivers actually turn on each other.
And the constructors’ championship leaders will need the pair to work together this weekend to resolve technical issues already apparent in Australia.
Friday’s practice sessions did not go to plan for Red Bull. Verstappen topped first practice but was unhappy with the balance of his car, while a GPS issue triggered multiple red flags and ruined any chance of resolving those niggling problems. The Dutchman then slipped considerably off the pace in FP2 when the rain came down in Melbourne, while Alonso’s Aston Martin displayed its dexterity on the wet track.
“The tarmac seems to be really slippery,” Verstappen said after Friday’s sessions, with possible showers on the way for Saturday qualifying, and an overcast race day expected.
“It is quite tough to switch on the tyres, so it is difficult to push, and with interruptions you never really get into a rhythm. We will look into what to do and I think the car will be competitive.”
How to watch Australian Grand Prix 2023
TV: Sky Sports holds the right to broadcast all F1 races live in the UK, while Channel 4 shows highlights of both qualifying and the race later in the day.
Live stream: Watch it live on NOW. You can purchase a one-off day pass for £11.99 or a monthly pass, currently £21.
- Free practice 3: 2.30am GMT on Saturday 1 April, Sky Sports F1 from 2.15am
- Qualifying: 6am on Saturday 1 April, Sky Sports F1 from 5am
- Australian Grand Prix: 6am on Sunday 2 April, Sky Sports F1 from 4.30am
- Highlights: Channel 4 will show qualifying highlights at 11.15am on Saturday and race highlights at 12.30pm on Sunday
Perez also endured a torrid second practice, finishing seventh behind Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. He was perhaps the biggest victim of an unplanned bunch up of cars in FP2, and described the session as a “mess” as he walked away from his car for the day.
“It was a bit mental,” Perez said. “I think especially going into FP2, it felt like a lot of people still had issues with their GPS data. So it was just a mess. I couldn’t get up a lap in.
“I think tomorrow (Saturday) is really where we’re going to see where we’re at. I felt comfortable in sector one sector two, with the changes we made from FP1 to FP2. I never got a read in the final sector with the traffic and people still missing the GPS.
“I was surprised by the damp. I could feel the white lines, the paint was really bad. So hopefully we don’t get to see any damp conditions because racing can be quite dangerous. The grip is low in damp conditions. I think in dry conditions, it’s not too bad.”
Horner insists season not over for rivals
Despite the obvious dominance of the 2023 car, Red Bull boss Christian Horner does not share the view that the season is over, not least because of the ever present danger of the random variable.
“There is always something, always a technical directive that drops, a game changer,” Horner tells i.
“You can guarantee that the others will be scheming, ‘how can we slow them down’. It’s part of the game. Having lived through it before you become more seasoned in how to ride it out.”
Interestingly the team wondered if they were not in possession of the dud when Mercedes rolled out it sleek interpretation of the radical new rules a year ago.
“The expectation coming into ‘22 with the biggest chassis regulation change in probably 30 years was actually pretty modest. Mercedes turned up with a car that looked unlike any others. And you think have we missed the target here? They have seen something in the regulations that we haven’t. Is this going to embarrass us?”
Read Kevin Garside’s exclusive interview with Christian Horner here
While Red Bull prepare for a night tinkering with their car, over at Aston Martin there’s a debate on what track conditions would work best for them come Saturday qualifying. Alonso set Friday’s fastest track times when it was wet, but the Spaniard says he’d choose a rain-free weekend.
“I think the forecast is dry, so I think ideally we will prefer dry conditions because we’ve only driven this car in dry conditions in Jeddah and in Bahrain,” Alonso said. “The forecast tomorrow looks dry for now, and we would welcome that given we only experienced these conditions in the previous two races.”
Teammate Lance Stroll added: “Not many people got the chance to put the softs on with the rain. So, one of those sessions [was great], just limited with rain. Tomorrow doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, but you never know here in Melbourne. The car is feeling good, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Indeed, FP3 on Saturday morning could prove the defining point of the race weekend. And it’s not only Aston Martin and Red Bull who are hoping for a dry run before qualifying. Mercedes’ George Russell, Alpine’s Pierre Gasly and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz all earmarked a rain-free final practice run as potentially decisive for their weekend Down Under.
Ferrari, in particular, felt scuppered by the Friday rain, with Charles Leclerc managing just one flying lap in the afternoon before the weather turned.
“It felt like we were going in a right direction,” Leclerc said. “That doesn’t mean that we have the same pace as our competitors, as they still seem to have the upper hand for now. There is still a lot of work to do before we can get back in a proper fight.”
Mercedes’ conundrums continue
Melbourne marks another race weekend where Mercedes come in practically blind. Hamilton explained earlier in the week that the W14 car is effectively a write-off in terms of challenging for the championship, with the forward seat position already an issue.
Team boss Toto Wolff has already ruled out major upgrades to the car until at least the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
But teammate George Russell is keeping his hopes up for the weekend.
“You can get lots of laps out of the tyre so in qualifying we will be doing lots and lots of laps,” Russell said. “That’s different from the norm so that’s exciting. If we really pull everything together, the third row, between P5 and P8 is where we’re looking.”
Hamilton was a little more blunt. “We won’t be competing against the Red Bulls,” he said. “It will just be about trying to see if we can get up as high as possible. I think we’ve got pace to be around fifth [place] area, same as the last race.”