In the hours after Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix some of Max Verstappen’s rivals seemed ready to hand him this year’s title with 22 races still to run.
The Red Bull driver won the opening race of the season by 11 seconds from his teammate Sergio Perez and by a massive 38 seconds from his nearest non-Red Bull rival, Fernando Alonso.
It was an utterly dominant performance, and one Verstappen achieved despite racing well within his capabilities or that of his car.
“Red Bull have got this championship sewn up,” Mercedes driver George Russell told journalists on Sunday evening.
“I don’t think anyone will be fighting with them this year. They should win every single race, that’s my bet.”
On the face of it, it’s hard to argue with Russell. F1’s history 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 a team has never 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 big enough to raise the question of whether such a feat is possible in 2023.
Yet Sunday’s result also comes with a big caveat: as one-sided as the Bahrain Grand Prix was, it remains a sample of one race from a season of 23 this year. What’s more, the Bahrain International Circuit is a known outlier on the F1 schedule, with an unusually rough track surface and traction-heavy layout that punishes rear tires more than any other track on the calendar.
Along with Alonso’s Aston Martin, Red Bull was the only team to effectively manage the degradation of its rear tires in Sunday’s race, making the win look remarkably easy. The next round in Saudi Arabia puts much less of a toll on the rear tyres, and while it is also an unusual circuit compared to the vast majority of tracks F1 visits, there’s the potential for some of Red Bull’s advantage to be curbed in Jeddah.
“Saudi is quite a different track to this one,” said Verstappen. “You have a lot more straights, fast corners, and a lot less deg. And I think here we were particularly good on the deg. So I do expect in terms of race pace that everyone is closer in Jeddah, yeah.
“Our car seems quite strong in high-speed, but I think the Ferrari is quite quick on the straight, which in Jeddah is very nice to have, let’s say it like that.
“But yeah, time will tell. It’s really hard to know. We’ve only driven these cars here in Bahrain, so you just have to wait and see, and of course try and get there in the best shape possible, and we’ll I’ll find out throughout practice where we are exactly.”
That’s not to say Red Bull won’t have the fastest car in Saudi Arabia — or at the every other circuit this year — but it would be wise to temper some of the more sweeping predictions until a handful of races have played out. Maintaining a 100 percent reliability record while avoiding accidents, strategy errors and poorly-timed safety cars means a perfect win record would require a significant dose of luck to go with Red Bull’s engineering prowess.
“Twenty-three races is a marathon and it’s about being consistent over the campaign,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said when asked if his team could win every race this year. “Today was a great start, but we fully expect rivals to come back hard in the future races.
“I’ve been around long enough to see things change so quickly and I still think that these cars are still relatively immature. As teams develop and upgrades come, things will change.”
Why was victory so easy for Verstappen in Bahrain?
It was clear from the three days of preseason testing ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix 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 from the race with an engine issue on lap 40, he was 24 seconds adrift of Verstappen, representing a Red Bull advantage over Ferrari of 0.6s per lap.
That was double the gap between the two cars on a single lap in qualifying — which stood at 0.297s — underlining the fact the Ferrari had excessive tire degradation relative to the Red Bull in Bahrain. That theory was backed up by Carlos Sainz’s lack of pace in the final stint of the race, when he lost the final podium position to Alonso despite having held a 0.2s advantage over the Aston Martin in qualifying the day before.
In the knowledge that rear tire degradation would be a key factor in Sunday’s race, and with the confidence that it had single-lap performance to spare, Red Bull adopted a car setup that protected the rear tires in the race, even if it meant sacrificing some pace in qualifying.
“The one-lap performance and performance during a race are very different in balance requirements,” Verstappen said. “So even when I said before in Friday practice that I was unhappy with the long-run performance, my long runs were still OK. So I’m not really surprised [by the performance]Just of course happy that it worked out like this.”
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 both of his opening stints before switching to the hard compound at his final pit stop. Meanwhile, the rest of the drivers in the top eight had no choice but to use one set of softs followed by two sets of hards to get to the finish. Put simply, Red Bull’s competitors wouldn’t have been able to make the same tire strategy work without facing a disastrous performance drop off.
“We focused a little more on the race. [with the setup] than we did on quality and that paid us dividends today,” Horner said. “So we were able to run on the softer compound, particularly in the middle part of the race and still have the durability.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for Red Bull’s rivals is that Verstappen never really pushed the limits of his car. With his rivals becoming smaller in his mirrors with each passing lap, he was able to take it relatively easy on Sunday, meaning the true potential of the Red Bull remains a mystery.
Will Red Bull face any serious competition this year?
Red Bull’s impressive performance at the opening race was only half the story in Bahrain. While the world champions have taken a significant step forward over the winter, it is clear that Mercedes and Ferrari have not improved enough.
Verstappen’s 38-second advantage over Alonso in third place underlined the performance of this year’s Red Bull RB19, but arguably isn’t that surprising. Such a gap between Red Bull and the front of F1’s midfield pack over a race distance was not uncommon last year — the big difference in Bahrain was that there weren’t any Ferrari or Mercedes cars filling it.
Red Bull and Aston Martin have rightly been praised for their performance gains over the winter, but look at it another way and Mercedes and Ferrari (plus other midfield teams such as McLaren and Alpine) have fallen well short of where they should be. Mercedes especially has fallen into an area previously occupied by the upper midfield teams, while Ferrari is already showing a continuation of its trait from last year of being quick over a single lap but struggling to match Red Bull over a race distance.
Viewed that way, it’s easy to understand why Mercedes is already so keen to change its car concept — something team boss Toto Wolff expressed to the media after just one qualifying session. Wolff’s call to action is even more understandable when you consider that the Aston Martin that finished 12 seconds down the road buys its engine, gearbox and rear suspension from Mercedes and developed its car in Mercedes’ wind tunnel.
Being beaten to victory is always a humbling experience for one of the top three teams in F1, but being beaten by a customer is verging on embarrassing.
“When you look at where we were at the end of last season, where it looked like we caught up a lot, we have almost doubled if not tripled the gap to Red Bull this year,” Wolff said.
“What Aston Martin has been able to achieve is a good inspiration because they have come back from two seconds off the pace and become the second-best team.
“For us, everything is bad and in the race you saw the consequences and we were going backwards.
“I’m not overreacting; the gap is very big and in order to catch up we need to make big steps. Not conventional ones.”
Looking at the results of the first race in Bahrain with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes easier to draw a link between the winners and losers of the winter break. After a hugely disappointing start to life under F1’s new technical regulations last year, Aston Martin abandoned its original car concept and unashamedly looked to the bodywork of Red Bull for inspiration from the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix onwards.
The switch to a Red Bull-style concept saw Aston Martin make moderate performance gains during the 2022 season, but clearly opened up a rich vein of performance to tap into over the winter. What’s more, the big-money 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.
Meanwhile, Mercedes and Ferrari have pursued their own car concepts quite different to Red Bull’s, which have clearly resulted in a slower rate of improvement. Wolff’s comments over the weekend indicate Mercedes is ready to go back to the drawing board, but new Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur remains resolute that his team’s car concept can still challenge Red Bull once the reliability issues and tire degradation of Sunday evening are understood.
“I’m completely convinced about this,” Vasseur said. “I never saw a car capable to match the pace of another one in qualifying and not be able to do so in the race — then it’s a matter of setup and some choices on the car. But it’s not a matter of concept at all So we don’t have to go into this direction.”
But from Red Bull’s perspective, its Aston Martin that poses the biggest threat at the start of the new season, especially in the hands of Alonso.
“They looked very strong in the race today,” Horner said. “It was enjoyable to see Fernando up there who gives the forty-something hope that there’s life in the old boy yet and he raced very well.
“He’s still so competitive and that the Aston looks a good car. Based on the result of one race you would have to say they are the second strongest team here.”