Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturdays: Has The Magic Arrived At Bahrain?

After the first two official practice sessions of the 2023 Formula 1 season, many in the paddock are green with envy at how quick the Aston Martin is.

With Lance Stroll struggling with a wrist injury, Fernando Alonso took charge in the Friday (March 3) warm-up sessions. Alonso finished second in speed in Free Practice 1 and followed that up with being fastest in FP2.

It’s not just one lap speed, either. Lewis Hamilton, while discussing his own Mercedes woes to start the year, has categorized Aston Martin as being ahead of both Mercedes and Ferrari in long-run speed.

Few, however, are disputing that Red Bull remains the top possible seat. One of them doing so is Alonso himself, who remains fairly bullish on their prospects this weekend.

Stroll’s wrist injury is going to be something to watch for this weekend. He was struggling with it in practice. The good news, however, is that the Aston Martin was still fast enough for Stroll to be sixth on the timesheets in FP2.

“No, I just was protecting it,” said Stroll to Motorsport after practice. “It feels a little more comfortable. So I feel like I can definitely drive the car. I’m feeling all right. A little stiff, but it was overall okay in the car today.”

The reality of this situation is two-fold. First and foremost, it’s very hard to take a racecar driver out of a potential podium-pace racecar. The injury is minor enough for Stroll to pass all of the FIA-mandated medical tests, so there’s not much the FIA can really do without overhauling their readiness tests.

The second is that Stroll is trying to avoid controversy. The reality is that Stroll, even though he has a job for life as his father owns the team, would generate a lot of question marks if reserve driver Felipe Drugovich was able to perform very well in the car.

Stroll is a solid driver but remains un-proven in top-flight equipment. And with only two practice sessions under his belt, a debut next week at Saudi Arabia or even next month at Australia would put him on a big backstep to begin the season.

In addition to the pace of the Aston Martin, another big story for this week was the fate of Scuderia AlphaTauri.

After a report that the team may be forced to either move to England or be shut down, many feared the worst until this statement from AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost:

Still, it’s not a closed issue.

There have been plenty of examples in the past where a story is denied and denied until it ends up being true. Red Bull boss Christian Horner was asked about it at the pre-race FIA press conference this week and had this to say:

“It’s sometimes amusing to see how some things get carried away,” Horner said. “As far as I’m aware, there are no changes planned. We have synergies and supply agreements with AlphaTauri where we supply various components. They share our wind tunnel, for example. There’s nothing planned.”

Horner didn’t mention this, but another key issue for Red Bull if SAT were to simply go would be less engine data for Red Bull Power Trains potentially if the new owner were to go to a different engine manufacturer.

A sale would also decrease Red Bull’s power politically. Although SAT is independent, at the same time, they are almost always going to agree or vote with Red Bull on various issues.

Unless SAT were losing upwards of $100 million annually, the reality is that any smaller losses would be worthwhile to the parent operation, which Horner has bragged about potentially making a profit entirely on sponsorship alone in the next few years.

Another big story this weekend has been the continued underperformance of Mercedes. After seeming better than last year after day one of pre-season testing, it’s been all downhill for the boys from Brackley.

Hamilton had some particularly strong words on Friday that indicated the team will be nowhere near the top of the grid.

“We’ve found out we’re a long way off,” Hamilton told Motorsport after practice. “We kind of knew that a little bit in the test, but it’s a big gap. I’m trying everything I can out there… We’re just on the wrong track. So we’ve got to just continue to graft away and find a way to get ourselves on the right track. But right now, we’re a long way off from the guys in front.”

George Russell mentioned last week that the team has a big upgrade coming in Imola. The only issue? Imola is the sixth race on the calendar, in mid-May! Taking until literally the week before Monaco to get a big upgrade is not going to help matters all that much, as the higher teams on the grid will be getting better as well.

I think Mercedes will be back in the top three on speed by the end of the year, they are too good at in-season upgrades not to be. But there’s definitely a chance that Hamilton and Russell will have to fight for points instead of podiums for the first quarter of the season, which is not what anybody figured.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021, and also formerly covered the SRX series from 2021-2023. He now covers the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series.

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