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Formula 1

Nine things we learned from F1 2023’s first proper day

by Scott Mitchell-Malm, Edd Straw
7 min read

After an unspectacular pre-season test threw up little in the way of curious storylines, the first proper day of Formula 1 2023 was much more interesting.

A slightly jumbled pecking order on Bahrain Grand Prix Friday has left us with plenty to consider about most of the teams – some looked great, some good, and some certainly less good.

These are the biggest lessons for our men on the ground on Friday.

Aston Martin’s more than just a dark horse

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Fernando Alonso was fastest in free practice and rapid on the long runs, but while he tried to downplay the pace of the AMR23 it’s clearly genuinely quick. Not necessarily Red Bull-beatingly quick, but it appears to have the legs of everybody else.

“It feels good to drive”, was Alonso’s verdict on a car that he’s able to extract the pace from without having to hustle it. That indicates a well-balanced and consistent car – and one that’s also looking after the tyres well on the long-runs. That made it, on race pace, second fastest and with a handy advantage over Ferrari.

At the start of the day, Aston Martin looked a good top-six threat. Now, in Alonso’s case at least, it’s in the hunt for a podium on merit. And if Red Bull drops the ball, as it did last year with its fuel cavitation problems, it’s not inconceivable Alonso could be in position to pick up that elusive 33rd victory.

Verstappen blunted – but by what?

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Red Bull looked well ahead during testing, but on Friday in Bahrain that advantage seemed narrowed.

Max Verstappen complained about the lack of grip and didn’t always look completely comfortable at the wheel, and it’s clear the day didn’t run perfectly smoothly for Red Bull.

It’s still looking in a strong position, with the best long-run pace and a decent quali sim with clear room to improve given Verstappen aborted his first attempt.

But it’s clear the RB19 isn’t proving quite as well-behaved as it did last week.

It was also visibly producing the most sparks through hitting the track surface in multiple parts of the circuit. And while that wasn’t causing big problems, it looked very different in testing.

Damage limitation for Ferrari

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

This was a bad day for anyone hoping Ferrari would take the fight to Red Bull from the start this season.

Team boss Fred Vasseur admitted Red Bull is a step ahead and Charles Leclerc has already ruled out fighting for pole.

“I don’t think we have the performance for pole but we can be in the mix and whenever we have races that are a bit more difficult, we should be trying to take every opportunity,” said Leclerc.

“That’s what we’ll try to do this weekend.”

It’s damage limitation mode already for the Scuderia. In Bahrain, that could mean trying to get ahead of Aston Martin to even finish on the podium.

But the long-run pace suggested a repeat of testing (and 2022 for that matter), with Ferrari actually further from the front, not closer.

If that doesn’t change, Ferrari will be in no-man’s land this weekend.

Mercedes even further off

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The positive for Mercedes in testing was that the porpoising and ride problems of 2022 were consigned to memory. The negative was that the car looked brisk rather than fast.

Based on today’s performance, Mercedes is in for a tough start to the season while it awaits a major upgrade that should appear around the time of May’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Its single-lap pace was at the lower end of what might be expected, and the long runs were a serious concern. The rear instability and traction limitations became more obvious as the stint went on, suggesting the back end isn’t as planted as the drivers would hope.

Lewis Hamilton said Friday confirmed that “we are a long way off” with any hopes for overnight improvements measured in milliseconds rather than the second he says Mercedes needs.

In short, Friday in Bahrain crystallised the expectations for a slow start to the season for the Silver Arrows.

And with Hamilton suggesting the car concept isn’t quite right, it won’t be until the big development package appears that Mercedes can hope to get back to where it wants to be.

Stroll struggling with injured wrists

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Even if you only consider his lack of pre-season testing and a compromised start to FP1 thanks to an ignition problem, Lance Stroll did a decent job to lap just over half a second off Alonso on Friday.

But factor in his injured wrists, which are clearly causing discomfort, and it was an impressive effort.

Inevitably, it means there are question marks about how Stroll will cope for the rest of the weekend. During FP2, he was asked by the pitwall to modify his approach to Turn 1, but he responded that “I can’t with the hands”. He’s clearly in some discomfort, repositioning his left hand for the application of lock in Turn 1 to the base of the wheel rather than its normal position.

He’ll keep going as long as he can in the hope that even with the injuries he’ll be able to put the pace of the car to good use and pick up some kind of result, but you can be sure that the way his wrists respond to the 45 laps he’s put in so far will be closely monitored.

Alpine finally stops holding back

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Alpine spent pre-season testing in the lower reaches of the timesheets in terms of headline times, but with hints that the performance is very much where it should be for this team – ie leading, and possibly just clear of, the congested midfield pack.

That expectation was broadly confirmed today as Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon picked up the pace.

But the A523 still has some speed to unleash, with the drivers easing their way into the weekend after a tricky FP1 was followed by a more comfortable FP2.

McLaren needs some Norris heroics

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McLaren did nothing on the first day of the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend to cast aside the impression from testing that it’s in for a tough start to the season.

On single-lap pace, it had the seventh-fastest car. And there was at least some reason for more optimism given Lando Norris’s long-run pace was stronger.

But qualifying looks to be the big challenge. Norris is well-acquainted with wringing the neck of, and hanging onto, tricky McLarens and inevitably looked more at ease with the car on the limit than rookie Oscar Piastri. So he appears to be McLaren’s best hope for ensuring it doesn’t have both cars eliminated in Q1.

McLaren’s season will really start in Baku at the end of next month when its major upgrade, which represents a significant change of direction, is deployed.

The trouble is, McLaren has to make the best of what its got in the interim – and Norris is likely its best hope of doing that.

Williams might not be slowest

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

When Alex Albon targeted being a “better 10th” as the team’s objective for the season, that didn’t do anything to change the impression it was going to be at the back. However there are signs that it could have the beating of struggling AlphaTauri.

The Williams lacks downforce, but it appeared to be a pretty well-balanced car in the hands of both drivers.

The same couldn’t be said about the AlphaTauri, which struggled for pace and looked a handful at times.

Its drivers were downcast afterwards, even though Nyck de Vries wanted to focus on the brighter side. AlphaTauri’s on the back foot and could genuinely start as 2023’s slowest team, rather than Williams.

Hulkenberg’s early benchmark

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Practice Day Sakhir, Bahrain

The huge position difference between high-flying Nico Hulkenberg in fifth and Kevin Magnussen in 16th exaggerates the gap between them as drivers. But this was a nice early reminder from the returning Hulkenberg of why Haas needed him.

When Hulkenberg flashed past us at Turn 10 on his qualifying simulation, he looked much more comfortable and leaned on the car more than Magnussen, who was visibly struggling with more understeer. In fact, he looked pretty quick.

But he didn’t look ‘set the fifth-fastest time’ quick. So that was a surprise. And a good one for Haas, which has further validation for picking Hulkenberg (not that it really needed it).

Haas replaced Mick Schumacher with Hulkenberg because it needed someone to be at the upper limit when Magnussen has his off days.

Friday was a great example of that, as Haas goes into the rest of the weekend with a superb benchmark.

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