In the hours following Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, some of Max Verstappen’s rivals seemed poised to do so give him this year’s title 22 races are still to come.
The Red Bull driver won the season’s opening race by 11 seconds over teammate Sergio Perez and a whopping 38 seconds over his closest non-Red Bull rival Fernando Alonso.
It was an absolutely dominating performance, and one that Verstappen achieved despite driving within the limits of his ability or that of his car.
“Red Bull sewed this championship,” said Mercedes driver George Russell to journalists on Sunday evening.
“I don’t think anyone will fight with them this year. They should win every single race, I’m betting on that.”
At first glance, Russell is hard to argue with. The history of Formula 1 is littered with seasons dominated by a single team or driver, and the sport appears to be in the early stages of a new era of relentless success for Red Bull and Verstappen.
Although no team has ever won every race in a season (McLaren came closest in 1988 with 15 wins from 16 races), Red Bull’s performance advantage in Bahrain was large enough to raise questions about whether such a feat is possible in 2023 is.
But Sunday’s result also comes with a major caveat: as one-sided as the Bahrain Grand Prix was, it remains a rehearsal of a race from a season of 23 this year. Additionally, the Bahrain International Circuit is a well-known outlier on the F1 schedule, with an unusually rough track surface and a traction-heavy layout that punishes the rear tires more than any other track on the calendar.
Along with Alonso’s Aston Martin, Red Bull were the only team to manage their rear tire wear effectively in Sunday’s race, making victory look remarkably easy. The next round in Saudi Arabia puts much less strain on the rear tires and while it’s also an unusual circuit compared to most F1 circuits, there is the potential for some of Red Bull’s advantages to be curtailed at Jeddah.
“Saudi is a completely different track than this one,” said Verstappen. “You have a lot more straights, fast corners and a lot fewer grades. And I think we were particularly good here in the degree. So in terms of race pace, I expect everyone to be closer in Jeddah, yes.
“Our car seems quite strong at high speeds but I think the Ferrari is quite quick on the straight which is very nice in Jeddah, let’s put it that way.
“But yeah, time will tell. It’s really hard to know. We’ve only driven these cars here in Bahrain so you’ll just have to wait and see and of course try to get there in the best possible shape and we’ll find out exactly where we are as practice progresses.”
That’s not to say Red Bull won’t have the fastest car in Saudi Arabia – or at any other circuit this year – but it would be wise to tone down some of the broader predictions until a handful of races are played. Maintaining a 100 percent reliability record while avoiding accidents, strategy errors and ill-timed safety cars means that a perfect winning record would require a significant dose of luck alongside Red Bull’s engineering prowess.
“23 races is a marathon and it’s about staying consistent throughout the season,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said when asked if his team could win every race this year. “Today was a great start but we expect the rivals to come back hard in future races.
“I’ve been around long enough to see things changing so quickly and I still think these cars are relatively immature. As teams evolve and upgrades come things will change.”
Why was it so easy for Verstappen to win in Bahrain?
With three days of testing leading up to the Bahrain Grand Prix, it was clear that Red Bull would be the team to beat on Sunday, but the size of Verstappen’s advantage still came as a surprise.
When Charles Leclerc retired his Ferrari with an engine problem on lap 40, he was 24 seconds behind Verstappen, giving Red Bull a 0.6 second per lap advantage over Ferrari.
That was double the gap between the two cars in a single lap in qualifying – which stood at 0.297s – and underscores the fact that the Ferrari had excessive tire degradation compared to the Red Bull in Bahrain. This theory was bolstered by a lack of pace from Carlos Sainz in the final stint of the race as he lost the final podium position to Alonso despite holding a 0.2 second advantage over the Aston Martin in qualifying the day before.
Knowing that rear tire wear would be a key factor in Sunday’s race and confident it had a single lap performance left, Red Bull opted for a car setup that protected the rear tires in the race, even if it was meant sacrificing some pace in qualifying.
“One-lap performance and performance during a race are very different in terms of balance requirements,” Verstappen said. “So even when I said earlier in Friday practice that I wasn’t happy with the performance on the long runs, my long runs were still okay. So I’m not really surprised [by the performance]obviously glad it worked out.”
The Red Bull’s ability to look after its tires also meant Verstappen was able to use the faster but less durable soft compound tire in his first two stints before switching to the hard compound on his final pit stop. Meanwhile, the remaining riders in the top eight had no choice but to use a set of softs followed by two sets of hards to get to the finish. Simply put, Red Bull’s competitors would not have been able to make the same tire strategy work without facing a catastrophic drop in performance.
“We concentrated a bit more on the race [with the setup] than in qualifying and that paid off today,” said Horner. “We were able to ride on the softer compound, especially in the middle part of the race, and still had the necessary durability.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for Red Bull’s rivals is that Verstappen never really pushed his car to the limit. With his rivals getting smaller with every lap in his mirrors, he was able to take it relatively easy on Sunday, meaning the Red Bull’s true potential remains a mystery.
Will Red Bull face serious competition this year?
Red Bull’s impressive performance in the opening race was only half the story in Bahrain. While the world champions have made a significant step forward over the winter, it’s clear that Mercedes and Ferrari haven’t improved enough.
Verstappen’s 38-second lead over Alonso in third underscored the performance of this year’s Red Bull RB19, but arguably it’s not that surprising. Such a gap between Red Bull and the top of the F1 midfield over a race distance was not uncommon last year – the big difference in Bahrain was that there were no Ferrari or Mercedes cars to fill it.
Red Bull and Aston Martin have rightly been lauded for their winter performance upgrades, but looking at it another way, Mercedes and Ferrari (plus other midfield teams like McLaren and Alpine) have fallen far short of their expectations. Mercedes in particular have fallen into an area previously occupied by the upper midfield teams, while Ferrari are already showing a continuation of last year’s trait of being quick over a single lap but struggling with Red Bull over a race distance.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Mercedes is already so keen to change its vehicle concept – something team principal Toto Wolff demonstrates expressed to the media after just one qualifying session. Wolff’s call to action is made even clearer when one considers that the Aston Martin, which finished 12 seconds behind, buys engine, transmission and rear suspension from Mercedes and developed its car in Mercedes’ wind tunnel.
Being beaten to victory for one of the top three teams in Formula 1 is always a humbling experience, but being beaten by a customer is almost embarrassing.
“If you look at where we were at the end of last season, where it looked like we had caught up a lot, we’ve almost doubled, if not tripled, the gap to Red Bull this year,” said Wolff.
“What Aston Martin were able to achieve is a good inspiration because they came back from two seconds down and became the second best team.
“Everything is bad for us and in the race you saw the consequences and we drove backwards.
“I’m not exaggerating, the gap is very big and to catch up we have to take big steps. Not conventional ones.”
Looking back at the results of the first race in Bahrain, it’s easier to make a connection between the winners and losers of the winter break. After a hugely disappointing start in life under F1’s new technical regulations last year, Aston Martin abandoned its original car concept and looked unashamedly to Red Bull’s bodywork from the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix for inspiration.
Switching to a Red Bull concept saw Aston Martin make modest performance gains in the 2022 season but clearly tapped into a rich vein of performance over the winter. Additionally, the signing of new Technical Director Dan Fallows from Red Bull last April and his deputy Eric Blandin from Mercedes will have brought a wealth of knowledge from both teams to contribute to this year’s AMR23.
In the meantime, Mercedes and Ferrari have pursued completely different car concepts than Red Bull, which has led to significantly lower growth rates. Wolff’s comments over the weekend show Mercedes is ready to return to the drawing board, but new Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur remains determined his team’s car concept can still challenge Red Bull once Sunday night’s reliability issues and tire degradation are understood.
“I’m absolutely convinced of that,” said Vasseur. “I’ve never seen a car that was able to match someone else’s pace in qualifying and wasn’t able to do so in the race – then it’s a matter of setup and some decisions on the car. But it’s not a question of concept at all, so we don’t have to go in that direction.”
But from Red Bull’s perspective, it’s Aston Martin who pose the biggest threat at the start of the new season, especially in the hands of Alonso.
“You looked very strong in the race today,” said Horner. “It was nice to see Fernando up there giving the forty-something hope that the old boy is still alive and he drove very well.
“It’s still so competitive and the Aston looks like a good car. Based on one race result you’d have to say they’re the second strongest team here.”