Red Bull have started the new F1 season as they mean to go on, with a 1-2 result in Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying, but the reigning champion team don't appear to enjoy the massive advantage that pre-season testing form suggested they might, and we could be in for some classic on-track action this year.
|What||2023 Bahrain Grand Prix - Race|
|Where||Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir|
|When||15:00 Sunday, 4th March|
|How to watch||Sky Sports Main Event & F1|
|Odds||Max Verstappen 2/5, Charles Leclerc 11/2, Sergio Perez 11/2, Carlos Sainz 16/1, Fernando Alonso 20/1, Lewis Hamilton 40/1|
Over 17 @ 13/8
It was no surprise in pre-season testing to see Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes near the top of the order.
The long established big-three have passed the constructors' title around between them in all bar three years since 1999.
So when upstarts Aston Martin began setting lap-times on a par with the big boys, no-one was convinced their pace was genuine, even with their new hire, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, behind the wheel.
But when Alonso set the fastest time in two of the three official practice sessions the paddock realised they had to sit up and take notice of the green cars.
Ultimately Alonso was unable to upset Red Bull and Ferrari, but in qualifying fifth and only 0.3 seconds off the lead Ferrari of Charles Leclerc in third, the Spaniard will have given the team plenty of hope for the race.
The Aston's long-run pace has looked at least as impressive as its single lap speed throughout the preliminaries, and Alonso will be looking to attack the Ferraris of Leclerc and his team-mate Carlos Sainz.
Tyre longevity has looked an area of concern for the red cars, as it has tended to in most recent seasons, and Alonso appeals as a bet to reach the podium.
Formula 1's efforts to make the sport more sustainable has seen them introduce rules that car components have to last much longer than previously.
No more do the top teams over-push an engine for one qualifying session and then throw it on the scrap heap as they did in the 80s and 90s, and the knock-on from that is that there are far more cars finishing the races nowadays.
Last year's season-opener saw 19 of the 20 starters reach the 90% race distance required to be classified as a finisher, and it was one of nine 2022 races in which at least 18 drivers reached the finish.
Pre-season was notable for the low number of mechanical-related stoppages, as have been the practice sessions in Bahrain this weekend.
Qualifying was something of a baptism of fire for F1's three rookie drivers. Williams' Logan Sargent fared best of the trio, but will start only 16th on the grid.
The American youngster missed out on progression to the second round of qualifying by the narrowest possible margin - setting an identical time to 15th-fastest Lando Norris but being classified behind the McLaren man as Sargent set his time later in the session.
While Sargent will no doubt be frustrated by that, Oscar Piastri and Nyck de Vries will be left scratching their heads after disappointing showings.
McLaren debutant Piastri and AlphaTauri new boy De Vries start 18th and 19th, ahead only Pierre Gasly, whose fastest time was deleted as he strayed beyond the track limits.
Immediately ahead of the starts Kevin Magnussen, who will be looking to make a forward move after having to abandon his final qualifying attempt, meaning that on merit the three rookies should probably be whipping in the field.
Sargent was half a second quicker than Piastri and De Vries, who were separated by just 0.02 of a second, and those two are likely to have their own battle at the back.
Although he starts ahead, Piastri's McLaren has looked more of a handful throughout the preliminaries and he could struggle to stay in touch over 57 laps.
The Australian is a chance to be the last classified finisher. Any driver who completes 52 laps will go into the record books as having completed the race, but a late retirement could be a bigger threat to the bet than any of Piastri's rivals.