George Russell cut a disconsolate figure after the chequered flag fell on the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen took the flag a comfortable victor. His margin over teammate Sergio Perez was 12 seconds, and he was fully 38 seconds ahead of everyone else in a formidable demonstration of his Red Bull Racing car’s performance.
“Red Bull have got this championship sewn up,” Russell said. “I don’t think anyone will be fighting with them this year. They should win every single race this year, is my bet.
”They’ve got it easy at the moment. They can do what they like. They might not be on pole all the time because we know Ferrari are very competitive in qualifying, but when it comes to race pace, they’re in a very strong position.”
The Mercedes driver had more reason than most to feel particularly disappointed. The German team had expected to close the gap, at least a little bit, but instead Russell and teammate Lewis Hamilton finished almost a minute off the pace.
Mercedes reacted swiftly by declaring it would throw its brand-new 2023 car in the bin and start with a clean slate. It’s unlikely to be a title contender this year.
But the season doesn’t hinge on the Silver Arrows.
Ahead of the formerly dominant team finished an Aston Martin and a Ferrari, and there’s optimism both teams might be able to make a fight of this season.
The Italian team, a title challenger last year before engine problems derailed its campaign, showed heartening qualifying pace on Saturday night, enough that Charles Leclerc thought he would’ve been a genuine pole contender had he completed his second lap rather than save a set of tyres for the race.
But that speed evaporated completely on Sunday, when rampant tyre wear meant it was no match for not just Red Bull Racing but also Aston Martin.
That hasn’t discouraged team principal Fred Vasseur, however.
“I never saw a car able to match the pace of another one in quali and not be able to in the race,” he said. “Then it’s a matter of set-up and some choices on the car.
“I’m completely convinced about this.”
But more concerning is that Leclerc’s engine failed part of the way through the race. Given improving reliability was a major off-season focus, pace may not be the team’s biggest problem in catching the leader.
Aston Martin, meanwhile, is the surprise package of the season after making a monumental development step between seasons. An aggressive hiring spree and a cashed-up infrastructure program set up by billionaire owner Lawrence Stroll has started paying early dividends by promoting it into the frontrunning pack ahead of schedule.
The AMR23 was the second-best car in Bahrain, and while the gap to RBR is still large, it has significantly more development allowance the reigning champion.
Formula 1 has implemented a sliding scale of development time as an equalisation measure to try to close the field and make the sport more broadly competitive.
Aston Martin, which finished seventh in last year’s championship, will have almost 60 per cent more time in the wind tunnel than Red Bull Racing until the end of June, having enjoyed even more than that in the last six months of 2022.
“This is just the start,” Fernando Alonso said after finishing third. “This car will change dramatically during the season. That’s the plan.
“I heard from the team that two-thirds from this car will change during the season.
“We want to have a good baseline, a good platform to develop the car during 2023 and maybe fight for something bigger next year. But step by step.”
Even if Aston Martin can’t challenge for an unlikely title this year, taking points off Red Bull Racing might at least prevent the leading team from running away with things, keeping the fight alive long enough for any twists to take hold later in the year. At a minimum it can keep things interesting.
This weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (Mar 17-19) also takes place on a substantially different circuit type to Bahrain. Much faster, more flowing and with a less abrasive surface, we’re unlikely to see the same performance profile between the teams, giving hop in particular to Ferrari and its tyre problems.
Red Bull Racing is still the clear favourite for the title, but it’s too early to say the season will disappear in a whitewash or even that the team can’t be caught.
It’ll just take its title rivals stepping up before it’s too late.
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