Formula 1’s had nearly a month ‘off’ since the chaos of Melbourne – but unlike the summer break, there’s been no factory shutdown so this has been prime development (and repair) time. And for quite a few drivers, time to reflect on a start to 2023 that has been far from ideal.
We take a look at who’s under the most pressure as F1 gets back in business in Baku this weekend.
Perez went into 2023 adamant he could be a title contender. It may have been a view most outside his inner circle were sceptical over (no offence meant to Perez there, it’s a view based mostly on Max Verstappen’s sheer quality). But now it’s so clear that Red Bull is a league apart, the world needs Perez to live up to his own hopes in order to keep some intrigue in what happens at the front this season.
Aside from successfully keeping Verstappen at arm’s length in Jeddah, there’s been little sign so far that Perez can take the fight to his world champion team-mate.
Though only 15 points behind, given the performance trajectory he’s already in the realms of needing reliability problems for Verstappen to make his title hopes feel remotely realistic and making a mess of Melbourne hasn’t helped.
Baku’s been a happy place for Perez before, though. Whether it’s inherited or earned in a straight fight is fairly irrelevant – he needs to outscore Verstappen this weekend.
The Italian press is furiously circling Ferrari, and understandably so after all that pre-season hope was followed by a messy, unreliable, podium-less first three races of 2023 that’s also featured notable senior staff departures.
In case it feels harsh that Ferrari is in this list and (spoilers) Mercedes isn’t, our logic is that Mercedes’ expectations of being back in the title fight this year were lower, and it’s bought itself time with the stronger Melbourne performance, promising that Imola next month is where the key upgrades start, and the technical leadership reshuffle and promise of design concept changes that show it’s recognised weaknesses and is tackling them. Mercedes is also already 30 points ahead of Ferrari, and no one would argue Mercedes is doing well right now.
Ferrari continues to – publicly at least – largely defend what it’s got and the performances it’s producing. Those performances have been nowhere near good enough so far by any measure.
And to pile the pressure on the departure of another key figure – Laurent Mekies – has been announced right before the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Alpine is creating something of a habit of underperforming with a car that’s capable of better.
McLaren’s Lando Norris took great pleasure in reminding everyone that Alpine definitely had the fourth fastest car last year when it was making a meal of securing the fourth spot in the constructors’ championship for much of the season.
This year Alpine is once again behind McLaren even though its car advantage is far superior to what it enjoyed last year.
Alpine’s Australian Grand Prix disaster was pivotal to that, but it also missed points due to Esteban Ocon’s laughable three-penalty Bahrain GP and Pierre Gasly starting life with Alpine by qualifying last.
If Alpine is serious about joining F1’s lead fight any time soon, it must stop a streak of underperformance and consistently pick up points that can help it finally get a grip on F1’s midfield.
The team has a significant upgrade for Baku that may be crucial to its hopes, especially with rivals like McLaren readying to bring a string of upgrades to close down Alpine’s advantage.
The biggest reason for McLaren being under pressure this weekend is because of how long ago it declared Baku would be the race where the upgrades that put its troubled 2023 car back on course begin to arrive.
It’s since caveated that by saying the really big changes will be further down the line. But still, when McLaren admitted – shockingly – at its launch that it was starting the season with a car it knew wasn’t right, it was this weekend that it suggested we’d start to be able to see more of its true potential.
Drivers Norris and Oscar Piastri haven’t let much slip in the first three races, Norris’ Jeddah qualifying error aside, and getting through Melbourne unscathed means McLaren is a slightly fortunate fifth in the championship right now.
But to stay anywhere near there, it needs to be faster.
How long before F1 hits the panic button?
Three races down and three Red Bull victories. How much more scared does F1 become if Red Bull sweeps the next chunk of races and if Verstappen is the victor of every single one?
Verstappen’s crushing 2022 run at least came after the early promise of a Ferrari-Red Bull title fight.
This year there’s little of that optimism given how badly Ferrari and Mercedes got it wrong over the winter and the size of their deficits to Red Bull.
The championship rarely acts well or calmly to dominance and don’t expect that to be any different in 2023 if Red Bull’s silverware pillage continues.
The question will be does F1 naturally wait and trust Red Bull’s rivals to make inroads as they pivot closer to Red Bull’s superior concept or does it step in and make changes to reduce Red Bull’s domination?
And regardless of F1 or the FIA’s actions, will the fans stay invested in the 2023 season or simply tune back in next year to see if Red Bull’s rivals get it right then?
Kevin Magnussen’s start to 2023 couldn’t be more different from his barnstorming F1 return one year ago.
This year’s Haas isn’t far off the relative competitiveness of VF-22 at the start of last year but this time around Magnussen has been the incumbent who’s firmly trailing behind his new team-mate.
He drove a typically gutsy race to a single point in Saudi Arabia but had worryingly large deficits to Nico Hulkenberg in Bahrain and Australia, crashing while attempting to eradicate that deficit at the latter.
Magnussen’s got himself out of plenty of ruts in his F1 career and he’ll need to dig deep to get back on terms with such a tough and freshly-motivated team-mate.
Given the seven-time world champion’s habit of starting a season relatively slowly and then hitting his stride, it’s very early to be declaring Hamilton in trouble given what we know usually happens from late spring onwards every year.
That said, team-mate George Russell has generally been Mercedes’ lead hope for the whole campaign so far, its fastest qualifier at all three rounds and doesn’t have the fundamental discomfort with the 2023 car that Hamilton has, though Hamilton is comfortably ahead in the points thanks mostly to Russell’s Australian GP engine failure.
If this trend sets in for the season – and given how Hamilton’s talking about this car, it’s certainly not impossible – then for the first time in a very long time, it will be legitimate to ask questions about Hamilton’s performance level and future.
ROOKIES WHO AREN’T PIASTRI
While McLaren driver Piastri has already delivered some Norris-beating results and convinced the team it now has what it was missing with Daniel Ricciardo, the other two 2023 F1 rookies have struggled.
The fanfare following Nyck de Vries’ sensational last-minute F1 debut at Monza last year has been grounded by a tricky opening three races of the AlphaTauri driver’s proper rookie season.
He’s been comprehensively outperformed by Yuki Tsunoda, who has done a solid job of stepping up to be the team leader.
Logan Sargeant meanwhile is the only driver who has failed to escape Q1 after repeated qualifying mistakes.
Errors are to be expected for the early stages of a rookie campaign – like his unceremonious slam into De Vries after the final standing restart in Melbourne – but he can’t afford for it to become his trademark.
Williams team-mate Alex Albon’s Melbourne crash shows he’s not immune to mistakes either but the difference between Albon and Sargeant’s mistakes was that Albon crashed out of sixth while Sargeant was fighting for last place when he made his costly misjudgement.
There’s an intense run of five race weekends in six so there are plenty of chances for De Vries and Sargeant to make a breakthrough, but falter and their F1 futures beyond 2023 will quickly become a question mark.
ALFA ROMEO – BUT PARTICULARLY BOTTAS
Valtteri Bottas started 2023 not quite as strongly as he’d begun 2022, but decently enough with a dogged run to eighth in Bahrain for an Alfa Romeo team that felt like it had been leapfrogged by a few rivals over the winter.
Since then, the evidence has mounted that Alfa Romeo is going backwards relative to the competition. In this period last year it was in proper giantkilling form. This year it’s sliding towards irrelevance.
And most of the time since then, Zhou Guanyu has been its best hope, not his vastly more experienced team-mate. Bottas finished last in Saudi Arabia, albeit able to point to some floor damage as a factor in that, and was then slowest in Australian GP qualifying.
Given he’s now 33 and has been in F1 for a decade, the chance of Bottas sticking around to race for Audi when it absorbs Sauber for 2026 did feel pretty remote even when he was starring for much of 2022. Over the last two races, it’s looked like Sauber will need to make a change much sooner than that.