At the debut race of the 2023 Formula 1 season in Bahrain, Red Bull showcased an absolute masterclass of dominance. It was such a stomping that Mercedes driver, George Russell, said that Red Bull “should win every race this season.” His comments have earned derision, claiming that top athletes shouldn’t give up after the first outing of a long season, but do Russell’s comments have merit? Has the 2023 season been decided already?
Let’s look at the Bahrain weekend. Max Verstappen took home pole in qualifying with the gap to Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari being 0.608s in P3, however, it has been suggested that Leclerc sacrificed his qualifying run in order to have new soft tires for the race start. If that is true than the gap is explained as Ferrari typically have a strong qualifying car, but lack in race pace, though that dynamic hasn’t been confirmed for 2023.
Come race day, Charles Leclerc was able to put those new tyres to use at the start, splitting the Red Bulls in P2. That’s where the good news ends as Max Verstappen was able to easily pull away further and further from Leclerc and the rest of the grid. Ferrari’s troubles doubled as Leclerc’s engine failed and he was forced to retire from the race on lap 39.
The bad times didn’t end there for Ferrari as tyre degradation meant that Carlos Sainz could not defend effectively against the blistering pace of Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin towards the end of the race. Sainz finished where he started, in P4, 48.052s behind Verstappen and 9.415s behind Alonso.
Speaking to the media post-race Sainz explained what was going on for Ferrari, “From the test we knew that the Red Bulls and the Aston Martins just have a lot better deg [tyre degradation], a lot better race pace than us, and in the end we had to settle for P4, which to be honest is not a lot better than we could have done today.
“It’s a bit of a reality check, it’s where we are. We just used the tyres too much. As soon as I pushed to defend from Fernando, I cooked the tyres and then you need to start looking also to Lewis [behind in P5]. We managed to hold Lewis off, but it gives us very little margin to play with in the race.”
So Ferrari have two problems: reliability and tyre degradation. Red Bull it seems have neither issue and if they do have issues, they are minor in comparison.
Ferrari are perhaps the second fastest car on the grid, but in race conditions, that status has meant little. So if Ferrari can’t take the fight to Red Bull this year, can any other team? As Sainz suggests, perhaps Aston Martin can.
Aston Martin have impressed this year. In qualifying, Fernando Alonso was able to earn P5, just 0.182s behind Sainz in P4. In terms of the race, a contact between the two Aston Martins in the early stages of the race meant that Alonso had to play catch-up (much to the delight of viewers). We now know that the Aston Martins are quicker than the two Mercedes, but are they quicker than Ferrari? In terms of race pace, so far it looks like they might be.
However, we have to take into account the development race. Last year. Ferrari had the quickest car, but that didn’t mean that they won every race. Their development improved the car over the course of the season, and by percentages based on the faster single time from each race weekend relative to the outright quickest, you can see that Ferrari did the best here with a 0.120% average deficit. See the table from The Race below for reference.
What this tells us is that no matter what Ferrari do to improve their pace, their reliability and tyre degradation issues will plague them and force unfortunate results.
Are Aston Martin the true rivals of Red Bull this year? We might have to wait and see, but Ferrari’s first outing hasn’t filled us with hope, so maybe Aston Martin will. It has only been one race and Russell, while understandably frustrated, cannot possibly know what the longest season in F1 will bring us. But we may also have to concede that we are in an era of Red Bull dominance, and in that sense, perhaps things are already decided. We will just have to watch and see.
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