Red Bull tipped to run and hide while Alonso takes fight to Ferraris · RaceFans

The revolutionary new era of Formula 1 kicked off 12 months ago with one of the more thrilling hours of qualifying to begin a championship for many years. Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari beating Max Verstappen’s Red Bull announced to the world that the paradigm had shifted and fans were in for a thrilling new season.

But as the season unfolded, Red Bull and Verstappen shattered dreams and records alike with a brutally dominant run, making Sundays a question not of if they would win, but how.

With the first Saturday of the season now confined to history, it’s easy to look at Red Bull’s advantage and assume that 2023 will simply be the sequel to 2022. An exhibition of excellence by the world champions. However, with the stage set for the opening race of the championship, this could be a whole different show to last time out in Abu Dhabi.

Narratively, the central plot remains the same: Red Bull are comfortable favourites to reach the chequered flag first. Despite agonising over their balance over Friday night, Red Bull, as they always do, found a solution when they needed to most. Their reward was Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez starting 2023 as they finished 2022 – locking out the front row on a Saturday.

How pole was won – and lost

(L to R): Sergio Perez, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Perez wasn’t far off Verstappen’s pace

Perez was naturally disappointed to begin a new season being beaten by his team mate, but must take heart from how closely he pushed the world champion. Perez was as much as a tenth up on Verstappen in the middle sector on their final run, until the pair climbed the uphill left-hander of turn 11 and Verstappen edged ahead through turn 13.

Red Bull were the only cars to breach the 90-second barrier. Leclerc qualified third with a 1’30.000, a metaphor for the separation between the champions and their rivals. But it could easily have been closer – Leclerc lost two-tenths of the 0.29his -second gap to Verstappen through the first corner, keeping largely in pace with the Red Bulls over the remainder of the lap. He may have improved with a second attempt, but Ferrari approached Q3 with Sunday’s race firmly at the forefront of their minds.

But the most intriguing element of qualifying was the litmus test for Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso, who had threatened to produced a remarkable upset all weekend until qualifying fifth – still a remarkable result for the team which could not escape Q1 here last year. Alonso attacked his sole Q3 lap hard and was even quicker than Leclerc over the first half of the lap. However, Alonso lost the bulk of his time on the exit of corners – particularly turns one, ten and 11 – suggesting the AMR23 lacks the traction that the RB19 enjoys at this rear-limited circuit.

Alonso was, of course, delighted to secure a top-five start ahead of the two Mercedes, which find themselves now staring at the prospect of having to compete for the honour of third-fastest team on the grid. While George Russell largely shadowed Alonso around the lap, holding a tenth of a second over Lewis Hamilton as he did. At the tricky turn 13 Russell gave away around three-tenths to Verstappen, falling behind Hamilton and Alonso before making up time on the pair of them through the final corner He ended up just 0.004s behind Alonso and less than five-hundredths ahead of his team mate.

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Race pace comparison

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Ferrari are wary of the threat from Aston Martin

Although today gave us the first true indication of how the ten teams compare for performance, it only accounts for ultimate single lap pace. The fog of war hasn’t fully dissipated when it comes to how each of the teams at the front of the field will fare over 57 laps.

But while most in the field expected Red Bull to be fastest on Saturday, they may be concerned by how confident both drivers were that they would be even better in race trim. “We made some compromises in qualifying for tomorrow’s race and hopefully that will pay off so we can have a very strong race car,” Perez said, echoing Verstappen’s own assessment after qualifying.

At Ferrari, Red Bull’s closest rivals, Carlos Sainz Jnr could only concur with Perez’s view that the champions could be even more formidable over a race distance.

“I think Red Bull is going to be very, very strong tomorrow,” Sainz admitted. “If in qualy there are one step [ahead], on race pace it looks like they are one-and-a-half steps in front.”

Data from Friday’s second practice – the only true representative session for longer runs being held in the same cool, floodlit conditions as the race itself – showed that Sainz was probably correct in this view. While Verstappen averaged a 1’37.220 on soft tyres during Friday’s high fuel runs, Sainz could only manage a 1’38.5 on his first run and a 1’38.1 on his second, while his team mate Leclerc’s best seven lap stint averaged out at a 1’37.748.

Crucially, that meant the Ferrari was not the closest competitor to Verstappen on the long runs, with that honour instead going to Alonso’s Aston Martin. Sainz is convinced that Alonso will pose a genuine challenge to them over the course of the race.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Alonso is determined to seize podium chance

“It is true that we beat them in qualy, but in the race we expect them to be a level par or lower degradation than us,” Sainz explained. “So it’s going to be a tough, tough Sunday. But I always go into races thinking we can win them.”

Alonso is also brimming with confidence over the potential his new team has to fight for its first ever podium in British Racing Green as well as only his second podium appearance since coming out of retirement.

“The strength of this car has been the long runs,” Alonso said. “Very low degradation on the car, taking care of the tyres very good. We start top five, so if there is an opportunity, we are very close to the podium, we will for sure not lose it.”

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Beyond having the best possible starting positions for both their drivers, Red Bull have the luxury of the most comprehensive data on all three tyre compounds of any of the ten teams. They were the only team to fit the hard compound in final practice, making them the only top team to have sampled all three compounds across the weekend.

Alex Albon, Williams, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
The hard tyres haven’t been seen much so far

Unlike in 2022, Pirelli predict that the best strategy for this year’s race will be a two stopper, starting on the softs and switching to the hard tyres before returning to softs for the final stint. The medium is unlikely to be used throughout the field, offering neither the durability of the new hard or the grip of the softs. Pirelli also believe the hard tyre will be the “key to the race” tomorrow, making it especially helpful for Red Bull that they’ve gathered at least some data from Saturday afternoon.

The importance of the soft tyre led Ferrari to sacrifice a second Q3 run for Leclerc in order to save a crucial new set of softs for the race, likely to be used for the start. The first notable strategic choice by the team made under new chief strategist Ravin Jain, who is carrying a significant weight of expectation after Ferrari’s error-strewn 2022 campaign.

“Starting from the second row is actually a positive result considering that we will have the only driver with an extra set of new soft tyres,” said new team principal Frederic Vasseur. “For tomorrow, we need to put everything together and manage degradation.”

Despite not following the approach taken with his team mate, Sainz believes having the advantage of unspoilt tyres will be worth as much as “three to five seconds” of race time – perhaps not enough to overcome the Red Bulls, but maybe a useful buffer to defend from the likes of Alonso behind.

But while this first race of the season appears to be a relatively straightforward affair strategy-wise, last year’s race was also a stark reminder of how nothing is certain in the first race of a season – especially after only three days of testing. Red Bull may appear to have the pace this weekend, but not even the world champions will be counting the 25 points before either one of the RB19s takes the chequered flag first.

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Qualifying times in full

Position Number Driver Team Q1 time Q2 time (vs Q1) Q3 time (vs Q2)
1 1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1’31.295 1’30.503 (-0.792s) 1’29.708 (-0.795s)
2 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1’31.479 1’30.746 (-0.733s) 1’29.846 (-0.900s)
3 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’31.094 1’30.282 (-0.812s) 1’30.000 (-0.282s)
4 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’30.993 1’30.515 (-0.478s) 1’30.154 (-0.361s)
5 14 Fernando Alonso Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’31.158 1’30.645 (-0.513s) 1’30.336 (-0.309s)
6 63 George Russell Mercedes 1’31.057 1’30.507 (-0.550s) 1’30.340 (-0.167s)
7 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’31.543 1’30.513 (-1.030s) 1’30.384 (-0.129s)
8 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’31.184 1’31.127 (-0.057s) 1’30.836 (-0.291s)
9 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’31.508 1’30.914 (-0.594s) 1’30.984 (+0.070s)
10 27 Nico Hulkenberg Haas-Ferrari 1’31.204 1’30.809 (-0.395s)
11 4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’31.652 1’31.381 (-0.271s) Missed by 0.254s
12 77 Valtteri Bottas Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’31.504 1’31.443 (-0.061s) Missed by 0.316s
13 24 Zhou Guanyu Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’31.615 1’31.473 (-0.142s) Missed by 0.346s
14 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1’31.400 1’32.510 (+1.110s) Missed by 1.383s
15 23 Alexander Albon Williams-Mercedes 1’31.461
16 2 Logan Sargeant Williams-Mercedes 1’31.652 Missed by 0.000s
17 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1’31.892 Missed by 0.240s
18 81 Oscar Piastri McLaren-Mercedes 1’32.101 Missed by 0.449s
19 21 Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri-Red Bull 1’32.121 Missed by 0.469s
20 10 Pierre Gasly Alpine-Renault 1’32.181 Missed by 0.529s

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Sector times

Speed trap

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Lap times – third 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:

Over to you

Is anything going to stop Red Bull? And what will Alonso achieve with his rapid Aston Martin?

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