F1 testing: 10 things we learned from pre-season in Bahrain
We’ve seen every team in action with their new cars for 2023. Here’s what we learned (and didn’t learn) about the new F1 season
Max Verstappen looks like the driver to beat again
Apologies to anyone hoping there’d be more of a title fight this season, but all the signs are pointing towards Red Bull continuing to dominate in 2023.
Max Verstappen and the new RB19 looked peerless in testing, barely encountering a fault over three days in Bahrain, with the Dutchman topping the timesheets for most of that time.
Verstappen would only go as far as saying that the test had been “very good” for last year’s constructors’ champions, but more telling was that everyone else - including Ferrari and Mercedes - was downbeat about their chances of catching Red Bull.Advertisement - Page continues below
Mercedes isn’t bouncing, but also doesn’t expect to win
All eyes were on Mercedes to see if the new W14 suffered from the porpoising problems that bounced it out of title contention early on last year. The abridged version is that no, it doesn’t, but the team still doesn’t expect to be on the pace straight away and for now is only talking about being able to compete for race wins ‘eventually’. Hmm.
What’s interesting is that the team hasn’t abandoned the so-called ‘zero sidepod’ concept that some felt was the main cause of their problems last year. Let’s see if George Russell and Lewis Hamilton can manage more than the one win they scored in the entirety of 2022…
Ferrari’s made some changes behind the scenes
Anyone heard anything from Ferrari? The Italian team had an uneventful shakedown, with very little to suggest if the car’s ultimate pace had moved towards or away from that of the Red Bull.
However, the team has said that it has made reliability gains over the winter that should allow it to run its engine more aggressively this season (Charles Leclerc lost two wins last season because of it breaking, don’t forget) and new boss Fred Vasseur has rejigged the pitwall strategy line-up in a bid to resolve the team’s strategy woes for 2023. We needn’t remind you how many more wins the team missed out on due to poor decision making last year…Advertisement - Page continues below
Aston Martin *might* be quick
Ask an F1 fan what they think of Fernando Alonso and two answers might stand out: ‘incredible driver’ and ‘poor career choices’. That latter especially so as he’s chosen to move from the team that finished fourth last season to the team that could only manage seventh.
But wait! Could it be an inspired decision after all? The AMR23 looked good (and more importantly, fast) on track in Bahrain, and some are speculating that the car - which was designed by a bunch of people hired from Mercedes and Red Bull - might be a massive step forward.
Whether or not it’s a big enough jump for Alonso to record his first F1 race win since 2013 remains to be seen…
McLaren has missed its pre-season targets
Could be a long year for McLaren fans: team boss Zak Brown has admitted that it has missed its development targets for 2023, and fully expects to start the season on the back foot. Oh dear.
Quite how bad things will be will only become clearer after qualifying for the opening race in Bahrain this weekend, although there’s a fear the team could be mixing it towards the rear of the midfield. Not what Lando Norris or rookie Oscar Piastri would’ve wanted.
Shock, horror: the cars didn’t look exactly as they did when launched
Rarely has it been more evident that the ‘launch’ cars we see prior to F1 testing are heavily, digitally disguised to protect each team’s winter innovations until they head out on track. So the fact that the renders didn’t all match up to the real things is hardly groundbreaking.
Still, it’s fun (for some of us) to compare and contrast, and see how the world’s most expensive game of spot the difference played out. The McLaren MCL60’s engine cover vents vanished in Bahrain, as did the 'teeth' on the floor of the Alfa Romeo C43.
Some eagle-eyed viewers also spotted an indent of the nose of the Ferrari, although the team later confirmed that this was unintended and would need to be fixed. Oops.
Williams are a lot faster (but might still be slowest)
You can’t read too much into the lap times in testing, but compared to last year Williams finished the test 2.378 seconds quicker than it did in 2022, more than anyone else on the grid. Could it be back in the hunt for regular points this season?
Well, maybe. Its quickest time of 1:32.549 in this more recent shakedown was bettered by everyone except for Alpine, which says it has a big aero upgrade coming for the first race.
So where is Williams really? “It’s always hard to gauge,” Alex Albon told TG. “We’ve definitely made a step forward compared to last year. But it’s all relative, we don’t know how much of a step everyone else has made. And, I’ll be honest with you, it looks like others have made a good step as well.
“So it’s going to be tricky. I think we’ve addressed some of the issues we’ve had last year. We haven’t fixed all of them, but we’ve made good steps forward.”Advertisement - Page continues below
Some drivers would like to test *more* and not less
It’s rare to hear from an F1 driver who’d like more F1 testing than the three days they already get. Driving around in circles with no one to race isn’t what they enjoy, after all.
But Pierre Gasly would actually prefer more time in the car, it turns out. The Frenchman - who’s switched to Alpine for this season and had never driven the car before the shakedown - pointed out that the one-and-a-half days he gets behind the wheel before the first race is really not a lot of time to learn all the ins and outs of his new machinery.
“You don’t really learn about the car, and then you’ve got half a day for lower fuel running and then half a day for race preparation. But in terms of actual pushing laps before FP1, I’ll probably get 70 laps in a race car.
“The cars look quite the same just with different colours from the outside, but from the inside it’s a massive change.”
Alfa Romeo hasn’t got the best-looking livery, it turns out
“Ooh, the Alfa Romeo C43 F1 car looks a bit good” gushed, um, us earlier this month. And in fairness, the studio shots of the Alfa - to be driven by Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu - looked rather wicked.
TG is sorry to report that the same cannot be said of the car in the metal. Standing trackside in Bahrain, the red looks more maroon than crimson, making it difficult to identify from afar. Or even nearby. Gutted.
Our favourites? The Aston, the Ferrari and - credit where credit’s due - the McLaren. The papaya still pops and the swathes of exposed carbon fibre don’t make it as dark as we feared.Advertisement - Page continues below
Teams have some tricks to assess the competition
This will come as a shock to no one, however teams aren’t as preoccupied with everyone else’s pace as you might think. With only three days of testing to understand their cars ahead of the first race, there’s only a limited amount of time that can be spent trying to build a picture of the pecking order.
“We have some very good tools that we use to try and understand people’s general pace, based around their car speed and things like that generally,” says Alpine’s technical director Matt Harman. “But it’s not something we focus on too much, at the end of the day we can’t affect their performance, we can only affect our own.
“So we do spend a little bit of time looking and making sure we’ve understood maybe what they’re doing and why they’re doing it rather than their absolute performance.”
And Esteban Ocon concurs with that assessment: “For sure we follow, or we start to look at the other cars. I started to have a good look at all of them on the grid, seeing how much difference there is between the cars is quite impressive actually.”
“By day three you start to have an idea. Exactly? No. You can never know if people are pushing or not. But we start to have a better idea, yes.”
Oh, and apparently teams are sending personnel to the track with fresh parts in their luggage. “We fly many parts in,” adds Harman. “I was lucky enough to bring some with me when I came, which was great. Unfortunately it was oversized baggage. It cost me an hour at the airport!”
Can you imagine? “No officer, I didn’t pack this enormous carbon fibre wing myself…”