Red Bull began the defence of their Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles in the best possible fashion with a one-two in the F1 season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Milton Keynes-based outfit swept all before them last year and only look to have got stronger in the off-season if Sunday’s showing in Sakhir is anything to go by.
World champion Max Verstappen completed a trouble-free lights-to-flag victory, leading home his teammate Sergio Perez with Fernando Alonso completing the podium.
The Aston Martin was the surprise of the first weekend and while Alonso was able to profit from more Ferrari woe, he drove superbly to recover from a tricky start to snatch third.
Alonso has thrown down the challenge to Ferrari and Mercedes for the season, but they are all playing catch up to Red Bull, who have been cut to 1/5 to retain the Constructors’ title after one race.
|What||2023 Saudi Arabia Grand Prix|
|Where||Jeddah Corniche Circuit, Jeddah|
|When||Sunday 19th March 2023|
|How to watch||Sky Sports|
|Odds||Max Verstappen 8/13, Charles Leclerc 6/1, Sergio Perez 11/2, Carlos Sainz 10/1, Fernando Alonso 10/1, Lewis Hamilton 22/1|
Verstappen had never previously won either the first race of a new Formula 1 season or the Bahrain Grand Prix but ticked both items off his list on Sunday with the kind of typically dominant drive we became used to seeing last season.
The Dutchman hadn’t looked comfortable with the new RB19 for the majority of the weekend, despite qualifying on pole, but had clearly got the measure of it come race time.
Verstappen stormed away from the lights to effectively end any hope of a fight for first with the two-time world champion a second ahead of Charles Leclerc after just one lap.
Verstappen continued to build his lead with Red Bull’s two-stop strategy working well and he would eventually cross the line for his 36th career win 11 seconds ahead of Perez.
Perez had done well to recover from a poor start to finish runner-up, although the result was rarely in doubt, such was the pace of the Red Bull. The Mexican said after the race that he believes he’s getting closer to Verstappen but it will take some big improvements from Checo to challenge his teammate for the title this season.
Having started last season with a double DNF in Bahrain, Red Bull have begun 2023 in the best possible fashion and are well ahead of everyone else with Alonso 40 seconds adrift, the nearest Ferrari 48 seconds behind and Mercedes 50 seconds off the pace.
Aston Martin were expected to make big strides forward this year but not even they expected to be so strong in Bahrain.
After narrowly avoiding catastrophe on lap one when the two Astons touched - Lance Stroll making contact with the back of Alonso - an incident which dropped Alonso to seventh, the Silverstone-based outfit grew in stature as the race went on.
Alonso professed his love for the car over the team radio as he moved through the field, first passing the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and then Ferrari’s Sainz with a pair of brilliant overtakes as he climbed into the top three to become the oldest driver since Michael Schumacher’s final podium in 2012 to finish in the top three.
The 41-year-old’s 99th career podium sets the stage for a fascinating season for Aston if they can back up this strong showing.
Alonso and Aston threaten to break into F1’s ‘big three’, particularly if Ferrari and Mercedes don’t improve on their efforts in Bahrain.
Ferrari, having been plagued by mechanical faults throughout 2022, were once again troubled by reliability issues as Leclerc’s engine gave out on lap 41 when running in third.
Tyre wear, another source of frustration last year, then cost Sainz a podium as he failed to hold off a rampaging Alonso on lap 45.
Ferrari had already switched to a conservative strategy with just under 20 laps to go, deciding to save the car for another day, such was Red Bull’s advantage and the gap to Verstappen, coupled with some old problems rearing their heads, made it a race to forget.
Mercedes are even further adrift and team boss Toto Wolff has hinted they may have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to the design of the WR14 after an underwhelming showing.
Hamilton and George Russell were never in contention for a podium as they finished fifth and seventh, and the ease with which they were passed by the Aston Martins will have been a major worry.
McLaren also have work to do after a disastrous race in which rookie Oscar Piastri was forced to retire 13 laps into his debut due to an electrical issue.
Norris didn’t fare much better due to an ongoing problem that led him to pit six times as his McLaren limped home in last place.
Last has usually been occupied by a Williams in recent seasons but they demonstrated that they may be ready to compete with those in midfield by finishing 10th and 12th in Bahrain.
Alexander Albon snatched the last point in 10th, while Logan Sargeant enjoyed a strong debut with 12th. Williams shared their belief in pre-season testing that they could climb the grid this year and Bahrain demonstrated that may be the case after so many years of struggle.
Reigning world champion Max Verstappen has qualified on pole for the first race of the 2023 F1 season, with his Red Bull fastest, just ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, while Charles Leclerc's Ferrari took third place in Saturday's session at the Bahrain International Circuit.
Two-time champion Verstappen demonstrated Red Bull's superior speed again in the first competitive racing of the year and, on this early evidence, the Dutch driver will be the one to beat again this season after he recorded a time of 1:29.708seconds when it mattered most in Sakhir.
|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|
Perez posted the second-quickest time, and will start Sunday's eagerly-awaited race on the front row, just ahead of Leclerc's Ferrari, while the other Ferrari driver, Carlos Sainz will start from fourth on the grid.
The surprise package of Practice, Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin, recorded the fifth-fastest time, ahead of the Mercedes duo of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who had to settle for sixth and seventh place on the grid respectively.
Alonso, who won the Drivers' Championship with in 2005 and 2006 with Renault, is 20/1 to pick up what would be a brilliant shock race win after he rolled back the years in Bahrain, while Russell is 33/1 is and Hamilton is to win the race.
However, there appears little prospect of the Mercedes drivers suddenly finding the speed and reliability required to match the Ferraris and Red Bulls ahead of them.
Following testing, much of the pre-season predictions were centred on just how far ahead of the rest of the field Red Bull were, with Ferrari expected to again be their closest rivals and more problems predicted for Mercedes.
And, after some surprise performances on Friday - that pointed to some unpredictability - Saturday's qualifying played out pretty much as originally expected with Red Bull dominating and Ferrari pushing closest behind.
Verstappen is 1/2 to win the World Drivers' Championship again this year, ahead of Ferrari star Leclerc, who is 6/1 in the F1 Outright market, while seven-time world champion Hamilton is next on the list at .
Verstappen was delighted with the eventual outcome of Qualifying after admitting the start to the weekend had not exactly gone to plan after underwhelming practice sessions, while he also revealed he took his time to warm-up on Saturday.
He said: "It's been a bit of a tough start to the weekend and today not finding my rhythm but in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together and of course very happy to be on pole. It's amazing and I'm looking forward for tomorrow.
"Compared to last year everyone knows a bit more what they are doing with the car. The changes slowed down the car a bit but we are still going faster. Everyone is increasing their performances a lot."
He added: "I was actually positively surprised being on pole after the struggles I had in practice. That's positive and our race car is better."
The other Aston Martin with Lance Stroll at the wheel qualified for Sunday's race in eighth place, while Esteban Ocon's Alpine was ninth and Haas driver s made up the top 10.
The view from the majority of the Formula 1 paddock entering the 2023 campaign was that reigning constructors’ champions Red Bull were likely to strengthen their grip on the grid this year and Friday’s practice sessions largely supported those claims.
Sergio Perez set the fastest time in first practice, Max Verstappen was able to overcome a few issues to clock times in the top three in both sessions, while both drivers were significantly faster than their rivals in race simulation.
With Red Bull’s dominance largely expected though, it was the performance of Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso that was of greater interest.
The Spaniard was quickest in second practice in the cooler conditions expected for qualifying and the two-time world champion looks ready to give Red Bull a run for their money.
|What||2023 Bahrain Grand Prix - Qualifying|
|Where||Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir|
|When||15:00 Saturday, 4th March|
|How to watch||Sky Sports Main Event & F1|
|Odds||Max Verstappen 10/11, Charles Leclerc 4/1, Fernando Alonso 9/2, Sergio Perez 6/1, Carlos Sainz 12/1, Lewis Hamilton 28/1|
Sergio Perez will be expected to support Max Verstappen’s bid for a third world title, rather than go in for business for himself this year, but gave a little reminder on Friday that he can’t be totally dismissed when it comes to assessing the top drivers and potential race winners on any given weekend.
Checo set the fastest time in pre-season testing in Bahrain and backed that up in first practice, pounding round the Bahrain International Circuit while Verstappen dealt with a lack of grip in practice one and bouncing in P2.
Red Bull were confident of correcting those issues for the Dutchman, who is 10/11 to claim the 21st pole position of his career at a track which hasn’t been kind to the Milton Keynes-based outfit.
Red Bull haven’t won the Bahrain Grand Prix in a decade and have only had one pole position since then.
Verstappen will be expected to put that record straight, but it would be wrong to think Perez can’t fly the flag for his team after a strong Friday showing.
The Mexican began 2022 well, finishing in the top two in six of the first 10 races, including securing his first career pole in Saudi Arabia, before Red Bull began tailoring the car to Verstappen’s strengths.
This could be one of those weekends where Perez matches Verstappen and he’s an interesting runner at 6/1 to secure his second pole.
Red Bull’s claims to pole are strong but could be seriously challenged by Aston Martin if they can build on Friday’s practice efforts.
The Silverstone outfit were expected to jump up the order of the grid this year after significant investment in a new design team and facility, but perhaps not as dramatically as they have.
Alonso, starting his 20th season in F1 and seemingly just as hungry as ever for a third world title, had said he’d expected to be behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in Bahrain, only to set a time 0.169 seconds quicker than world champion Verstappen in practice two.
Team mate Lance Stroll was sixth quickest in P2, a good effort given it was the first time the Canadian had driven the car this year after missing testing with a wrist injury.
Alonso will lead the charge for Aston on Saturday though and is 9/2 to bag what would be his first pole position in 10 years.
With Red Bull three-tenths of a second quicker and Aston Martin boasting a surprisingly quick package, Ferrari face an uphill battle repeating their one-two in Bahrain from 12 months ago.
Charles Leclerc led home Carlos Sainz on that occasion having also taken pole, in one of 12 the Scuderia managed in 2022.
Last year, over one lap, the Ferrari often had the advantage over the rest of the grid, but that may no longer be the case.
Friday suggested otherwise on what was an underwhelming start to the season for Ferrari with Leclerc having had rear wing and clutch issues, while Sainz had a huge spin in first practice.
Leclerc at least recovered to set the fourth fastest time in P2 but Sainz was largely off the pace and may not factor in Saturday’s qualifying.
Mercedes may not be a factor in qualifying either having been no better than eighth fastest on the timesheets in either session.
The Silver Arrows are estimated to be half a second slower than Ferrari and the fear now is that all the hard work they did to make up the ground on the Scuderia and Red Bull over the course of 2022 may have been lost due to a flawed development strategy.
It’s hardly the start Lewis Hamilton wanted as he chases a record eighth world title and Mercedes appear to have a fight on their hands just to make Q3 on Saturday.
Alpine showed some decent pace in the late practice session, McLaren looked better than pre-season expectations and Alfa Romeo may be capable of springing a surprise in a congested midfield.