The Bahrain Grand Prix Was Chaos For (Almost) Everyone
12:54 PM EST on March 5, 2023
If the goal of a Formula 1 race is to create drama at the top of the standings, then the Bahrain Grand Prix was a disappointing start to the 2023 season. Thanks to a car that is somehow, apparently, better than the world beater last season, Red Bull's driver pairing of defending world champion Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez finished about half a minute ahead of everyone else in Sakhir, cruising to a one-two finish that never truly felt in jeopardy. Verstappen, especially, gained a huge advantage in the early moments of the race and never got close to giving it up. If this is a sign of things to come, Red Bull will walk to the title once more this season. Luckily, while the top of the grid was a snoozefest, everything below the Red Bulls was chaos incarnate.
Where to even begin? Well, let's check in on Alpine: The French team started Esteban Ocon in ninth place on the grid, while Pierre Gasly started all the way at the back in 20th. And yet, at the end of Sunday's race through the Bahrain International Circuit, it was Gasly who finished ninth, climbing 11 spots through a series of nifty overtakes and good tire management to earn Alpine two points.
Ocon, on the other hand, had himself a nightmare of a day. First, he lined up in the wrong spot on the starting grid, earning himself a five-second penalty. During his first pit stop, someone on the Alpine crew began working on the car before the penalty was fully served; this gave Ocon another ten seconds of penalty time. After that, Ocon was cited for speeding in the pit lane; let's add five more seconds, why not? That's 20 total seconds of penalty time, and eventually Alpine just retired Ocon's car on lap 43.
Elsewhere, McLaren followed up an awful testing session last week with a shambolic race on Sunday: New driver Oscar Piastri, who replaced fellow Aussie Daniel Ricciardo at the papaya-clad team, had to retire his car on lap 14, while poor Lando Norris had to pit five times and finished in 17th place, about a minute behind 16th-place Zhou Guanyu. At least he didn't retire, despite the vacation in the pit lane.
Finally, let's check in on Ferrari. Oh, Ferrari. Last season's second-place team began Sunday's race with a second-row lockout, as Charles Leclerc qualified third, just ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz in fourth. For most of the race, it looked like Leclerc and Sainz would hold on to those slots; though the Ferraris were miles behind the Red Bulls, the Scuderia looked to have the second-fastest car this season—ahead of the Mercedes duo of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, as well as the surprisingly fast risers of Aston Martin.
Yeah, about that: On lap 41, a familiar sight from last season made an unwelcome appearance, as Leclerc's Ferrari powered down before sputtering off the track with what the team called an engine issue after the race. At the time, Leclerc was comfortably in third, strolling to a lonely podium spot alongside Verstappen and Pérez. Instead, Ferrari's reliability issues, which popped up repeatedly last season, forced Leclerc to retire.
That gave Sainz the inside track for a podium spot, but this isn't last year's grid behind Ferrari. While third and fourth place would have been the bare minimum for Ferrari in 2022, this season has a new challenger: Aston Martin. The Silverstone-based team looked incredible in last week's testing and—after Fernando Alonso set the fastest times in free practices two and three on Friday and Saturday over this weekend—it looks like there is a new contender alongside Ferrari and Mercedes for the title of "Best Team Behind Red Bull."
Giving Alonso, the most experienced driver on the grid, a great car is a recipe for everyone else's misery, and it was his countryman Sainz who felt the pain on Sunday. Well, first it was Hamilton, who fell victim to a wonderful outside-in move on Turn 10 from the elder Spanish statesman.
After a distressing radio message from Sainz a few laps later—“If I push to defend, I might not make it until the end!"—Alonso made his move. After almost bashing into the Ferrari, Alonso zoomed by Sainz on turn 10 as the Ferrari driver locked up slightly. Alonso subsequently left his countryman in the dust: By the end of the race, the 41-year-old was almost ten seconds ahead of fourth-place Sainz, who couldn't capitalize on Leclerc's retirement to keep the last podium slot in Ferrari's hands.
The rise of Aston Martin could not have been better timed for those who want interesting races this season. As of right now, the Red Bull car seems so much faster than everyone else, particularly in Verstappen's hands, that the real fight for 2023 will be for second place in the constructor's title. That was the case toward the end of last season as well, as Mercedes made a late charge to give Ferrari a run for the money. That fight looks to be a three-team race now, especially with Alonso driving the new Aston Martin car with such dominance and control that, mid-race, he felt compelled to tell his team "This is a lovely car to drive."
Bahrain is just one race in an ever-expanding calendar of races—the addition of the Vegas Grand Prix makes it 23 total races this season—but the storylines are already taking shape. Barring a mechanical disaster or a fight between Verstappen and Pérez, Red Bull should be able to continue its dominance at the top of the grid. Behind them, there is a free-for-all for second place, and that tussle might only get better if Ferrari fixes its engine issue and if Mercedes can improve its car just a bit more to keep pace with, and I can't believe I'm saying this, Aston Martin.
The midfield also looks competitive, and it will look more so if Ocon can make it through a race without a barrage of penalties. Even at the bottom of the expected grid, the Williams duo of Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant looked great in finishing 10th and 12th, respectively. And will McLaren fix its shitshow of a car? Only time will tell. Bahrain served as the opening chapter of what will be a long, long season for anyone not rooting for Red Bull, but that doesn't mean this season won't have many twists and turns across the Formula 1 grid.