Free Video Downloader

The Second Age of Red Bull begins · RaceFans

Page one of a new novel. Pressing play on the remote. Selecting ‘new game’ from the title screen.

Just like beginning a story in any other medium, the start of a new Formula 1 championship season offers the thrill of the unknown. Nine months of sporting narrative that meanders through highs and lows, the unpredictable and the unexpected.

But as the night sky above the Bahrain International Circuit was filled by fireworks, signalling the opening chapter of the new season had come to an end, there was a sense that Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen had just spoiled the ending of this year’s championship for everyone watching. That, just like its prequel, the 2023 season will again be the story about how Red Bull are simply unstoppable.

If Red Bull’s impressive pre-season testing form was a teaser of what they were capable of, the reigning world champions locking out the front row was a clear statement of intent for the year ahead. Fresh from bolstering their trophy cabinet with their most successful year to date in 2022, Verstappen and Sergio Perez promptly seized the top two spots in qualifying, practically daring anyone to try and match them.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had been close, but the team put their race performance before their pride at the end of qualifying, electing to save a set of softs for the start over chasing Saturday glory. But behind Leclerc and team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr sat a familiar face in unfamiliar colours.

Race start, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Leclerc split the Red Bull at the start

Fernando Alonso had waltzed into the Aston Martin factory to embark on his latest attempt at dragging a midfield team up to the front of the grid only to find they were already well on the way. Fifth on the grid was not a full realisation of the pace he and team mate Lance Stroll had shown prior to Sunday, but it was more than enough to put them in a genuine fight with Ferrari and Mercedes – the two cars of the latter team separating the AMR23 on the grid.

At 18.03pm local time, the five red lights hovering over the grid extinguished and the 74th world championship season officially began. Within metres of the 20 cars leaving the grid, it became clear Ferrari’s strategy to save fresh softs for Leclerc had paid dividends. As Verstappen held onto the lead, Leclerc jumped ahead of Perez and tucked up into Verstappen’s slipstream on the run to the first braking zone of the season. Exiting turn one, Verstappen led from Leclerc, Perez and Sainz, with Alonso holding fifth with Hamilton and Stroll seventh after getting by Russell.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

As the field approached turn four, Russell pulled to the outside of Stroll in an effort to reclaim seventh. With his focus on the Mercedes alongside, Stroll ran deep on the brakes into turn four only to find himself charging towards his team mate sat on the apex of the right hander. The thump Stroll gave the other AMR23 was somehow forceful to make them both crank on emergency steering lock to avoid spinning, but not to cause any damage to either car.

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Stroll was lucky not to wipe out both Aston Martins at the start

“We got lucky,” Alonso later said of the incident. “Obviously the two cars, they didn’t have any problems and we could continue. It was our lucky day.”

However the clash cost both Aston Martins their positions to the Mercedes, dropping them to seventh and ninth, Valtteri Bottas moving between them in the Alfa Romeo. But all this behind was of no concern for leader Verstappen, who passed the pit lane for the first time with a 1.2 second advantage over Leclerc behind him.

Verstappen, as he so regularly had in 2022 once out in front, began to lap at an unmatchable pace with unrivalled consistency, with his first six laps at racing speed all within a tenth of each other. Only some mild rear brake locking on downshifts was giving him any difficulty in an otherwise strong position. Leclerc worked hard to keep within reach of the leader, but Perez was closer to him than he was to Verstappen.

The Mercedes pair kept Sainz in view ahead, but it was not long before both began to struggle for grip as their softs strained under their high fuel loads. That allowed Alonso to fill the enlarged mirrors of Russell’s Mercedes on the 13th lap. After a side-by-side battle through turn four, Alonso prevailed to move back up to fifth, courtesy of Hamilton pitting the lap prior.

Despite the advantage of younger tyres than the Red Bulls, Ferrari had been wary of their tyre wear throughout the two weeks of track time in Bahrain. They called in Leclerc at the end of lap 13 for hards while Verstappen followed on the next lap, but Red Bull bolted on a second set of softs on the former race leader as Perez sailed by to assume first. “We brought a lot of soft tyres into the race, so it seemed unfair not to use them,” Christian Horner later joked.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

One stint completed, Verstappen held a margin of over 10 seconds to Leclerc behind him. Perez continued to enjoy a brief timeshare of the race lead until relinquishing it on the start of lap 19, returning to the track with a fresh set of softs in third. The 3.5 seconds between Leclerc and Perez quickly started to shrink as the Red Bull driver enjoyed rubber than was both fresher and two stages softer than his rival’s.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
There was never any chance Leclerc would keep Perez behind

By lap 25, Perez was close enough to Leclerc to practically taste the sparks emitting from the floor of the Ferrari. Approaching the final corner, Perez was casually informed that his “battery is full” and the Red Bull driver made full use of that stored energy, closing the gap over the final third of the pit straight and diving to the inside Leclerc under braking for turn one. Approaching half-distance, Red Bull were now first and second on merit for the first time in the race.

Behind Red Bull and the Ferraris, Alonso was gradually gaining on Hamilton in fifth. By lap 30, the Aston Martin driver was within two seconds of Hamilton. Mercedes sensed a threat and called Hamilton in for a second set of hard tyres at the end of lap 30. But Aston Martin had also pitted Stroll and now Russell’s position was at risk.

Russell pitted the next lap but Stroll had more than enough speed and heat in his tyres to put the Mercedes under immediate pressure. By the time the two cars exited turn four, Stroll was comfortably ahead. A striking moment for Mercedes, who found themselves being out-raced on merit by a customer team.

On lap 34, Red Bull pitted Perez for the second and final time, changing to hard tyres for the last stint with more than enough time to retain second place. He was closely followed by Alonso, who was treated to a second set of hards, even if he was unsure whether it was the right moment to do so.

“Why didn’t we stay out?,” Alonso asked engineer Chris Cronin. But while he did not get a reply, his mind quickly focused on the more pressing matter of Hamilton ahead, who he could see tantalisingly in front of him.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

Over the next few laps, Alonso crept up to the Mercedes. It had been too long since the two multiple world champions had last fought each other on track for a top six position in a grand prix, but from the body language of both cars, it seemed obvious which of the two drivers felt the most confident at the wheel.

Alonso and Hamilton duelled thrillingly

Approaching the field’s favourite overtaking spot of turn four, Alonso looked to have an easy pass done under braking. However, a snap of oversteer at the apex robbed him of momentum, allowing Hamilton to cut back and reclaim his position.

Despite the failed attempt, it now seemed inevitable that Alonso would find a way past. Turn four offered no opportunity, so Alonso decided to forge his own. A tight exit through turn eight allowed him to pull to the outside of the Mercedes up the hill. As Hamilton went to take the racing line, Alonso cut to the inside and charged to the apex of the tricky turn 10, taking fifth from his long time rival in one of the most daring moves ever seen into the corner.

“Yes!,” Alonso exclaimed. “Let’s go!”

With Hamilton dispatched, there were less than three seconds to make up for Alonso to challenge Sainz for fourth place ahead. While one Ferrari now seemed under genuine threat from the Aston Martin, Leclerc was a further nine seconds up the road – a much harder prospect for Alonso to catch if he was to secure a podium, if he was even able to pass the first Ferrari to begin with.

However, Aston Martin’s dreams of an unlikely podium were suddenly boosted dramatically. Exiting turn 11 and heading up the hill around the winding turn 12, Leclerc’s Ferrari betrayed him. After 40 laps without his new SF-23 skipping so much as a beat, Leclerc lost all power under his right foot, leaving him helplessly coasting to a crawl, all chance of points vanishing in an instant.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

“No! No! No! Oh, come on!,” he cried, a familiar feeling washing over him. “What happened, guys? No power!”

More reliability problems for Ferrari ended Leclerc’s race

Before Leclerc could attempt any remedy his team could offer, his car had fully turned off, leaving him with no choice but to pull to the side of the circuit. As he climbed out of the car, the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. The likes of Alonso and Russell had immediately called on their teams to prepare for a quick stop, but as they passed the pit entry before the VSC was triggered no such opportunity occured.

Thanks to Leclerc’s considerate parking, the race quickly resumed. Verstappen remained comfortable out front, making Alonso, now in fourth, the fastest car on the circuit. Sainz had inherited his team mate’s third place, but Ferrari could see a podium at severe risk of slipping away from them, urging their only remaining driver to defend his position if he could. But Sainz could see the writing on the wall.

“If I push to defend, I might not make it to the end,” he reasoned. “But okay.”

That was music to the ears of the Aston Martin pit wall. “Keep the pressure on him,” Cronin told Alonso. “He’s worried about his tyres.”

By lap 45, Alonso was crawling all over the rear of the Ferrari. He tried to emulate his pass on Hamilton, setting Sainz up on the exit of turn eight, but Sainz blocked off the inside to deny him that chance. It did not matter, however, as Alonso instead took a wider line to get on the power earlier than Sainz, cutting to the inside on the run to turn 11 and completing the move before touching the brake pedal. Alonso was now in a podium position in his first drive for Aston Martin.

Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and go ad-free

“Yes!,” a satisfied Alonso shouted. “Bye-bye!”

With just over 10 laps remaining, Red Bull were untouchable out front. Alonso had brilliantly moved up to third, but he knew that was the best he could hope for, turning his attention to just getting through these remaining laps.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Verstappen played no part in the lively race behind him

“We are okay on fuel and all these things, no?” Alonso queried Cronin. “Everything is great,” Cronin reassured his driver. “Everything is good. Fuel, brakes – all good.”

As Alonso pulled away from him, Sainz now found Hamilton looming behind him. Being beaten so comprehensively by Red Bull hurt, but losing out to Aston Martin was an other level of pain for Mercedes. If Hamilton were able to pass Sainz, it would at least give Mercedes the sense that they had achieved something from the weekend.

Despite sitting within DRS range of the Ferrari for multiple laps, Hamilton never got close enough to try his luck at deposing Sainz from fourth. He fell out of the crucial one-second range in the closing laps as his tyres faded, all but cementing the final finishing order.

For the entire race, all of the action had unfolded far behind Verstappen. The ease with which he had been able to dictate the pace, hold the gap to his team mate behind and pull out an advantage of over half a minute over the first non-Red Bull car was ominous for those hoping to see any kind of championship contest this year.

Like so many of his wins over the last 12 months, Verstappen had simply looked in no doubt of ever losing the lead once he hit the front. At the end of lap 57, Verstappen rounded the final corner to be greeted with the familiar sight of his mechanics swarming the catch fencing to salute him over the finish line.

“It was a really good race,” Verstappen summed up. “The car was working well – a bit like what we’ve seen in testing and the long runs we’ve done throughout the weekend. But you still need to show that in the race.

“It has been a great start for us, for the whole team, so this is not something we were used to. So yeah, we are very happy at the moment.”

Perez may have been over ten seconds down on his team mate as he had been so many times in 2022, but the gap between them had remained static throughout their final stint. He took heart from his race pace, ultimately pointing to being beaten off the line by the Ferrari as the deciding factor for his own victory chances.

“That was really the case, missing out to Charles on that first stint,” Perez reasoned. “It was really difficult to get by him. He had the new tyres, so you could see the difference on that first stint.

“I think it’s been an amazing start to the season. Our best ever start, so very different to last year.”

But half a minute behind, Alonso and Aston Martin had successfully achieved one of the biggest leaps up the order made by a midfield team in recent memory. Having joined the team knowing all of Aston Martin’s focus is on the years ahead, this result was far beyond what he had expected for his first race.

Aston Martin, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Alonso enjoyed a “perfect start” to 2023

“A perfect start for this project,” said Alonso. “We didn’t expect to be that competitive.

“I think the aim in 2023 was getting in the mix in the midfield, maybe leading that midfield and get close to the top three teams eventually. But even a podium maybe was not in the radar in 2023 and we found ourselves second best car today in Bahrain, or the whole weekend, just behind Red Bull.”

Sainz had to settle for fourth while Hamilton was left facing the reality that Mercedes were now the fourth-fastest team. Stroll came home in sixth between the two Mercedes, a drive described by his new team mate as “heroic” given that he had undergone surgery on a wrist injury just two weeks prior and never driven the car in representative conditions before the weekend.

Esteban Ocon, Alpine, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Alonso’s last team mate endured a woeful race

The final three points places were reserved for three impressive midfield drives. Bottas kicked off Alfa Romeo’s season with four valuable points, while Pierre Gasly took ninth after starting last on the grid. His team mate Esteban Ocon had started that position, but in a calamitous performance incurred no fewer than three penalties before retiring.

The final point was claimed by Alexander Albon, who once again took a surprise top ten. The FW45 may have been the slowest car in terms of single-lap pace, but its strong top speed helped Albon resist Yuki Tsunoda to take tenth.

With seven of the ten teams scoring points in the opening round, this F1 field of 2023 is in one respect highly competitive. But Red Bull’s crushing performance appears to have emphatically answered the question of whether fans can expect their world champions to be pushed harder for the titles this season, or whether this team is back to its dominant peak of 2010-13.

In 2023, Formula 1 is now unquestionably in the Second Age of Red Bull.

Become a RaceFans Supporter

RaceFans is run thanks in part to the generous support of its readers. By contributing £1 per month or £12 per year (or the same in whichever currency you use) you can help cover the costs of creating, hosting and developing RaceFans today and in the future.

Become a RaceFans Supporter today and browse the site ad-free. Sign up or find out more via the links below:

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023
Car number one is still number one in 2023

2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Browse all 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix articles

2023 F1 race reviews

Browse all 2023 F1 race reviews

Source link