until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

The battle to avoid being last in F1 has taken a twist

by Matt Beer, Scott Mitchell-Malm, Edd Straw
6 min read

While most of the middle of the Formula 1 field looked hard to predict heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix, the identities of who’d be right at the front (Red Bull) and who’d be right at the back (Williams) looked fairly settled.

Both of those certainties seemed questionable after Friday practice.

Williams rookie Logan Sargeant was still slowest, but his team-mate Alex Albon was ahead of both AlphaTauris in 17th and pretty sure Williams would be in a three-team tail-end battle now.

That’s a step forward for someone whose Thursday stance was that the best Williams could generally hope for going into 2023 was to be a better version of F1’s 10th-best team than it was last year.

Alex Albon Williams F1 Bahrain GP

He admitted that Nico Hulkenberg putting one Haas up in a startling fifth place didn’t quite fit his theory, but the other Haas of Kevin Magnussen was only 16th.

“We’ve still got a bit of work to do, but we’re close,” said Albon.

“You look at the AlphaTauris… Hulkenberg did a very good lap, so we’re a little bit disheartened by him, but the Haases on race pace, we’re close, all three teams. So that’s who we’re fighting.”

It’s AlphaTauri that looks in most trouble, both visually on track and in the assessment of its drivers Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries.

“Today was not our easiest day,” said a downbeat Tsunoda.

“The performance itself so far doesn’t look good compared to other competitors, not even close.

Yuki Tsunoda Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri F1 Bahrain GP

“Obviously we don’t know what other teams are doing, but even with fuel loads or something like that it’s just too far away compared to where we wanted.

“But there’s still one free practice to go and I’m feeling optimistic. There’s definitely a step forward compared to last year in a couple of places. Just have to focus on ourselves and see how it goes in qualifying.

“For the long run I was quicker than a couple of cars, which is good, but I don’t know what they’re doing. It seems like maybe the long run is better than the performance run, which is maybe good in Bahrain but still I think it’s performance where we’re too far away.

“We need to find a couple of tenths to get up to Q2 at least to be in the points in the race.”

De Vries was less downbeat but still acknowledged “there is certainly a lot of work ahead of us and I think we are finding ourselves a little bit on the back foot”.

He suggested that the situation might at least be partly exacerbated by the Sakhir track layout not suiting AlphaTauri.

Nyck de Vries AlphaTauri F1 Bahrain GP

“We are aware where our weaknesses are relative to the competition,” De Vries added. “Perhaps this track might not suit our characteristics very well either.”

Albon believes raw pace isn’t going to matter nearly as much as the long runs on Sunday.

“Honestly because of the way the deg is around here, race pace is a bit more important than qualifying pace,” he suggested.

“The ease of overtaking around here is quite high, so if you’ve got a quicker car you tend to get past.

“So you’re setting up the car for quali, but with one eye – or one and a half eyes – on the race.”

And that’s why Hulkenberg was very cautious despite his superb qualifying simulation, saying Haas’s likely rivals “looked to have the upper hand on us on pace and deg” on the long runs.

The F1 returnee had certainly loved the lap that put him under half a second from the top spot.

“It’s fun when you get fresh rubber and you have a lot of grip,” said Hulkenberg.

Nico Hulkenberg Haas F1 Bahrain GP

“That’s when a Formula 1 car really comes alive and you can play with it. It’s just dynamic and fun to toss it around.

“But like I said, long runs, still something more to do.”

He joked that he wished he’d kept a bit of Haas’s single-lap pace “in the pocket”.

“One-lap pace is fine and it’s fun, it’s nice, but on Sunday, that’s where the gold is, that’s where it matters,” Hulkenberg continued.

“I feel that’s where we still have a lot of work to do and some homework and we need to find pace, and deg as well we need to work on.”

Some pundits had also tipped McLaren for last place given its admissions about its off-course development programme and its underwhelming test days.

It still looks extremely hard to drive and rookie Oscar Piastri was only just ahead of Magnussen, the Williams and AlphaTauris at the back.

But Piastri put that mostly down to himself, saying “I feel like I’m improving and I just need more laps”.

Oscar Piastri McLaren F1 Bahrain GP

“Still a lot of learning going on, which is good,” he summarised. “Still a few mistakes in there but that’s what Fridays are for.

“I feel like I’m making progress. Still not 100% happy with where I’m at but I feel like I’m improving every session.

“This morning it was pretty low grip out there for everyone so I was maybe a bit overly optimistic on how much I could push.

“I think it’s just trying to search for the limit of grip and the car seems to be performing reasonably well, it feels like it’s in a pretty good window.

“It’s just me looking for the limits and an F1 car bites back pretty hard.”

He added that McLaren’s Friday had “gone much smoother than testing did but I feel like the car is still how we expected it to be”.

But that at least appears to be a car that Piastri’s team-mate Lando Norris – who was ninth on Friday – can wrestle out of the Q1 jeopardy group.

Lando Norris McLaren F1 Bahrain GP

Norris felt that, relatively speaking, the McLaren was “pretty reasonable” in practice and the team had been able to make use of some of its testing learning.

“We came here with a lot of stuff learned and we kind of put everything on the car that’s the best that we know of,” Norris said.

“We’ve set it up in the best way. So it’s definitely the best it’s felt all year I’d say, from the test until now. Which is a good sign. We’ve made some small steps forward and definitely moved things in the right direction.

“Still more to find, for sure. But at the same time I felt a bit more comfortable today, I felt like I could push the car a little bit more.

“So definitely the cooler conditions helping us a little bit. But at the same time, a productive day.”

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