Pre-season testing for the 2023 Formula 1 season is now in the books. After three days of putting their 2023 challengers through the paces, all ten F1 teams now have a clearer picture of where they stand, and where their rivals stand as well.
With the caveat that a lot of guesswork goes into looking at testing data, with teams running different programs, different fuel loads, and even using tyre compounds that are not approved for next week’s Bahrain Grand Prix, we have a slightly clearer picture of how the field stands ahead of the 2023 F1 season.
Here are three winners, one loser, and one great unknown following pre-season testing in Bahrain.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull - Winners
As noted earlier in the week, 2023 began just as 2022 ended.
With Red Bull and returning champion Max Verstappen looking strong, and landing atop the classification.
Verstappen stood atop the field after the first day of testing, and the team’s 2023 challenger, the RB19, was strong throughout all three days of testing. As noted here, talk in Bahrain was that the defending Constructors’ Champions looked formidable yet again, with sources close to the team indicating that the RB19 might have a big advantage on the field as racing begins.
Even Red Bull’s biggest competitors — Ferrari and Mercedes — conceded that the defending champions looked very strong during testing. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was among those singing Red Bull’s praises. “Red Bull seems to be very strong in these three days,” said the Ferrari driver.
As for Mercedes, driver George Russell called the idea of challenging Red Bull next week in the Bahrain Grand Prix a “stretch.” Whether we’re going to have that next weekend in Bahrain? I think it may be a bit of a stretch,” Russell said earlier this week. “[Red Bull] look very strong, very stable. The car is looking really strong, and Max is performing really well. I think realistically, it will be a stretch for next week.
The midfield - Winners
When F1 instituted the cost cap, the vision was that limiting spending would bring the teams closer together. While FIA indicated that racing was “better” last season, it would take years before the impact of the cost cap would be realized.
If testing in Bahrain is any indication, that day could be closer than thought.
A few teams in the middle of the pack, and even down in the pecking order, have reason to head into the season with smiles on their faces. There are reasons to be optimistic at Williams, where rookie Logan Sargeant and experienced teammate Alex Albon looked strong over the first two days. Albon conceded in an interview with F1TV on Friday that “we’re not in a bad place,” and talked about the “progress” the team had made over the off-season.
Over at Alfa Romeo, while there was a failure on Saturday during the afternoon session, there were signs of strength as well. Zhou Guanyu posted the fastest time of the day during Friday, and while that came on the softer C4 compound that will not be in use next week, there is reason to believe that Alfa Romeo is just a hair off Ferrari’s pace as the season looms.
But the team in the middle of the pack that is truly turning heads is Aston Martin. While testing got off to a rocky start — driver Lance Stroll was sidelined due to a training injury and reserve driver Felipe Drugovich endured an early red flag on Thursday when the AMR23 suffered an electrical failure — Aston Martin has been strong since then. Very strong. And others are noticing.
“I think Aston Martin looks fast,” Haas driver Kevin Magnussen told the media this week. “They seem to constantly be doing good long runs and when they try to put in a fast time, they seem to do it as well. So I think that they look like they’ve done a big step.”
Even Haas has drawn some attention. Nico Hülkenberg posted the fifth-best lap time on Friday, and the performance this week from last year’s eighth-place finishers has some wondering if they too might push their way up the table.
F1 Fans - Winners
Provided all of the above holds — more on that in a second — and the field really is closer together this season, then fans of F1 might be the biggest winners of all.
If more teams are in contention for points and podiums each week, we will see better racing throughout the field, which makes for an even more exciting sport.
McLaren - Losers
F1 teams are usually coy during testing, trying to manage expectations while indicating that they might have a little more power and pace when the lap time truly start to matter.
However, McLaren has taken a different approach over the past few weeks.
When the team unveiled their 2023 challenger, the MCL60, new Team Principal Andrea Stella seemed rather muted in his response, saying the team needed to be “realistic.” As he said at the time, “[i]n terms of performance expectations, we remain realistic for the short-term. We will see where we are in Bahrain at the test and at the first race. Independently of that, we have good developments in the pipeline, so we remain optimistic for the season ahead.”
Well, we now know how they fared in Bahrain, and that led to even more brutal honesty from Stella and McLaren CEO Zak Brown. The car has struggled with braking and cornering on the track, and the two bosses at McLaren have been open about where the team is, and where it needs to be. Brown conceded that the team failed to meet some goals during development, while Stella was even more forthright.
“Last year, we had some clear objectives in terms of development. They had to do with aerodynamic efficiency; some development related to the exploitation of the tyres, and also some other objectives to improve the balance,” said Stella after Friday’s testing session. “The reality is that most of these objectives have actually been met. But the objective in terms of aerodynamic efficiency of the car, that’s the one where we are still shy of what was our target.”
That, coupled with the gains from the rest of the midfield, has Stella gaming expectations for qualifying going forward. “I think we will see again that the midfield is very compact,” said Stella. “And this means that if you don’t do a good enough job, even in setting up and maximising what you have, you may struggle to get out of Q1. At the same time, you might be a Q3 contender.”
Who will perform when it matters - The great unknown
Despite all of the above, however, here is the biggest unknown.
How will things really shake out when the lights go out next week in Bahrain?
Because then we will get our first true look at how these teams, cars, and drivers stack up for the 2023 season. No more testing programs with different fuel loads, no more tyre compounds that will not be allowed during race conditions, and no more guessing as to where each teams are in terms of performance.
Next week the lap times count for real.