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Aston Martin and Alonso leave F1 midfield rivals in rear-view mirror | Formula One

Aston Martin’s great leap forward

In the opening stages of last season Aston Martin were stuck with a woefully slow car that was a troublesome beast to drive. Having committed early last year to building an entirely new model for 2023, they have found almost two seconds of time on track, an unheard of gain in modern F1.

At the Sakhir circuit, this leapfrogged them across the grid in a mighty bound. Fernando Alonso topped the timesheets in practice and claimed fifth in qualifying to beat both the Mercedes drivers. His teammate, Lance Stroll, driving with a broken wrist, managed eighth on the grid. In the race on Sunday, the Spaniard was indomitable, coming back from seventh to third in potentially the second-quickest car behind the Red Bulls.

Their achievement will make for painful viewing at Mercedes, but much more so at midfield rivals McLaren and Alpine, who have been striving for a similar step-up for far longer and with bigger budgets. The transformation the team principal, Mike Krack, has overseen has been remarkable and with a new factory and new wind tunnel facility at Silverstone to come online this year, there is an expectation Aston Martin will become even stronger.

There remains a good shout Alonso could yet, with good fortune and the wind in the right direction, take a win this year. After the showing in Bahrain he is highly unlikely to be retiring anytime soon.

Mercedes hold their hands up

Mercedes were cautious about their chances for a quick resurgence this season. They admitted they got it wrong in 2022, warning that this year’s car was not quite where they wanted it to be, but believing they would yet unleash its potential. To have been overtaken by Aston Martin and for the chasm to Red Bull to have widened even further was far worse than they expected.

It was enough for the team principal, Toto Wolff, to concede the team had got it wrong and were acting to change the concept behind the car. A radical step and admission that drastic action was required if they are to salvage wins from the season. “We got it wrong last year. We thought we can fix it while sticking to this concept of car and it didn’t work out,” he said. “So we need to switch our focus on to what we believe can be the right direction and what it is we are missing.”

Certainly Lewis Hamilton was honest in his assessment and it was painfully blunt, especially given he had toiled in last year’s beast of a car. “We’re just on the wrong track,” he said. “We’re a long way off from the guys in front. There was good progress through last year, but the gap wasn’t as big as it is now.”

The car lacks downforce and while another concept is being tested in the wind tunnel, Wolff admitted any hopes Hamilton had of competing for his eighth title this year have now gone. Another tough season of chasing the frontrunners lies in store as Mercedes’s ability to react and adapt under extreme pressure is put to the test.

Max Verstappen rounds a corner in the Bahrain Gran Prix
Max Verstappen shows the difference in class in his Red Bull. Photograph: Barni Cristiano/ATP/SPP/Shutterstock

Red Bull have wings

After all the excitement in the buildup to qualifying as it looked like Aston Matin and Alonso might have thrown an enormously entertaining spanner in the works, it was business as usual when Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez nailed a rock solid one-two on the grid and then the race. The Red Bull was confirmed with absolute assurance it is the package to beat. Last year, their car was consistently quicker in race pace and so it proved again, Verstappen enjoying an advantage of six-tenths a lap over his teammate and Charles Leclerc in the opening stages.

That the RB19 has retained its advantage is not surprising as it is an evolution of the strengths they have carried over from last year’s car and Verstappen was able to exploit it with ease from the front of the field. It is once again quick in a straight line and formidable through the corners, displaying a fine, comfortable balance that in particular is right in Verstappen’s sweet spot.

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With their wind tunnel restrictions it can be argued they will not be able to develop it as aggressively as the chasing Ferrari and Aston Martin, but with the platform so fundamentally strong they likely have enough of an edge already. Verstappen exuded confidence and ease all weekend, a champion secure in the knowledge that his title defence could not have got off to a better start.

Ferrari must find time

The Scuderia believed they could at least keep Red Bull honest in this opening race of the season on a circuit that was never likely to suit their car. In qualifying, Leclerc kept Verstappen within a tenth on their first runs, but in the race it was, as last year, a different story. Leclerc said the Ferrari was around one second a lap slower than the Red Bull, before Ferrari’s other perennial problem, a power unit failure, ended his race.

He was unsurprisingly downbeat having taken two body blows in the same day. “I cannot say it feels good,” he said. “There was quite a lot of work on [the power unit], but we need to keep working because first race and first reliability problem were not good. I was as confident as I could be, being one second off the pace, which is not really confident, to be honest.”

The honeymoon then is over for the new team principal, Fred Vasseur, but fans looking for comfort can take heart in that he was defiantly optimistic given the single lap pace. “I never saw a car able to match the pace of another one in qualifying and not to be able to in the race,” he said. “Then it is a matter of setup and some choices on the car. We have to understand what we are doing well and to come back next time stronger.”

It was only the opener to the season and Ferrari have prioritised straight-line speed this season, which will do them well on the long straights at the next round in Saudi Arabia, but they clearly have a major gap to bridge.

F1 needs a better fight

Riding a global surge in popularity F1 was hoping last year’s new regulations would offer better competition. To an extent they have closed the field up, the gap across the grid is tighter, but as is often the case with new regs one team has come out of them streets ahead. It was Red Bull last season and they have maintained that advantage.

That Ferrari and Mercedes have not closed them down is hugely disappointing and will make F1’s bosses a tad nervous. Selling the sport to new fans when it is effectively a one-horse race, with Verstappen looking in position to canter to the title, is not ideal.

The sport has had periods of domination before, not least by Mercedes in recent years, but they only enjoyed this much of an advantage at the opening of those hybrid years between 2014 and 2016. In two of those three years there was still an intra-team fight to keep the interest alive with Nico Rosberg and Hamilton going at it hammer and tong.

However, there is no indication that Pérez, can even run close to Verstappen. The gap between them at the end was 12 seconds and it could have been double that had Verstappen not eased off. Alonso’s resurgence without doubt livens things up, but is unlikely to have long-term appeal to the new Netflix generation as F1 bosses know too well.

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