Formula 1: Max Verstappen and Red Bull remain the leading contenders as 2023 season gets underway in Bahrain
The Dutchman is the heavy favourite to claim a third World Drivers’ Championship after a positive three days of testing in Bahrain last week for reigning World Constructors' Champions Red Bull.
After claiming his first world title in highly-controversial circumstances in 2021 – as Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton on the last lap after what the FIA later admitted was a ‘human error’ in the application of safety car regulations – the 25-year-old underlined his status as the best driver on the grid with a dominant 2022 season.
He claimed 15 wins from 22 races last year – the most in a single season – and amassed the most points in a single year with 454, which was 149 ahead of his teammate Sergio Perez. Red Bull engineered a quite brilliant car in 2022 and have not sat on their hands as they seek to stay on top. The Milton Keynes-based team have dominated the sport before, when Sebastian Vettel won the drivers’ title four years in a row between 2010 and 2013. Once they get on top, they are hard to knock off.
Verstappen’s main threat this year could be Perez. The Mexican was very much a team player last year but may feel short changed after Verstappen refused to allow him past in Brazil in the penultimate race of last season, as Perez missed out on second place in the drivers’ standings to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc endured a frustrating campaign after winning two of the opening three races but he would claim just one more victory. A litany of reliability issues, poor strategy calls and some errors of his own saw his challenge quickly fade.
Frederic Vasseur has replaced Mattia Binotto as the team principal with a brief to fix the issues which saw Ferrari fail to mount a significant challenge against Red Bull despite a strong car. The team is synonymous with Formula 1 but has not had a world champion behind the wheel since Kimi Räikkönen in 2007. It may take a near-perfect year to end that wait in 2023.
Then come Mercedes. Can the eight-time constructors’ champions get back on top after falling well off the pace last year? There was nothing during the Bahrain test to suggest the team’s W14 would significantly close the gap to Red Bull but Mercedes have underplayed their hand before.
Mercedes won one race last year as George Russell was first across the line in a hugely-entertaining Brazilian Grand Prix. They spent most of 2022 playing catch up to the top two teams and will hope less of their time is focused on working out how to close the gap.
Aston Martin with veteran Fernando Alonso behind the wheel could be the dark horses in 2023. The British team had some encouraging signs during the three days of testing last week and Alonso is a man who can squeeze every inch of performance out of a car.
Netflix’s Drive to Survive has seen a host of new fans come to the sport but what will really grip spectators is thrilling action on the circuit. Just look at 2021 as Hamilton and Verstappen’s fierce battle went right down to the wire. A competitive Mercedes to challenge Ferrari and Red Bull, with a team coming up from the midfield in the shape of an Aston Martin is the type of entertainment fans want.
Alpine and Alfa Romeo look like teams who will finish firmly in the middle of the constructors standings while things seem bleak for McLaren after some issues during pre-season testing are threatening to spill over into the first race weekend.
The cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix throws up an intriguing month for teams in April. There will be four weeks between the Australian Grand Prix on April 2 and lights out in Baku, giving engineers plenty of time to look at potential performance gains after just three races.
Unlike the summer break in August when teams are forbidden from working on their cars, the unplanned pause in action in April could benefit teams who may find themselves with unforeseen issues.
The season ends in November with races in Brazil, Las Vegas and Abu Dhabi. Interlagos has thrown up a number of brilliant spectacles over the years and a new track in Nevada in the penultimate race could make things interesting if someone is able to keep pace with Verstappen in the standings until cars are flying down the strip.
All signs point to the Dutchman being heavily involved in the fight for the drivers’ title again – the only question is if is there anyone who can beat him.