Red Bull and Max Verstappen earned the perfect starts to their respective title defences at the Bahrain Grand Prix as the Dutchman took victory ahead of Sergio Perez, whilst Fernando Alonso completed the podium to delight many and particularly his Aston Martin team.
The hype around Aston has been incredible in the off-season and Alonso did all he could to keep those high levels of anticipation up over the course of practice this weekend here in Bahrain, as he topped the timesheets.
Come qualifying, though, Red Bull underlined the fact that they remain the team very much to beat as this new season begins, with them locking out the front row ahead of the two Ferraris and Alonso in fifth.
Even so, come the chequered flag it seemed safe to say that Aston are not just now the best team in the midfield outside the ‘big three’ of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes, but they are in fact part of the group up at the front, and vying with Ferrari for second in the pecking order behind the Bulls.
Clearly, the project at Aston is both going very well and ahead of time, with their aim at the start of this year to actually just be the fourth-best placed team – expectations and targets in 2023 may well now need to be revised.
Speaking after earning the 99th podium of his career, and his first in Bahrain since he won here in 2010, Alonso could not hide his delight at what the Silverstone-based team had achieved in such a short space of time:
“We didn’t expect to be this competitive. I think the aim [at the start of this season] was to get close to the top three teams but we found ourselves second today [behind Red Bull] and over the whole weekend and testing.
“This is a bit of a surprise so we are extremely proud and happy with the job done. Congratulations to everyone, let’s enjoy this moment and build from here.”
“2013,” the two-time world champion replied, meanwhile, when asked when he last felt this positive about his prospects ahead of a new season.
Clearly, though, Red Bull are still the dominant force in F1 and, in truth, Max Verstappen never really looked threatened by anyone, with team-mate Sergio Perez, alongside the Dutchman on the front row in P2, suffering a sluggish start and getting caught behind Charles Leclerc during the opening stint of the race.
There will be fears that we could be in for a processional year even though it’s only race one, though Verstappen did say he’s hoping Alonso could potentially mount a championship challenge:
“I hope so for Fernando as well because he has had a few years where there was not really a possibility to fight out in front,” said Max, “so
“I’m happy to see him sitting here already in race one. I think [Aston Martin] have the spirit and drive that they need to win. They’ve hired a lot of good people so I guess it’s going to get better for them.
“I think for this year it’s difficult to say they’ll challenge for the championship this but I’ve been in the same position where at some races you are finishing 20 to 30 seconds behind but there are still two or three races a year where a track really suits your car and everything just comes together and you can win a race with a bit of help or luck.”
As for the aforementioned Leclerc, reliability issues raised their head in a surely concerning throwback to 2022. The Monegasque had already seen his Control Electronics and energy store changed ahead of the race as a precaution, but with a third of the GP to go he would pull over to the side of the track, reporting ‘no power’ – he had been running in third to at least suggest Ferrari have the race pace to compete with Aston at this stage of the year.
“I cannot say it feels good,” said Leclerc. “We need to keep working because first race and first reliability problem, not good.”
Elsewhere, other key moments saw Lewis Hamilton scrap to fifth place in a Mercedes car that is clearly wide of the mark in terms of where the team want it to be. The Briton said they need to ‘add downforce’ and once they do so the lap time will come, though he labelled them the ‘fourth-fastest’ team at this stage of the year and it’s hard to really argue with that.
Lance Stroll came home in a valiant sixth place, meanwhile, just a couple of weeks after a double wrist injury, and couldn’t hide his delight:
“It’s a great way to start the season and with Fernando on the podium,” said the Canadian. “Considering everything that happened over the last two weeks – I couldn’t move; amazing.”
Alex Albon in the Williams also deserves a special mention. He finished in 10th and earned the team an early point, with them able to fight in the midfield and also seeing good reliability as both cars finished. Albon called the car ‘quick and stable’ and said he was ‘super proud’ of the job that the Grove-based team had done – also saying that he felt behind Aston the Williams car had made the most progress from last year to this year over the winter.
A tougher day, meanwhile, for McLaren who saw Lando Norris finish in a classified 17th after having to make six pit-stops thanks, in part, to a pneumatic issue, whilst team-mate Oscar Piastri was a retiree with a gearbox problem – they will be looking forward to moving on to Saudi Arabia and trying to make amends more than most.
That, then, is another curtain raiser done and dusted in Bahrain and next up is Saudi, with the Jeddah Corniche street circuit hosting round two of the championship in two weeks from now.
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