Aston Martin and Alonso leave F1 midfielder rivals in rearview mirror | Formula One

Aston Martin’s big step forward

In the opening stages of last season, Aston Martin was stuck with a pitifully slow car that was a troublesome beast to drive. Pledged early last year to build an all-new model for 2023, they found nearly two seconds of track time, an unprecedented feat in modern F1.

At the track, Sakhir jumped them over the net in a mighty leap. Fernando Alonso had the fastest time in practice and finished fifth in qualifying, beating both Mercedes drivers. His teammate Lance Stroll, riding with a broken wrist, finished eighth on the grid. In Sunday’s race, the Spaniard was relentless, moving up from seventh to third in potentially the second fastest car behind the Red Bulls.

Their achievement will be painful for Mercedes, but much more so for midfield rivals McLaren and Alpine, who pursue similar acceleration for much longer and with larger budgets. The transformation, overseen by team principal Mike Krack, has been remarkable and with the launch of a new factory and new wind tunnel at Silverstone later this year, Aston Martin is expected to become even stronger.

It remains a good shout that Alonso could still, with a bit of luck and wind in the right direction, win this year. After the Bahrain show, he is unlikely to retire anytime soon.

Mercedes hold their hands up

Mercedes has been cautious about their chances of a quick recovery this season. They admitted they made a mistake in 2022 by warning that this year’s car was not where they wanted it to be, but believed they would unleash its potential. Being overtaken by Aston Martin and widening the gap to Red Bull was much worse than they expected.

This was enough for team boss Toto Wolff to admit that the team had made a mistake and took action to change the concept of the car. Taking a radical step and admitting that drastic action was necessary if they were to salvage the wins of the season. “We made a mistake last year. We thought we could fix it by sticking to this car concept, but it didn’t work,” he said. “So we need to focus on what we think might be the right direction and what we’re missing.”

Certainly Lewis Hamilton was honest in his assessment and it was painfully blunt, especially considering he worked hard in last year’s car beast. “We’re just on the wrong track,” he said. “We’re a long way from the guys up front. There was good progress last year, but the gap wasn’t as big as it is now. “

The car lacks downforce and while another concept is being tested in the wind tunnel, Wolff admitted any hopes Hamilton had of competing for his eighth title this year have vanished. Another tough season of chasing the leaders is ahead as Mercedes’ ability to react and adapt under extreme pressure is put to the test.

Max Verstappen takes a turn at the Bahrain Grand Prix
Max Verstappen shows the class difference with his Red Bull. Photo: Barni Cristiano/ATP/SPP/Shutterstock

Red Bull has wings

After all the fuss of qualifying preparations, when it looked like Aston Matin and Alonso could throw in an incredibly fun wrench for the job, it was business as usual with Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez nailing solid twice at the start and then the race. Red Bull has been confirmed with absolute certainty to be the package to beat. Last year, their car was consistently faster in the race, proving again that Verstappen had a six-tenths of a lap advantage over his teammate and Charles Leclerc in the opening stages.

That the RB19 retained its advantage is not surprising as it is an evolution of the strengths they carried over from last year’s car, and Verstappen was able to capitalize on that with ease at the front of the pack. Once again, he is quick on the straight and menacing in the corners, displaying a good, comfortable balance that is particularly suited to Verstappen.

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With their wind tunnel limitations, it’s arguable that they won’t be able to develop it as aggressively as the chasing Ferraris and Aston Martins, but with a platform so fundamentally strong that they probably already have enough of an advantage. Verstappen exuded confidence and ease all weekend, a champion confident his title defense couldn’t have started better.

Ferrari must find time

The Scuderia believed they could at least keep Red Bull honest in this first race of the season at a track that would probably never suit their car. In qualifying, Leclerc kept Verstappen 1/10 in his first stints, but in the race the situation was different, as last year. Leclerc said Ferrari was about one second per lap slower than Red Bull before Ferrari’s other perennial problem, power unit failure, ended his race.

No wonder he was depressed taking two blows to the body in the same day. “I can’t say I feel fine,” he said. “There was a lot of work [the power unit]but we have to keep working because the first race and the first reliability problems were not good. I was as confident as I could be, losing one second of pace, which is honestly not very sure.

The honeymoon period for new team principal Fred Vasseur is over, but comfort-seeking fans can take heart as he was decidedly upbeat given his one-lap pace. “I’ve never seen a car that can match the pace of another in qualifying and not be able to do so in the race,” he said. “Then it’s a matter of set-up and certain choices in the car. We need to understand what we are doing well and come back stronger next time.

It was just the season opener and Ferrari has prioritized straight-line speed this season, which will do them good on the long straights at next round in Saudi Arabia, but they clearly have a big gap to fill.

F1 needs a better fight

Driven by a global surge in popularity, F1 hoped last year’s new rules would ensure better competition. They closed the field to some extent, the grid difference is less, but as is often the case with new regulars, one team got out of them a street ahead of them. It was Red Bull last season and they kept that lead.

That Ferrari and Mercedes didn’t shut them down is very disappointing and will make F1 bosses a bit nervous. Selling the sport to new fans when it’s effectively a one-horse race with Verstappen looking for a position to gallop to the title isn’t ideal.

The sport has had periods of dominance before, not least for Mercedes in recent years, but they only had such an advantage when opening those hybrid years between 2014 and 2016. In two of those three years, there was still an in-house team struggling to maintain interest, with Nico Rosberg and Hamilton they fight with hammer and pliers.

However, there is no indication that Pérez could even come close to Verstappen. The difference between them at the end was 12 seconds and could have been doubled had Verstappen not slowed down. Alonso’s revival no doubt revives the situation, but it’s unlikely to appeal to the next generation of Netflix in the long run, as F1 bosses know only too well.

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