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Formula 1

Who benefits and suffers from F1’s unplanned gap? Our verdict

by Josh Suttill
9 min read

The cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix – originally slated for April 16 – left a four-week break in Formula 1’s 2023 schedule that it elected not to fill.

It creates an unusually large gap in an otherwise frenetic season and may prove to be a blessing for some teams that are struggling three rounds into the year.

For other teams, it might stifle their momentum and allow rivals to make inroads that they otherwise wouldn’t make by round four.

Our writers pick out the teams that they think will benefit and those that will suffer from the unplanned break:

Red Bull suffers

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

I know it seems silly to suggest that anything is bad for Red Bull in a season it is almost certainly going to dominate.

However, at this time, with such a clear car advantage and with rivals in the mud, Red Bull will want to be carving through races as quickly as possible.

Its target for this year is to bank lots of wins and a big points lead early on so that it can save as much of its depleted aerodynamic testing allowance as possible for the 2024 car.

‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is the Red Bull approach to 2023 and while it probably won’t matter in the grand scheme of things, it is definitely the team that would have benefitted most from a front-loaded calendar.

By extension, it is at least a little blow to have an absence of races at a time the car is so superior and rivals have a few free weeks to work through their problems and progress with solutions.

But while the gap is not the best news for his team, it is good in a way for Max Verstappen.

Along with Fernando Alonso, Verstappen is probably the most racing-hungry driver on the grid. You can bet he’ll be spending this ‘downtime’ doing an awful lot of sim racing, for example.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Melbourne, Australia

He even admitted in Australia that he would not normally be looking forward to the gap, and finds it “a bit weird to have three weeks off” so early in the year.

But after his illness pre-Saudi Arabia, which was played down a lot at the time, Verstappen actually needs the gap to recover properly.

“These three weeks is just getting back to full fitness, getting a full programme in,” he said, having felt like he was “missing a lung”.

“So, in a way, it’s probably nice now.” – Scott Mitchell-Malm

Ferrari benefits

Ferrari headed into 2023 optimistic of a title challenge but has crashed down to earth with its worst start to the season points-wise since 2009.

There are two challenges for Ferrari. The first is, as team principal Fred Vasseur keeps pointing out, the need to extract the most from the Ferrari SF-23 in terms of balance and tyre management. There were signs of progress on that score at Albert Park, but there remains the possibility that was a track-specific phenomenon. So the time to reflect, analyse and understand will be welcome.

There’s also the bigger picture to consider. Ferrari is trying to accelerate its upgrades so they are introduced slightly earlier than anticipated to help it to close the gap to Red Bull.

The gap will help to ensure it can produce those and allow time to consider the long-term direction, especially with the need to take a decision on the concept for 2024 pressing.

For Ferrari in particular, the cycle of race, brief gap, race can be gruelling given underperformance will also mean a battering in the Italian media in particular. This gap will ensure perspective is applied to the key decisions and give it a realistic chance of making some short-term gains that will allow it to inch up on Red Bull. – Edd Straw

Williams suffers

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Melbourne, Australia

Williams headed into 2023 expecting to be last, but a closer last compared to 2022.

But Alex Albon then delivered a point on the FW45’s race debut and proceeded to claim eighth place on the grid at the Australian Grand Prix – the team’s best dry-weather qualifying result for almost 21 months.

It raised expectations that Williams could be a regular points threat in the opening stages of 2023 even if Albon’s crash meant that couldn’t be realised in Melbourne.

It’s hard to define exactly where Williams is in the pecking order right now – last in the supertimes in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before jumping to sixth in Melbourne – but it’s clear when it executes a weekend well it can fight for the minor points-paying positions.

However as other teams – like its rival for now, McLaren – have an aggressive batch of upgrades planned for when F1 returns with five grands prix in six weekends, Williams is unlikely to be able to match that pace of development.

Especially considering Williams hasn’t identified a fundamental problem with its car concept in the same way the likes of McLaren have, suggesting Williams’ ceiling for improvement in 2023 is perhaps lower.

So a front-loaded batch of races – before rivals can course-correct – would have benefitted Williams more than a one-month grace period for those who got it wrong.

There are still two key benefits of the gap for Williams however, firstly a chance for new team boss James Vowles to further assess his team’s structure and put long-term plans in place to kickstart Williams’ recovery.

And there’s also a chance for its F1 rookie Logan Sargeant to properly review his first three weekends in F1 and learn vital lessons for a tricky quartet of races coming up (Baku-Miami-Imola-Monaco). It’s something ex-Williams driver Nicholas Latifi wished for during his COVID-condensed F1 rookie year in 2020 when he had little chance to review his first nine race weekends (which came in 11 weeks) in F1.  – Josh Suttill

McLaren benefits

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

It was legitimate to ask in pre-season testing if McLaren might start 2023 last in the F1 pecking order.

Then both its cars had very early mechanical problems in the season opener. Then they both sustained damage in effectively the same incident right at the start of round two.

And yet when round four eventually happens, McLaren will go into it an ostensibly respectable fifth in the constructors’ championship. Just 14 points behind Ferrari ahead.

Getting a sixth and an eighth from the madness of Melbourne has basically saved McLaren. Now it has four weeks of uninterrupted work at the factory on finalising the Baku upgrade package that it is certain will start to right the wrongs of its 2023 design.

When the team spent its launch basically admitting that it already knew the original version of its car wasn’t going to be good enough, the odds of it getting to the arrival of the upgrade in the top half of the championship table seemed slender. Those odds only get worse for McLaren through testing and the first two races.

McLaren chiefs have admitted it will take more than the Baku development parts to get this car where they want it to be. And even the faith in the late-winter change in design direction may prove to be more misplaced hope.

But if the upgrade does what McLaren hopes and it can hold position – or even improve – from here, then it will probably reflect on the bit of relief and breathing space this April gap gave it as the game-changing point of a 2023 season that didn’t turn nearly as bad as it looked like it would be. – Matt Beer

Haas suffers

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Melbourne, Australia

Even with increased financial security this year with its new title sponsor, Haas’s development pace isn’t going to match some of its midfield rivals.

It was sixth in the supertimes after the first three races even if its total of seven points doesn’t reflect that. The damage Nico Hulkenberg sustained on the opening lap of the Bahrain GP, Kevin Magnussen’s ongoing difficult adaptation to the VF-23 and some of the team’s own lack of optimisation have somewhat masked how fast this year’s Haas is.

In one sense this gap should be a chance for those knowledge and application gaps to be addressed but it’s also a chance for it to slip down the pecking order as it did after its strong start to 2022. Haas may be left to rue its early missed opportunities. – JS

Alpine benefits

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

Alpine has had an inconclusive start to the season with a car that has shown some strong turns of pace but been rewarded only with a trio of minor points finishes.

Even before the race in Australia, team principal Otmar Szafnauer was talking up the benefit of the extended gap between races.

“It is a welcome break both from getting ample car parts, spares, as well as when we bring developments,” said Szfanauer. “There’s a huge effort to make enough of those parts to ensure that you can really push hard, so that definitely helps.

“Also, the break allows you to plan further upgrades that you find through your simulation tools. Knowing that the break is there, you plan them a bit differently. It definitely helps.”

When Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon collided at the final standing restart in Australia, it was inevitable that Szafnauer’s words came to mind. Alpine now has a bigger job than anticipated in replenishing its stocks.

It will also allow the team extra time to analyse its car’s performance. The pace is there, but not always accessed, while newcomer Gasly is still in the settling-in phase. A less sharp turnaround should allow the chance to spend more time delving into the nuances of the car and work out how to optimise it for the drivers. – ES

F1 suffers

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Australian Grand Prix Race Day Melbourne, Australia

F1’s quickly gained a reputation in recent years as the championship that has added more races than ever because more races mean more entertainment, more money…just more, more, more.

Now that same championship has cut a race, not replaced it, and been left with F1’s biggest gap outside of a summer break in recent memory.

There was a time where a three-week gap wasn’t uncommon between the initial races and then the trip to China. But four weeks off in-season is highly unusual in the modern era and more akin to the full summer shutdown.

Now, this could trigger a case of absence making the heart grow fonder. But it doesn’t feel that way.

F1 has lost the early momentum of a season at a time when everyone expects Max Verstappen and Red Bull to keep winning. So, how many people will not bother coming back?

There’s a good argument to be made that F1 relies on residual viewing habits to keep people tuning in during dominance.

If people have the chance to not watch a Red Bull win every other week for a month, maybe they’ll be starting to think ‘actually I do have better things to do’ even when F1 returns? – SMM

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