The 2023 Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend in Sakhir with the Bahrain GP. Our editors Michael Bradburn, Gianluca Nesci, Daniel Valente, and Brandon Wile have nine reasons to get excited about the upcoming 23-race campaign.
Verstappen’s quest for 3rd straight title
Whether from a sporting or entertainment point of view, Formula 1 is desperate for another tight title race at the top. That’s why the biggest question lingering over this season is if there’s any man or machinery capable of stopping Max Verstappen from capturing his third straight drivers’ title.
On paper, there are a couple of credible threats that could stop the 25-year-old, who ripped off a record-breaking 15 wins last year. There’s reason to believe Ferrari – led by new management and a hungrier Charles Leclerc – will build on its already strong 2022 baseline, and that Mercedes may continue riding its momentum from the tail end of last season.
But perhaps the single biggest unknown in Verstappen’s path is the impact of Red Bull’s cost cap penalty, which resulted in a 10% deduction in allocated wind tunnel time. Will that hamper his 2023 challenger, the RB19? Judging by the preseason timesheets, it didn’t seem to have a visible effect, but as seen in the past, it’ll be impossible to make any definite statements until the lights are out in Bahrain.
One way or another, 2023 will be about Verstappen’s chase of history. Claiming a third title would put him alongside legends like Ayrton Senna and Niki Lauda. But winning three straight? That would put the Dutch driver in all-time great territory, joining only Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Sebastian Vettel in accomplishing the feat. – Valente
Will change at the top fix Ferrari?
Affable as he was, Mattia Binotto ultimately appeared out of his depth as team principal of Formula 1’s most storied outfit. A change was needed. His replacement, former Alfa Romeo boss Fred Vasseur, cuts a more assertive figure. He didn’t waste time addressing one of the glaring issues that plagued the Scuderia last season.
Despite boasting impressive machinery and an extremely talented driver lineup in 2022 – the duo of Leclerc and Carlos Sainz is back again – Ferrari’s encouraging start to the campaign fizzled out thanks, in large part, to an exasperating series of strategic blunders. Yes, there were some reliability concerns and avoidable driver errors along the way. However, the team is confident it has properly identified and fixed the reliability flaws and believes it can operate in more aggressive engine modes that’ll provide an immediate gain of 0.2 seconds per lap.
But no matter how many ponies are powering the Prancing Horse, continued strategic failures would make those improvements moot. Baffling in-race decisions by the team took plenty of points off the board last year, including, most notably, a bungled pit-stop strategy that cost Leclerc victory at his home race in Monaco. By season’s end, those mistakes left Ferrari well adrift of Verstappen and Red Bull.
Vasseur, who replaced Binotto in January, wasted no time addressing the main area of concern as he aims to deliver Ferrari’s first championship of either kind since 2008. The Frenchman quickly shifted chief strategist Inaki Rueda out of the high-pressure position and into a sporting role at the factory in Maranello. In his stead comes Ravin Jain, who’ll assume the hot seat this weekend in Bahrain.
Though Red Bull clearly has the edge going into the supersized 23-race season – the RB19 looked nigh untouchable in the hands of Verstappen in preseason testing – both Leclerc and Sainz were upbeat about the balance and overall feel of their equivalent, the SF-23. Even if the raw lap times didn’t leap off the page, Leclerc, who won the opening race in Bahrain last year after a brilliant battle with Verstappen, was encouraged by the correlation between factory data and how the car performed on the track in testing.
“We have scanned a number of items on the car and ticked many of the boxes of our program without worrying about lap times or what the others have been doing, simply focusing on ourselves,” said Vasseur of the three-day test. “The mood in the team is perfect, and we are in a good shape to start this long season.” – Nesci
Can Mercedes bounce back?
Mercedes will be eager for a fresh start after last season’s disaster.
The team is coming off its worst finish since 2012. Mercedes placed third – an incredible 244 points behind champion Red Bull – and saw its streak of eight straight constructors’ titles snapped.
At the center of the disappointment was seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. Most of the year was spent hearing Toto Wolff apologizing for a “shit box” car as Hamilton failed to win a single race for the first time in his 16-year career and finished sixth in the drivers’ standings behind teammate George Russell.
Hamilton has been adamant that he has no desire to retire, but the 38-year-old is out of contract at the end of this season, and Mercedes will need to prove that it’s capable of building a car that can help him compete for a record eighth drivers’ championship.
Mercedes ironed out the porpoising problems as last season progressed and had four podium finishes over the final four races, with Russell even picking up his first career win in Brazil – Mercedes also finished that race with its only 1-2 of the season.
Whether that momentum can carry over is another question. Hamilton believes that the team is starting at a better point entering the year, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of optimism that it can challenge the top teams yet.
“It’s still not perfect, and we are still not able to match the Red Bulls currently, or the Ferraris maybe,” Hamilton said. “But, as I said, it is better.” – Wile
Publicly, Verstappen and Sergio Perez have downplayed all talk of tension stemming from last season’s team order incident in Brazil. Is it possible to put the toothpaste back in the tube, or is it only a matter of time before the two Red Bull teammates lock horns again?
For Perez, the stakes might never be higher. Entering his third season at Red Bull, the Mexican driver has struggled to come into his own aside from a brief stretch last year. It might be now or never for Checo to push the reigning world champion. He risks getting lost in the shuffle, especially if Mercedes and Ferrari join the fight.
It’s also worth wondering if Perez, who’s played the wingman role exceptionally, will keep the usual team-first attitude after last season’s skirmish. A new twist in this saga would be different than in the past; Red Bull has options if Perez isn’t up to par with the return of fan-favorite Daniel Ricciardo as a reserve driver.
All these factors point to why Checo’s attempt to close the gap with his main rival will be one of the biggest storylines of 2023. While all appears cordial at the moment, it almost feels inevitable that there’ll be more fireworks inside the Red Bull garage. – Valente
What to make of McLaren
McLaren took a major step back in 2022, and that failure resulted in some significant changes. Daniel Ricciardo is gone as Zak Brown gave the popular Aussie driver the boot despite him having another year under contract.
The addition of Oscar Piastri was a major move for the team, and pairing him with Lando Norris gives them an immensely talented young duo to build around. Brown deserves credit for deciding to part with Ricciardo. It was clear the partnership wasn’t working. It’s also good to see Ricciardo remain in the sport, though, as he serves as a reserve driver with Red Bull. The hope is that a year off can help him regain some confidence and, potentially, a seat in 2024.
The addition of Piastri adds even more fuel to the McLaren-Alpine rivalry, which might be one of the most exciting things to watch in 2023. There’s clearly a lot of bad blood after Piastri infamously tweeted that he wouldn’t be driving for the French team and shockingly signed on with McLaren. The 21-year-old has won at every level – claiming Formula 2 and Formula 3 titles in consecutive seasons – and has the pedigree to become a future F1 champion.
The key for McLaren now is to keep both drivers happy. Norris, who’s already entering his fifth F1 season and is signed through 2025, said in the past that he is willing to be patient. While that’s all well and good, how long will his patience last if he feels like he’s not been given a car to match his ambitions? Norris secured three podiums in 2021, only to grab one last season. He also fell to seventh in the drivers’ standings after claiming sixth the year before. There’s too much talent to be that far back on the grid on a consistent basis.
McLaren’s preseason struggles might be a precursor to another challenging year. The team finished only ahead of Alpine and Williams in qualifying pace during testing as the car dealt with numerous issues. Compounding matters is the expected improvement of teams behind them like Aston Martin … – Wile
Alonso arrives at Aston Martin
No team received more preseason hype than Aston Martin, and for good reason. With Fernando Alonso at the wheel and a series of impressive technical moves coming to fruition, the Silverstone-based side could be poised for a major leap in the championship table.
Aston Martin poached incredible brain power from around the grid in recent years, and the AMR23 is the first official challenger designed by minds such as technical directors Dan Fallows and Eric Blandin. If there’s anyone who understands what success looks like on an F1 car, it’s safe to assume it’d be Fallows – former head of aerodynamics at Red Bull – and Blandin – Mercedes’ former chief aerodynamicist.
Combine this with a two-time world champion like Alonso joining the team, and it’s hard not to get excited about Aston Martin’s future. The Spaniard shined in Bahrain’s preseason testing, and there’s merit in thinking it wasn’t just a desert mirage. – Valente
Fresh new rookies
Who doesn’t love seeing some fresh faces on the grid?
There’ll be three rookies this year, and while they’re all going to be on relative bottom-feeding teams, they’ll bring some additional excitement.
Let’s start with Logan Sargeant, who’ll become the first American full-time F1 driver since Alexander Rossi in 2015. He won’t have tons of immediate expectations driving with bottom-flight Williams, but there’ll still be plenty of pressure to maintain his seat with an increasingly seasoned Alex Albon and the team seemingly making strides toward becoming more competitive. Sargeant will likely get plenty of face time with three American Grand Prixs on the schedule: Miami (May 7), Austin (Oct. 22), and Las Vegas (Nov. 18).
Then there’s Piastri, who joins McLaren after a controversial exit from Alpine. It got pretty sour, in fact, with Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer saying that the 21-year-old Aussie “lacked loyalty” as their contract dispute became public.
Alpine will certainly put a target on McLaren, and Piastri in particular, and it’ll be a fascinating midfield battle to watch all season.
Then, finally, there’s Nyck de Vries, who joins AlphaTauri. The Red Bull farm team seems to be testing out the 28-year-old de Vries, who impressed in his one-race debut with Williams last year by claiming ninth while filling in for an injured Albon. In fact, de Vries finished the season tied in points with full-time Williams driver Nicholas Latifi. If de Vries can finish in the points with any regularity, Checo’s seat might be his. – Bradburn
Haas eyes consistency with Hulkenberg’s return
Haas entertained the masses through the Netflix series “Drive to Survive,” but that hasn’t translated to sporting success. After failing to score even a single point two years ago, the team took a step in the right direction last season, finishing seventh in the constructors’ table. But how much higher can it go after replacing the mistake-prone Mick Schumacher for the returning Nico Hulkenberg?
The decision to bring back Hulkenberg raised some eyebrows, but it’s a sign that Haas’ time as a developmental team is over. Equipped with a strong Ferrari engine, Guenther Steiner has signaled he wants consistent results, something that didn’t happen frequently enough last season with Kevin Magnussen outscoring Schumacher 25-12 in points. It’ll be a tall task for Hulkenberg, who hasn’t had a full-time ride since 2019 and is infamously known for his podium-less streak, to prove Steiner right. – Valente
Sprint to the finish
Amongst both fans and even the drivers themselves, sprint races have been a divisive topic since their introduction in 2021. Some, like Verstappen, dislike the format, saying it discourages drivers from taking risks Saturday so they don’t torpedo their chances of scoring points Sunday, thus creating a simple procession. Others, like Hamilton, appreciate the change of pace that sprint weekends provide and the potential for shaking things up and creating extra drama and excitement – his incredible charge through the field in the 2021 sprint at Interlagos immediately comes to mind.
“We have had the same Thursday to Sunday for a long time,” Hamilton explained last year. “The race is not always the greatest, but it does create a little bit more action.”
Whether you’re in favor, against, or indifferent, the sprint race is back in 2023 and more prevalent than ever. There’ll be six sprint weekends on this season’s calendar, with the 100-kilometer dash on Saturdays taking place in Azerbaijan, Austria, Belgium, Qatar, the United States (COTA), and Brazil.
At a glance, that collection of tracks – aside from perhaps Qatar – seems ideally suited to the sprint format; Baku, the Red Bull Ring, and Spa, in particular, all feature plenty of overtaking opportunities. In a short race where the field is compressed, that should mean more battles on the track and, potentially, an added splash of chaos that could spice up the starting grid for the showpiece races Sunday. It also forces the teams to be locked in right from the start of the weekend; with only one practice session Friday to perfect the setup of the car, there’s even less margin for error than usual in that regard.
The six sprint events this season are dispersed evenly throughout the gigantic 23-race calendar, too, which will help to ensure that race weekends never feel stale or too repetitive over the course of the year.
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