Race Weekend Central

F1 Testing Report: Red Bull Sets the Pace; Oh, McLaren

Formula 1 has finished preseason testing in advance of Sunday’s (March 5) season-opening 2023 Grand Prix at Bahrain.

Testing 25.5 hours across three days is a grind. You’d have to be insane to watch all of it.

So, something I’ve learned after watching is just how relatively reliable the F1 field is now. The number of serious issues that required a red flag with a car being removed can be counted on one hand, and there was just one spin across the three days.

A lot of team designs avoided radical departures from last year’s models. The Ferrari and Red Bull cars, in particular, stayed close to the form of their old look for this year and both are still pretty fast.

There were plenty of minor adjustments and improvements found throughout the field, but there were really only two big changes in the potential running order this year.

Before I get to that: when talking about testing, above anything, I think it’s foolish to focus on lap times and compare them.

Teams could be running different tire compounds, different fuel loads, different engine modes, and have different goals in mind during a run. Alfa Romeo had the fastest lap on day two, for example, but nobody is seriously thinking that team is going to break into the top three like Aston Martin reportedly may.

With that being said, here are some thoughts on each of the 10 teams, in reverse order of where I rank them coming out of testing.

10. Alpha Tauri: To be honest, Alpha Tauri’s test results weren’t terrible. What’s more concerning is a report that came out about Red Bull management looking to either move the Scuderia out of Italy or sell the team entirely. It’s really hard for any team to be able to rise above that level of distraction, knowing they may well be out of a job as early as next season.

9. McLaren: McLaren had a bad week. The orange papaya team was just slow and openly saying they had missed the mark in interviews and press conferences. Any improvement was minimal, considering the team completed the fewest laps of F1 organization at the test. Expect a big drop-off like last year’s initial car before upgrades bring them more pace in a few months.

8. Williams: Had a great second day of testing, with a lot of people being impressed with new driver Logan Sargeant. The American has pace, but it remains to be seen how solid his racecraft actually is at the F1 level. Williams should be up from last year, but don’t expect them to challenge for podiums just yet.

7. Alfa Romeo: The Sauber group had an up-and-down test weekend, with Zhou Guanyu being the fastest on day two but Valtteri Bottas troubled by mechanical woes on day three. More-or-less where they were last year relative to the rest of the grid.

6. Haas: Test driver Pietro Fittipaldi said on the F1 TV broadcast on day three that his team was somewhere between fifth and seventh. I have them ranked right in the middle, in sixth.

Haas usually has a very solid car to start out the season but then falls behind with their relative lack of upgrades throughout. That may not be the case this season if they are telling the truth as far as spending to the budget cap.

5. Alpine: The big question mark for Alpine is if they can improve their awful reliability. If they can, they should be able to pretty easily be the best of the rest. Not a whole lot of talk about them during testing, which doesn’t mean a big leap, but it also doesn’t mean a big drop.

4. Mercedes: They are better now than at this point last year, but there are still a fair amount of issues with this car. Once again, the line this season with this team is to wait for the first major upgrade. That’ll come at Imola in May, as per George Russell, and it’s been described as the “real” W14.

3. Aston Martin: Probably the biggest surprise and the most press of any team this past week. Aston Martin is fast and it comes as the investments the team has been making in its facilities finally begin to show some fruit. They were one of the slowest teams this time last year but were able to steadily improve enough through the season and have dramatically stepped up that progress in the offseason.

In driving news, Fernando Alonso was the only driver this week who drove in four of the six sessions. 2022 F2 champion Felipe Drugovich drove in Thursday and Saturday’s morning sessions, as Aston Martin announced last week that regular driver Lance Stroll is out with a wrist injury. The Canadian was biking in Spain when the injury happened, which prevented him from participating in testing.

Aston Martin was quiet all week as to who will drive with Alonso next weekend. It would be surprising if Stroll were to get in the car at this point, as AM has been very hush-hush about his condition after their initial statement. Drugovich seemed like the most obvious candidate as the team’s reserve driver and somebody who participated in testing in this car, but a surprising figure emerged in the final day of on-track action.

It became enough of a paddock rumor for David Croft to mention it on the F1 TV broadcast at one point on the final day: Sebastian Vettel could make a surprise return to F1 after his retirement last year. Team principal Mike Krack admitted in a press conference following testing that he had talked to Vettel since Stroll’s injury, and he didn’t rule out the possibility of the four-time champion making a one-race comeback.

However, the team has since made a very public declaration:

2. Ferrari: Not much has seemed to change. Well, there have been changes, but it’s the same song with a different verse. They may be right there with Red Bull as far as best one-lap time, but their terrible tire degradation is still a big sticking point as to making that leap ahead.

Team Principal Frédéric Vasseur replaces Mattia Benotto, a curious decision considering Ferrari has speed and just needs a few more things to compete with Red Bull race-to-race. It’s unclear if they have enough to get into a true battle with Red Bull this season.

1. Red Bull: Probably even better than they were last season when it comes to the gap between them to the rest of the field.

Max Verstappen may be just entering the prime of his career and is the heavy favorite, while Sergio Perez is a reliable number two who can make up the difference if Verstappen runs into trouble as he did at Singapore last year. Unless they mess up in the reliability department again, expect this team to cruise to victory in at least the early season results.

See also
The Pit Straight: The Biggest Move of the F1 Offseason

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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