Race Weekend Central

F1 Review: Max Verstappen & Red Bull Set the Tone for 2023 in Bahrain

Max Verstappen took control of the Bahrain Grand Prix  from the jump on Sunday (March 5), outmaneuvering the two challenging Ferraris and from there showed the strength of this yearʻs Red Bull. By lap 2, Verstappen had pulled out to a one-second gap over Charles Leclerc, freeing him from the latter gaining any DRS advantage. And that was that. 

Verstappen claimed his first win in Bahrain, his first win of the year (obviously) and number 38 in his career. If anyone is seeking some kind of optimism that Verstappen will not win the title this year, there is a seven-year trend of the winner of the first race finishing the year second in the points. Of course, all trends eventually falter.

See also
Max Verstappen Dominates in Bahrain, Fernando Alonso on Podium

Red Bull scored a one-two by having Sergio Perez take second after a solid drive.  Fernando Alonso stole the spotlight by placing his Aston Martin third with a beautiful drive. Carlos Sainz earned fourth, eking his Ferrari across the line on worn-out Pirellis at the end.

Lewis Hamilton did the best he could with a Mercedes that has seemingly not taken a step forward in year two of the team’s zero-pod design. Lance Stroll gave Aston Martin a lovely points haul on the day, adding to Alonsoʻs finish in sixth.

George Russell did something rare by not finishing fifth or better, something he did 19 times last year, opening with P7. Valtteri Bottas did what he does well by scoring points with an eighth-place finish after starting 12th. 

Pierre Gasly started in the last spot for his first race with Alpine and gained 11 positions to take ninth. Alex Albon scored the last points-paying position by crossing in 10th in what has to be a welcome finish for the Williams team. 

Already, Red Bull opens the season with a 20-point edge over the second-place team in the constructor standings. 

The Race

Perez struggled at the start but played the dutiful teammate by blocking Sainz from making a run toward Verstappen. By lap 4, the Sky Sports announcers already seemed to be giving the race to the defending champion. Their correct prescience meant that the fascinating elements of the race came from the action behind the leader. 

Stroll and Alonso provided teammate drama when Stroll clipped Alonsoʻs right-rear wheel. Alonso managed to continue without issue but certainly got the attention of the

Before the midpoint of the race, Perez methodically passed Leclerc to put the Red Bulls atop the leaderboard and distance them from the rest of the field. 

The Ferraris could do little to match the pace and the goal then became grabbing positions three and four.

Hamiltonʻs pit stop on lap 31 started a chain reaction of drivers dipping into the pits for fresh tires.  Stroll benefited from Aston Martin bringing him in a lap prior to Russell pitting, gaining the undercut on the latter and splitting the Mercedes. 

A couple of laps later, Alonso pitted and began his march from sixth to third. By lap 38, Alonso passed Hamilton for fifth. When Leclercʻs Ferrari parked itself on the track on lap 41, it gifted Alonso another position. Then, with Sainz struggling with tire wear, Alonso scooted past on lap 46 and into the final step of the podium.

Sainz was then left to fend off Hamilton for the remaining 10 laps of the race. Somehow he rose to the task and gave Ferrari something somewhat worthy of celebrating. Or something. After so many confusing results with the Prancing Horse, one never knows when to celebrate.

Russell said the silent part out loud after the race by extolling Red Bullʻs elite performance.

The Good

Aston Martin started shaky and yet provided the best stories of the day. Give Stroll some credit (for a change). He missed all of offseason testing because of an injury sustained from a mountain biking incident and arrived in Bahrain with a good measure of skepticism surrounding him. He has shown flashes of talent but frequently fails to keep consistency in his craft. 

In Bahrain, Stroll showed himself to be every bit the worthy driver he has been expected to be. After contact with Alonso, he drove a clean, well-managed race, taking advantage of his improved Aston Martin on his way to finishing sixth.  Opening races can be outliers, but this kind of result is just what is needed from a driver who has endured a fair share of criticism.

While Stroll silenced his critics for a week or two, Alonso put on a show. Having sat atop the practice timing sheets at the beginning of the weekend, Alonso looked to be a threat for pole but could do no better than P5. From the moment of lights out, Alonso fell backward and looked like he might be a victim of midfield traffic. But Aston Martin put together a solid strategy and Alonso showed that he has lost little of the ability that has made him a motoring legend. 

The Bad

Esteban Ocon holds down the award for the single least-inspiring drive. With a field featuring two rookie drivers, Ocon looked like the one without experience as he wracked up penalties for starting in the wrong grid spot, speeding on pit lane and generally forgetting most of the normative rules of F1 driving.  That he did not do a lap driving in reverse may have been the only trick he left off the checklist.

See also
A Stumble From 9th & a Rumble to 9th for Alpine

Every driver is prone to a bad day every so often, but with the Alpine lacking pace and Gasly newly stationed to the team, Ocon should have been leading the charge to grab good data and to continue to shake down a car that has gone backward in development. Instead, Gasly grabbed P9 and Ocon endured a DNF. 

The Disappointing

Someone compared Ferrari to the Dallas Cowboys recently which seemed rather apt. A team with all the money and resources it needs to be successful continually finds ways to turn incompetence into artwork. After changes in the organizational structure of the team, and putting a new team principal in place, Ferrari offered reasons to think that they might be ready to push for championships. 

If race one is any indication, Ferrari looks to be the same team that they have always been. High tire degradation appears again to be an issue. Strategy calls again give the impression of being questionable. And lastly, reliability concerns still exist – as seen when Leclerc pulled over with a felled engine after making it through two-thirds of the GP. An outsider might appraise that Ferrari is trying to support the notion that everything old is new again. 

While Ferrari is, at least, running in the top five, another former championship outfit is floundering, which almost seems polite. McLaren came to Bahrain and showed disappointing pace, watched new addition Oscar Piastri start from P18, and then things really went bad. Seeing both cars finish in the back five will probably cause team owner Zak Brown to hemorrhage. 

Piastri found himself parked after 14 laps with a gearbox issue or a steering wheel problem, an electrical gremlin or all of the above. The reports varied but what can be understood is that the car failed in a number of ways and Piastri earned the ignominious title of being the first DNF of the 2023 season. 

Lando Norris enjoyed himself about as much as his teammate. His McLaren suffered a hydraulic issue in the first third of the GP that forced him to pit multiple times and caused him to fall two laps behind the leaders. The expectations for McLaren sat low for the season, but the team gave little in the way of hope that things will be improving any time soon. 

The Driver

Time to look a little deeper in the field and recognize that rookie, US-born driver Logan Sargeant scraped by on his way to a decent finish of P12. A finish outside of the points hardly seems amazing but for the underwhelming Williams team (who also saw Albon take P10), who took a bit of a risk by putting Sargeant in the seat, to see him put together a clean, solid race is just the kind of opening race that both parties needed. 

The Results: Bahrain Grand Prix; Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir (Sunday, March 5)

POSNODRIVERCARLAPSTIME/RETIREDPTS
11Max VerstappenRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT571:33:56.73625
211Sergio PerezRED BULL RACING HONDA RBPT57+11.987s18
314Fernando AlonsoASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES57+38.637s15
455Carlos SainzFERRARI57+48.052s12
544Lewis HamiltonMERCEDES57+50.977s10
618Lance StrollASTON MARTIN ARAMCO MERCEDES57+54.502s8
763George RussellMERCEDES57+55.873s6
877Valtteri BottasALFA ROMEO FERRARI57+72.647s4
910Pierre GaslyALPINE RENAULT57+73.753s2
1023Alexander AlbonWILLIAMS MERCEDES57+89.774s1
1122Yuki TsunodaALPHATAURI HONDA RBPT57+90.870s0
122Logan SargeantWILLIAMS MERCEDES56+1 lap0
1320Kevin MagnussenHAAS FERRARI56+1 lap0
1421Nyck De VriesALPHATAURI HONDA RBPT56+1 lap0
1527Nico HulkenbergHAAS FERRARI56+1 lap0
1624Zhou GuanyuALFA ROMEO FERRARI56+1 lap0
174Lando NorrisMCLAREN MERCEDES55+2 laps0
NC31Esteban OconALPINE RENAULT41DNF0
NC16Charles LeclercFERRARI39DNF0
NC81Oscar PiastriMCLAREN MERCEDES13DNF0

Note – Hulkenberg received a 15-second time penalty for multiple track limit violations.

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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