Alonso proves Aston Martin have pace, but Red Bull still look strongest · RaceFans

What’s old is new again. At least, that’s what it appears from the very first day of meaningful running in the 2023 Formula 1 season.

Four years ago, Fernando Alonso was freshly retired from F1 racing. Now, as the 2023 world championship season kicked off in Bahrain, 21 years after Alonso entered into his first campaign, he ends the first day of running as the quickest driver in the field. Finally, one full, painful decade since his last championship challenge, is Alonso truly on the verge of snapping the longest ever wait between grand prix wins?

On the basis of Friday’s practice session, perhaps not just yet. But it’s close.

Throughout his two months as a member of Aston Martin so far, Alonso has had a clear mantra: ‘Let’s keep our feet on the ground’. He knows better than anyone in the paddock that the only thing achieved from building up your expectations is to make the disappointment of falling short all the more crushing. So even though he was the pace-setter on day one of the new season, Alonso was not risking getting carried away.

“We need to wait and see,” he reasoned. “At the moment, there is not much focus is still on times, because we have to improve a few things on the car in terms of the time, but also it’s very early days.”

Alexander Albon, Williams, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Gallery: 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix practice in pictures

Despite stirring fans into a frenzy until any opening day F1 has seen in many years, he has every reason to be cautious. Alonso knows Aston Martin is fast, but you don’t need to be a veteran of two decades to see what an imposing threat reigning champions Red Bull are. Not just Max Verstappen, but, it seems, Sergio Perez too.

It’s often foolish to draw conclusions from testing, but one of the few safe bets from the three days was that Red Bull were mighty over a single lap. They showed that on Friday, with Verstappen and Perez lapping almost identical times to each other in the floodlit evening session. But despite having only Alonso ahead of them in the times, both Red Bull drivers admitted neither had extracted all the pace that is present in the RB19.

“It was quite tricky out there,” Perez said. “We have some work to do over one lap and that should automatically put us in better shape for the long run.”

Even Ferrari were in touch over a lap, Charles Leclerc posting a time within half a second of Alonso’s ultimate pace. Perez feels that the fight for pole could easily escalate into a battle royale.

“I think everything is close at the top,” said Perez. “Certainly Aston Martin and Ferrari look strong, and I think it is going to go down to who puts the best lap together in qualifying and who has the better race pace on Sunday.”

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Race simulation runs – soft tyres

Lap Max Verstappen Fernando Alonso Sergio Perez Charles Leclerc George Russell Carlos Sainz Jnr Lewis Hamilton
1 1’37.641 1’36.251 1’36.829 1’38.946 1’37.864 1’38.201 1’37.935
2 1’37.136 1’36.479 1’37.233 1’38.603 1’37.959 1’38.413 1’38.395
3 1’36.898 1’36.712 1’37.781 1’37.923 1’37.789 1’38.300 1’38.082
4 1’37.179 1’37.192 1’37.229 1’38.035 1’38.123 1’38.594 1’38.235
5 1’36.827 1’37.288 1’37.313 1’37.982 1’38.306 1’38.695 1’39.411
6 1’37.230 1’37.502 1’37.481 1’38.341 1’38.846 1’38.400
7 1’37.324 1’37.542 1’37.628 1’38.507 1’38.375
8 1’38.116 1’37.982 1’38.284 1’39.087 1’38.493
9 1’37.268 1’37.479 1’37.789 1’37.542 1’39.289 1’38.027 1’38.554
10 1’37.169 1’37.914 1’37.650 1’38.044 1’38.933
11 1’37.229 1’38.058 1’37.692 1’37.823 1’39.408
12 1’37.519 1’38.117 1’37.678 1’37.076 1’37.869
13 1’38.339 1’37.799 1’37.678 1’38.010
14 1’38.203 1’37.596 1’38.340 1’36.373
15 1’38.435
16 1’38.637

Friday’s evening session provided a clearer picture of potential race pace than typical practice days – with one notable caveat. The top three teams of last season – Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – all carried out long runs on soft tyres in the final third of second practice. Aston Martin did the same with Alonso, while Lance Stroll was sent out on mediums.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Aston Martin’s pre-season pace appears genuine

The choice of tyre is significant. Most teams did not touch the hard rubber – Pirelli’s new C1 compound – preferring to save it for the race. So the majority of race running is likely to take place on a tyre drivers haven’t run so far this weekend, but will have knowledge of from last week’s test.

Directly comparing the two world champions, it’s enticing just how closely matched they appeared on pace. Alonso began his stint in the mid 1’36s, considerably quicker than Verstappen, before fading into the low to mid 1’37s to the end of his 10-lap run. Verstappen hovered around the high 1’36s to low 1’37s throughout, only breaking his run on his eighth lap to back off and let Alonso pass so he could slot into more open air. Over his 11 representative timed laps, Verstappen averaged a 1’37.220 – just 0.02s faster than Alonso, who was compromised by catching Nyck de Vries’ AlphaTauri on his eighth lap.

The talk of testing as far as Ferrari were concerned was that the SF-23 eats through its tyres. Based on the long runs of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jnr, they may have made some progress. Though slower than Verstappen, Alonso and Perez, Leclerc averaged 1’37.749 on his second soft tyre run at the end of the session, significantly better than the Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who quickly fell out of the 1’37s on both their runs.

But while Ferrari seemed stronger than Mercedes, Leclerc was only looking ahead at the cars quicker than him. “That’s where I think we have most work to do,” he said. “But again, it is very difficult to know what the others are running.

“We know what we are running and we know there is a bit of margin, but we need to wait and see for Sunday.”

Team mate Sainz was unable to keep pace with Leclerc, later admitting that his 360-degree spin approaching turn 10 in the first session caused him to lose “a bit of rhythm” in the car, which he claimed affected him into the night session.

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Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Sainz’s practice spin broke his rhythm

“A trickier Friday than we initially expected,” Sainz conceded. “The balance was different and we were changing the car through the sessions to try and correct its main limitations. It’s only Friday and I’m confident we can analyse everything overnight and take a step forward tomorrow.”

Mercedes will also be hoping they can take a step forward into qualifying, with the harsh reality of their true performance beginning to dawn on them for a second consecutive season. Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin is confident that Mercedes’ race pace is stronger than their single-lap performance relative to their rivals – a familiar trait from last year.

“We made some changes going into the afternoon and the cooler conditions seemed to help in terms of the feel and balance, but the pace is still lacking,” Shovlin explained. “Single lap seems more of an issue than the long run but neither are good enough, so we’ve clearly got some work to do. We’ve got some ideas to evaluate overnight so hopefully we can put together a package of changes that will help.”

Behind the front teams, it’s far more difficult to draw any conclusions about the early performance levels of the field – except that Alexander Albon’s pre-weekend assessment that Williams would be the tenth-fastest team once more is likely on the money.

Encouragingly, after so much talk by teams expecting the field to be closer in 2023, the early signs appear to back that up. While the field were separated by a total of 2.799s in last year’s second practice in Bahrain, that gap closed by almost a full second in the same session in 2023.

If Lando Norris’ assessment of the first day is anything to go by, fans may have a fascinating first qualifying day of the season to look forward to in all three phases. “It’s a lot tighter than I thought between everyone,” Norris said after posting the ninth-best time. “I think you still have Red Bull up front, then Aston, then Ferrari and then kind of anyone else a little bit after that.

“I think is going to be very close, so I look forward to it. I would love it to be easier, but it should make for a good weekend in terms of qualifying and also the race on Sunday should be exciting because of it.”

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Lap times – first practice

This chart shows all the drivers’ lap times (in seconds). Very slow laps omitted. Scroll to zoom, drag to pan, right-click to reset:

Lap times – second practice

This chart shows all the drivers’ lap times (in seconds). Very slow laps omitted. Scroll to zoom, drag to pan, right-click to reset:

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Combined practice times

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2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Browse all 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix articles