There has been only one race, at one type of circuit, but already the talk post-Bahrain was not so much whether Max Verstappen will win a third successive Formula 1 crown, but how many races he will win and how early the crown will be wrapped up.
That may sound overly pessimistic after one round of 23 but such was the dominance of Verstappen and Red Bull – in a race which came after unexpected balance struggles stymied its Friday work – that no-one was betting against the Dutch supremo steamrollering the opposition once more.
The RB19 is, after all, an evolution of the RB18 which in race trim last year emerged as comfortably the fastest package, especially in the hands of the relentlessly impressive Verstappen.
In Bahrain Verstappen was able to pull away from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc at a rate of six- to seven-tenths a lap in the first stint, a stark contrast from the same encounter 12 months ago when they battled tooth and nail for a win that was settled in the Monegasque’s favour.
Behind Verstappen a slightly slow-starting Sergio Perez was able to effectively make his way past Leclerc and cement a Red Bull 1-2 finish.
Verstappen has never started a season so strongly. Neither has Red Bull. That was its first 1-2 at a season-opening round in its history, first Race 1 win since 2011, and first Bahrain triumph since 2013.
The time gaps also made grim reading for the opposition.
Verstappen – who was under no pressure to find his or the RB19’s limits – finished 38 seconds clear of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso in a race which had only one brief Virtual Safety Car interruption. The lead Ferrari driver – Carlos Sainz – was 48 seconds behind. The gap from Verstappen to Leclerc would likely have been less – he was 24 seconds behind on lap 40, when he retired – though that was still a deficit of around six-tenths per lap. That Leclerc didn’t reach the finish was another grim tale in itself.
Leclerc left Bahrain 12 months ago 25 points clear of Verstappen but this year the deficit is already 25 – and unlike Verstappen last year there is little indication that Leclerc has beneath him a package with which he can fight his opponent.
Leclerc was understandably despondent in the immediate aftermath of his retirement, saying it was impossible to look at the positives, and confirmed that “after the test I think we were hoping that we were wrong in predicting the things but we were very right. We are very far from [Red Bull] in the race pace and that was unfortunately expected.”
The engine issue – an area Ferrari had striven to rectify through the winter – was particularly galling.
“Obviously there was quite a lot of work on that but we need to keep working as first race and first reliability problem, yeah, not good,” said Leclerc.
Ferrari struggled with its tyre degradation, continuing a trend seen through 2022, and which is always a prominent factor at the rear-limited Bahrain circuit even in the cooler evening conditions.
Ferrari team boss Frederic Vasseur attempted to put a more positive spin on the operation’s prospects.
“To summarise the situation I would say on quali pace, we are there, we are matching Red Bull at the test in Bahrain, it was a positive point, but now that we have to be fully realistic: if we want to improve, we need to have a clear picture of the situation,” he said.
“It’s never good to start with a DNF and I would’ve preferred to finish for sure. But, I want to stay consistent in my position. I told the team before the test in Bahrain two weeks ago that the championship won’t be over in Bahrain.”
If Vasseur was adopting a ‘glass half full’ approach then his counterpart at Mercedes had taken the ‘glass has smashed all over the floor’ mindset.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff conceded after qualifying that its aerodynamic concept is flawed and cannot be maintained long-term. Post-race he was in an even more miserly mood.
“That was one of our worst days in racing,” said Wolff. “It was not good at all; we are lacking pace front, right, and centre. The Aston Martins are very fast, and the Red Bull is just on a different planet. It hurts that they are so far ahead; it reminds me of our best years where we put one second on everyone else. That is the benchmark.”
Lewis Hamilton finished fifth and conceded Mercedes was “miles away” from competing for the podium on merit. He was 50 seconds behind Verstappen, a performance deficit of an average eight- to nine-tenths per lap.
“We’ve just got to keep working,” said Hamilton. “We know we’re not where we need to be and this isn’t the right car.”
George Russell, who was seventh, correctly pointed out that “Bahrain is an outlier circuit” but was equally right in asserting that “performance isn’t going to swing more than three-tenths positively or negatively from track to track.” His suggestion was that “if we have to sacrifice some races or part of this season to give ourselves a chance to fight in the second half of the season, or even next year, that is what we are going to have to do.”
Russell was also among the most vocal in the paddock of Red Bull’s supremacy, going as far as to suggest they should win every race, and have both titles sewn up comfortably early.
The embarrassment for powerhouses Ferrari and Mercedes – as well as other teams with long-term front-running ambitions such as Alpine and McLaren – was the display from Aston Martin.
The AMR23 was the second-fastest race package, at least in the hands of the effervescent Alonso, as he recovered from an atypically slow start to brilliantly overhaul both Mercedes drivers and compatriot Sainz. Lance Stroll, after his wayward Turn 4 with near-disastrous consequences for Alonso, was a solid sixth – despite his wrist injuries and lack of pre-season running. Aston Martin ditched its flawed concept in early 2022 and switched to a Red Bull-inspired philosophy from early-mid-2022 onwards. That opened new design routes, bolstered by high-profile signings Dan Fallows from Red Bull and Eric Blandin from Mercedes, while Aston Martin itself has a long-standing relationship with Mercedes.
Could it be Alonso and Aston Martin which is the regular threat to Verstappen this season?
“It’s too good to be true,” said Alonso on the AMR23’s pace. “You’re always expecting something you know, will get a step back and get back to reality. But it seems real, the performance. Let’s see in Jeddah. I’m curious to go to Jeddah and Australia, they’re different circuits. I think Max touched on before, high speed corners, very little degradation. I think in Bahrain we were strong on things we may not find in Jeddah and Australia. So if we are strong in the next two races, I think we will have a very good 2023.”
At the very least, the display in Bahrain suggests one anticipated narrative arc of 2023 could be the end for Alonso’s decade-long wait for a 33rd career victory. But as for a sustained title threat? This is a team still on a journey towards such ambitions and, despite its outstanding year-on-year turnaround so far, a title tilt would be a fanciful proposition.
“We don’t know how much management the Red Bull had to do and did,” said Aston Martin boss Mike Krack. “I think it was quite comfortable for them, just to get the mandatory tyres through and get the race to the end.
“We wanted to make a step forwards. We did not say we want to beat Red Bull. Again, let’s keep the feet on the ground, let’s work hard. It could be that in Jeddah, we’re maybe fourth or fifth or sixth in terms of teams ranking. I think let’s enjoy today, and we continue to see how it goes on.”
That means if one car is dominant attention turns to the occupant of the ‘second’ car. Some of the most engrossing seasons have come from fierce intra-team rivalries – the likes of 1989 or 2014/16 – when both drivers were either of an exceptional calibre or the team in question opted against a number one driver. Yet other seasons have drifted because either one driver was favoured, or was favoured merely because the team gravitated in that direction due to a higher level of performance.
Can Sergio Perez challenge Verstappen across a 23-race season? Perez is likely to have his moments in the sun but in the same vein as a Rubens Barrichello or a Valtteri Bottas he has yet to show that words and optimism can be converted into reality. Perez achieved his maximum in Bahrain but those small details – qualifying behind Verstappen, dropping a place at the start – are small details which add up into a deficit. Perez’s best hope may be that reliability setbacks, or incidents, strike the other side of the garage in conjunction with him reaching a new level – perhaps comparable to a 2016 Rosberg/Hamilton season – but at this stage it seems far-fetched.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, while delighted with his squad’s perfect start, was expectedly cautious over the long-term.
“I think the problem is that we’ve got one data set which is at this track so we’re not taking anything for granted so let’s see Jeddah in two weeks and Melbourne after that,” he said, before adding: “Today we’re heroes. Tomorrow it could be Ferrari, it could be Mercedes, it could be Aston Martin so I think none of us are getting carried away with the result. It’s the start of a marathon.”
In our pre-season writers’ preview I pessimistically and bluntly suggested ‘Max Verstappen. Long before Abu Dhabi’ in the reverse psychology hope that Bahrain would deliver a close-fought multi-team battle for victory. But F1 2023 looks like being a one-man show already.