Tom Cary, Senior Sports Correspondent, in Sakhir
Toto Wolff finally admitted Mercedes got their car concept wrong last year and that they will now need a complete “change of direction” if they want to get back to winning world titles.
In what was a stunning admission after George Russell and Lewis Hamilton could only qualify sixth and seventh fastest respectively for Sunday’s season-opening grand prix in Bahrain, six-tenths behind the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, the Mercedes team principal admitted he no longer believed this current Mercedes package could ever be competitive enough to mount a challenge.
Wolff refused to concede defeat, however, even this season, calling for calm heads. And he vowed that Mercedes would get there and win Hamilton another world title before he retired. “We’re going to get Lewis to his eighth world title,” Wolff said. “Even if I have to push him around the track to help get him his eighth.”
It was a nice line. But this was another sobering day for the Brackley team in what has been a year full of them. Perhaps the most sobering yet. After Russell’s win in Brazil last autumn, and all those hopes over the winter that they might have closed the gap to Red Bull, the insistence that their concept was not the issue and that the philosophy retained huge untapped potential, ultimately, when it came down to it, they just were not quick enough.
Mercedes were not a million miles away. Their 0.6sec deficit in qualifying at the opening race this year was the same as last year. But with both Ferraris also ahead of them, as well as the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso, it was enough for Wolff to call for a rethink.
Mercedes raised eyebrows when they launched the W13, the first car in a brand new set of regulations, this time 12 months ago. The look of the car, with its almost non-existent sidepods, was completely unlike anything else on the grid. But despite the car’s disappointing displays, the team always insisted the fundamental concept was not the issue. They argued that the porpoising – or bouncing – problems they encountered, particularly in the early part of last season, had prevented their engineers from focusing on pure performance.
When Mercedes launched the W14 earlier this month, still with the same overall philosophy, they were accused in some quarters of ‘engineering pride’ or stubbornness. Once again they insisted that their calculations suggested the concept was their best chance of unlocking the full potential of the car. Last night Wolff finally held his hands up.
“I don’t think that this package is going to be competitive eventually,” he said after Red Bull locked out the front row, ending any hopes of a fairytale pole for 41-year-old Fernando Alonso, who had topped the final two practice sessions in his Aston Martin but could only go fifth quickest. “We gave it our best go, also over the winter, and now we all just need to regroup, sit down with the engineers, be totally non-dogmatic, and ask ‘what is the development direction we want to pursue in order to be able to win races?’”
Wolff’s admission brought the curtain down on a qualifying session which promised much, but ultimately did not quite deliver. The gaps between the cars were very small, and the order fluctuated in the first two sessions. But ultimately Red Bull proved too good, locking out the front row without being at their best, with a setup which both Verstappen and Perez admitted was geared “more towards the race”.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc – who finished just 0.103secs behind Verstappen – did say that he felt he might have taken pole, but Ferrari chose not to do a second run to enable them to start Sunday’s race on new tyres rather than used ones.
Further back, McLaren’s difficult start to the year continued with Lando Norris 11th and rookie team-mate Oscar Piastri knocked out in the first session and down in 18th.
Hamilton tried to put a brave face on his seventh place in the mixed zone afterwards. “It is not an impossible mountain to climb,” he said. But ultimately his team principal agreed with the assessment he gave after practice on Friday, when he concluded the car’s concept was always going to hold them back.
Wolff dismissed suggestions that any heads would roll. “At this team we play the problem not the person,” he said. “I have responsibilities. I need to fire myself if I want to do something [radical].
“No, we have all the ingredients to be successful. We got it wrong last year. We thought we could fix it by sticking to the concept of car. But it didn’t work out. So we just need to switch our focus onto what we believe is the right direction.”
Asked how long that might take and whether they could still challenge for the title this year, Wolff was circumspect.
“You know, motor racing is crazy,” he concluded. “I don’t know what is going to happen this year. We may find a silver bullet next week and gain five tenths. I haven’t seen any silver bullets before. But you never know.
“If you look at the pecking order today, you say ‘It’s not realistic’. But I’m looking at what we can find next week, what we can add to the car, what is the change of direction that we can implement and how quickly can we do that.
“Maybe we can turn the ship around this year. But it needs a lot to change the pecking order.”
Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying, classification
Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1min 29.708secs
Sergio Perez (Mex) Red Bull 1:29.846
Charles Leclerc (Mon) Ferrari 1:30.000
Carlos Sainz Jr. (Spa) Ferrari 1:30.154
Fernando Alonso (Spa) Aston Martin 1:30.336
George Russell (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:30.340
Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:30.384
Lance Stroll (Can) Aston Martin 1:30.836
Esteban Ocon (Fra) Alpine 1:30.984
Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) MoneyGram Haas F1 1:30.809
Lando Norris (Gbr) McLaren 1:31.381
Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake 1:31.443
Guanyu Zhou (Chn) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake 1:31.473
Yuki Tsunoda (Jpn) Scuderia AlphaTauri 1:32.510
Alexander Albon (Tha) Williams 1:31.461
Logan Sargeant (USA) Williams 1:31.652
Kevin Magnussen (Den) MoneyGram Haas F1 1:31.892
Oscar Piastri (Aus) McLaren 1:32.101
Nyck de Vries (Ned) Scuderia AlphaTauri 1:32.121
Pierre Gasly (Fra) Alpine 1:32.181
Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying, as it happened
Lewis Hamilton speaks after his seventh position
"I went in with a really open mind, I woke up this morning thinking we were going to be a lot further behind. A lot of great work went overnight. We made a step forward today, the car was feeling much more alive this morning. When we got to qualifying the car just didn't feel alive, it felt average.
"The direction I am going in with my set-up I am hoping it works more for tomorrow. It's not an impossible mountain to climb. We can definitely close that gap, we just need to push like never before."
Toto Wolff speaks to Sky Sports F1
"Well, the gap is not ridiculous considering we only run one tyre at the end but it's not where we want to be. It's maybe around four tenths but these are all irrelevant calculations, but that is the gap. This is what we need to find if we need to win. They both didn't have clean laps, there was maybe a tenth in a half there."
He says that they maybe could have overtaken Alonso had they done better laps.
On Hamilton's search for an eighth drivers' title and the driver's talk about their team's concept on the car:
"He's absolutely in the same choir. We are super critical within our team. We just need to get our act together. We are going to get his eighth, he has compared to Alonso another four years in him. Even if I need to push him around the track to win the eighth we're going to do everything [needed]."
Watch: Verstappen's Bahrain GP pole lap
The lap that confirmed the 21st pole position of Max Verstappen's career 🔥 pic.twitter.com/fHPtpMT77T
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 4, 2023
He had enough. He seems pretty happy and both Red Bull drivers said their car is set up for the race.
Max Verstappen reacts to his pole position
"It's been a bit of a tough start to the weekend yesterday and today not really finding my rhythm. Having such a strong car with Checo up there as well, it's amazing and I am looking forward to tomorrow. I think compared to last year everyone knows a bit more with what they are doing.
"The changes slowed down the car a bit but of course we are still going faster. I was actually positively surprised being on pole after the struggles I had in practice. Normally our race car is better, so let's see."
Sergio Perez reacts
"It has been really tight qualifying. I don't remember such a tight qualifying battle... it's really marginal. You cannot leave anything on the table. In the end I wasn't totally comfortable with the balance but to get this start for the team is really special.
"If anything we prepared much more to do the race, we have more of a Sunday race car underneath us at the moment."
Leclerc reacts to his third place
"There wasn't any issue. I think we were in the fight for pole which was a good surprise because I did not expect that after testing. We need to keep in our mind that in our race run we seem to be on the back foot compared to Red Bull.
"I hope it will also be like that on the race runs. Aston Martin was really quick, Mercedes was very quick in some parts. We are faster than we thought. In the race runs we seem to have a bit of weakness for now. Having a new tyre will help us."
HUL (NO TIME)
Red Bull found (or had all along...) the lap time when they needed it. A creditable effort from Leclerc but he only did one run, so would suggest that he could have split the Red Bulls. Decent effort from Perez. The Aston Martin is quick, but not quite quick enough to get onto the front two rows, then.
MAX VERSTAPPEN TAKES POLE POSITION FOR THE 2023 BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX!
Sainz can't find the time he needs on his lap, nowhere near it, really. 0.446s the gap between Verstappen in first and Sainz in fourth.
Perez second, Leclerc third. All Ferrari second row. Alonso the best of the rest ahead of the two Mercedes cars.
Q3 - Verstappen crosses the line and improves his time
By 0.189sec... Perez improves but is second! 0.138sec in it.
What does Sainz do in the final sector?
Q3 - Verstappen a little slower after one sector
Perez does his fastest first sector, though... Sainz not far off, either.
Verstappen is faster after two sectors, though, 0.117s up on his previous best...
Q3 - Verstappen now looks nailed on for this pole
Sainz and Perez the only men that can stop him, really. Unless Stroll finds the lap of his life...
Q3 - Leclerc is out of the car
Not sure what's going on there, but he obviously won't be doing another run.
Some of the runs are out of sync here. Verstappen and Perez as well as Sainz are about to start fast laps. As is Stroll.
Not sure if Alonso will get another run, nor the two Mercedes cars.
Q3 - Alonso into fourth
0.439sec off Verstappen, but faster than Sainz.
Russell goes fifth, slower than Hamilton... Hamilton is a bit further back and only seventh...
Q3 - Alonso begins his first flying lap
He's 0.130s down on Verstappen after one sector... not too bad.
Can he make up any time in the second sector?
Russell and Hamilton slower than Alonso after one sector. But close to one another.
Alonso loses another tenth in the second sector...
Q3 - Order after the first runs
Mercedes, Hulkenberg, Ocon and Alonso have yet to set a time. Sainz got a bit messy in sector two which is where he lost time.
Five minutes remain...
Q3 - Close but not close enough for Leclerc
He's 0.103s slower... Sainz about half a second behind...
Stroll two seconds behind, but he did that on old tyres.
Q3 - Verstappen with a 38.6 in S2
Perez loses a further tenth but Leclerc beats that by a smidgen!
Verstappen crosses the line with a 1:29.897 to go fastest... Perez cannot beat it.
What can Leclerc do?
Q3 - Verstappen with a 28.7 in the first sector
Leclerc, Perez and Sainz not that far away from that mark, though...
Q3 - Nine mins remain
Leclerc, Verstappen, Sainz, Perez and Stroll out there. Stroll on the used soft tyres, everyone else on fresh sets.
We're into the final reckoning here...
Right, Red Bull favourites here...
Surely? A bit of pace in the bank. They have done the fewest laps of any team, avoiding doing two runs in Q2.
Drivers eliminated: NOR, BOT, ZHO, TSU, ALB
Q2 ends - Leclerc fastest
Ferrari find some pace with fresh tyres at the end of the session. Red Bull didn't run twice, and the track probably evolved by a fair chunk. So I'd still put Red Bull as favourites.
Q2 - Norris into eighth briefly... but will he stay there?
As Leclerc goes fastest, Sainz third! Lance Stroll in the drop zone now, can he make it out...
Russell now in third, with Hamilton just behind.
Stroll into 10th! He knocks Norris out!
That reaction from Lance Stroll's mum ❤️ pic.twitter.com/W6mJ5hpfL7
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 4, 2023
Q2 - Leclerc with the fastest first sector
But then Sainz beats that by about a tenth...
Ocon moves up from 13th to fourth...
Hulkenberg from ninth to third! Zhou into ninth... Tsunoda stays 14th though... Bottas into eighth...
Norris now into the drop zone as Alonso goes second fastest...
Q2 - Final runs under way
Everyone out bar the two Red Bulls, who are a few tenths ahead of everyone else.
Zhou, Stroll, Ocon, Tsunoda and Albon the men trying to get out. Well, Albon isn't as he's staying in his garage.
Q2 - 3 mins remain
Albon makes a mess of his lap, running very wide at turn four and then doing similarly, although more extremely, in turns six and seven. So he will have to have another go. Going to be hard for him to get out into the next session.
Watch: Onboard with Fernando Alonso
POV: You're Fernando Alonso in Q2 😍 pic.twitter.com/I3CGcoKPVA
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 4, 2023
Q2 - Order after the first runs
ALB (NO TIME)
Q2 - Verstappen goes fastest!
A 1:30.503, already faster than last year's pole time. Perez can't beat him but is 0.243sec behind. Ferrari both set their laps on used tyres and are sixth and seventh, about a second behind.
Q2 - Mercedes going well
First it's Russell in first but Hamilton edges him out. But Verstappen is absolutely flying and it looks a bit worrying...
Q2 - Stroll crosses the line with a 1:32.305
Ocon isn't too far off that but Hulkenberg beats it by 0.373s, which shows it wasn't that good a lap.
Alonso smashes Hulkenberg's time by eight tenths!
Q2 - We should see more from Red Bull here
They didn't improve on their second runs but they did not really finish them, either. And on their first runs they had used tyres. So here we go.
Stroll loses some time in turn two, with some opposite lock.
Q2 - 12 mins remain
Here we go, a fair few cars going out now. Lance Stroll at the front of the pack as they leave the pit lane.
15 minutes to go... nobody that keen to go out on track.
That is a decent lap from Logan Sargeant too
He is out of the session but is within two tenths of Williams team-mate Albon, who is a very good qualifier. Well done.
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 4, 2023
Looks like Gasly lost his lap there, too
So it goes from bad to worse. He drops to 20th, then. He's normally good at this track.
Decent lap from Russell
Not sure what happened to Hamilton.
That’s Q1 done. 👌 George splits the Ferraris in P2.
Lewis is safely through in P13. It’s super close out there. 👀 pic.twitter.com/JQqtTW5o6S
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) March 4, 2023
Q1 - Classification
Well, that's tight.
Drivers eliminated: SAR, GAS, MAG, PIA, DEV
Q1 ends - Sainz fastest
Albon was very close to a track limits infringement, will he get away without losing his lap?
Q1 - Norris improves but only to 13th
That is unlikely to be good enough. It could be tight, though. Piastri in 19th, but can he improve that? Only to 17th... Ouch. He's out.
Hulkenberg improves from 19th to sixth, that's good. He'll be through but that puts Gasly into the drop zone. Sargeant with a fairly handy lap, but it's only 16th. It's the exact time of Norris in 15th but Norris set the lap first so Sargeant is 16th.
Gasly out, Magnussen out.
Q1 - Albon improves from 13th to sixth
Stroll has not yet set a lap time due to track limits, Stroll goes fifth with the fastest final sector. Norris going much better on his latest lap. Might Norris sneak out of Q1?
Q1 - 2 mins left
Red Bull were using slightly used tyres on that last run (having run when the red flag came out) so probably not entirely representative.
Q1 - Four mins remain
That's not good from McLaren, 17th and 18th but they are a long way from the top 15 in lap time terms.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) March 4, 2023
Q1 - Order after the first runs
STR (NO TIME)
Q1 - Sainz goes fastest!
0.064s ahead of Russell. That's interesting. Very interesting. Again, Q1 isn't always the most representative time, but four different cars within three tenths... and Verstappen is the slowest of them in the Red Bull.
Q1 - Alonso beats Verstappen's time
By 0.137s... but Leclerc is on a good lap, as is George Russell!
Leclerc goes quickest by 0.064sec, but then Russell beats that by 0.037s!
Hamilton only fifth... but Sainz is going well, too!
Q1 - Leclerc goes fastest of anyone in S1
By a mile! Nearly four-tenths. Alonso sets the fastest middle sector of anyone. This is fun.
Verstappen crosses the line with a 1:31.295...
Q1 - Verstappen begins his first flying lap
Stroll has the fastest first sector time so far with a 29.266 but Verstappen beats that by nearly four tenths. Alonso just over a tenth slower in the other Aston Martin interestingly, after one sector.
Q1 - 12 mins remain
Slightly worse news for Ferrari, Sainz loses his lap due to a track limits infringement. Think everyone will be out on the soft tyres now. Surely.
GREEN LIGHT: SESSION RESTARTS
A queue of cars as you would expect given the lack of running for, well, everyone really.
Q1 - Session to resume in three minutes' time
Good. Only three drivers to set a representative lap time so far.
You can see the missing part of the wheelbrow here
🚩 RED FLAG 🚩
The Q1 action is halted after just a few minutes
Charles Leclerc's first timed lap doesn't go to plan, with two small pieces of bodywork coming off his car#BahrainGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/A2RLui0l2X
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 4, 2023
It should not look like that on the left.
Q1 - RED FLAG
This is probably because of the Ferrari carbon fibre strewn across the track.
13min23sec remain on the clock.
Q1 - Tsunoda posts the fastest lap time so far
0.717s ahead of team-mate Nyck de Vries. Carlos Sainz cannot beat Tsunoda's time, but he is on the slower tyre, the gap nearly three tenths, though. Not really that encouraging.
A second piece fell off the front wing of Leclerc at turn one, too. Ah, no, it was a piece of the wheelbrow. You can see on the footage, it's the bit of the bottom.
Q1 - Let's see what you've got Ferrari
Oh dear, Leclerc locks up fairly heavily at turn one and has to back out of his first flying lap...
A couple of bits flying off the Ferrari as it crossed the start/finish line, hitting the bump. Are they running it much closer to the ground?
A piece of Charles Leclerc's Ferrari comes flying off 😧 pic.twitter.com/Us0ajd5JaT
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 4, 2023
Q1 - Leclerc, Sainz and Tsunoda the first cars out
On the medium tyres are the Ferraris. Everyone else on the softs so far.
GREEN LIGHT: Q1 BEGINS
The usual format: 18 minutes, as many laps as you like, five drivers to go out and 15 to go through to Q2.
The stage is set...
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 4, 2023
Actually, I am going to predict the top six
Under 15 minutes to go until Q1 begins
Predictions? Well, for Q1 it looks like it'll be Williams, AlphaTauri and AN other struggling to get out. It might not be quite like that but I would be surprised if they troubled Q2.
Where and when will the six sprint races be this year?
Formula One announced the six sprint venues for 2023: Azerbaijan, Belgium, the Austin race in the United States and Qatar all joining Austria and Brazil in staging qualifying on Friday and a shortened ‘sprint' race on Saturday.
Three sprint races were held in 2022 – at Imola, Austria and Brazil – with much discussion in the early part of the season about expanding that offering for next year.
The teams and F1 were keen to double the number, arguing that sprint races have been successful in engaging fans and increasing audience sizes. But the FIA, motorsport’s world governing body, initially resisted, claiming that it would cost them more and asking for compensation.
Like last year, too, points will be given to the top eight drivers in the sprint race. Again, the sprint races will be approximately 100km – or roughly a third of a grand prix distance – and will run on Saturday, with the traditional three-part qualifying setting the grid for the sprint and taking place on the Friday.
The driver who tops qualifying on Friday, when these sprint races take place, will be awarded the official pole position, not the winner of the sprint, as was the case in 2021.
There is always a trial of a new qualifying format. For two rounds this season, the tyre compound type in each part of qualifying will mandated by the FIA.
Here is what Alonso said after topping FP2 yesterday
"It's another step into the right direction, the car still feels good. We need to wait and see. And the moment there is not much focus on times, we need to improve some things on the car. It's going to be a very interesting process but I think the team is learning every day.
"Let's see what happens in the first couple of races, at the moment it's only good test sessions. At the moment I think Lawrence has this vision on everything he does. We are in a very interesting process with a new car, new technical department. I think it's still a long way to go."
For the good of F1, someone has to challenge Max Verstappen this season
Between 2000 and 2004, Michael Schumacher hoovered up five world titles and 48 race wins in a period of Ferrari dominance which did huge damage to Formula One.
Schumacher was undoubtedly a brilliant driver. He was ruthless, yes. And that desire to win at all costs saw him cross the line on occasion, committing indiscretions for which many fans mark him down in their list of all-time greats. But there is no doubt the German set the standard, on and off the track.
Schumacher’s greatness was not the issue. His utter domination of Formula One was. It almost destroyed the sport. Racing in the Schumacher era became predictable, television ratings plummeted, the later rounds of the championship were hardly worth watching.
For Schumacher then, read Max Verstappen now.
A bit of frustration for Hamilton at the end of the final practice session
Lewis Hamilton was left frustrated at the end of FP3 after not getting a chance to practice his race start for the second time this weekend 📻 pic.twitter.com/LwP6RAXtub
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) March 4, 2023
He was a little downbeat yesterday, too.
And a reminder on the calendar for the 2023 season
We get a sort-of summer break from April 3-27 as the Chinese Grand Prix was not replaced on the calendar. No bad thing, especially when the races come thick and fast after it – 23 in total.
How the grid lines up this season
Red Bull: Max Verstappen (1) and Sergio Pérez (11)
Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton (44) and George Russell (63)
Ferrari: Carlos Sainz (55) and Charles Leclerc (55)
Alpine: Esteban Ocon (31) and Pierre Gasly (10)
McLaren: Lando Norris (4) and Oscar Piastri (81)
Alfa Romeo: Valtteri Bottas (77) and Guanyu Zhou (24)
Aston Martin: Lance Stroll (18) and Fernando Alonso (14)
Haas: Kevin Magnussen (20) and Nico Hulkenberg (27)
AlphaTauri: Yuki Tsunoda (22) and Nyck de Vries (21)
Williams: Alexander Albon (23) and Logan Sargeant (2)
Wonder if we'll get to the end of the season with it still like this... it is never guaranteed.
F1 2023 season predictions: from drivers' title to the first bust up
Our team of F1 writers went a way to trying to predict how the 2023 season will pan out, looking at Hamilton vs Russell, both championships, most unlikely winner and first bust-up.
A reminder that Aston Martin finished last season in seventh
That does not really tell the full story of their progress throughout the year, though, which was impressive. For them to lead the midfield this year will be (or would have been) another impressive step of progress. But competing with the big three, even occasionally, is an enormous step.
Let us not get too carried away yet, though. We've been in similar situations before, only for one team to put it on pole by half a second.
Times after third and final practice
Fernando Alonso (Spa) Aston Martin 1min 32.340secs
Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull 1:32.345
Sergio Perez (Mex) Red Bull 1:32.446
Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:32.555
Charles Leclerc (Mon) Ferrari 1:32.624
George Russell (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1:32.731
Lance Stroll (Can) Aston Martin 1:32.919
Carlos Sainz Jr. (Spa) Ferrari 1:32.945
Oscar Piastri (Aus) McLaren 1:33.045
Pierre Gasly (Fra) Alpine 1:33.064
Esteban Ocon (Fra) Alpine 1:33.116
Guanyu Zhou (Chn) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake 1:33.180
Lando Norris (Gbr) McLaren 1:33.202
Kevin Magnussen (Den) MoneyGram Haas F1 1:33.381
Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) MoneyGram Haas F1 1:33.423
Yuki Tsunoda (Jpn) Scuderia AlphaTauri 1:33.475
Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Alfa Romeo F1 Team Stake 1:33.629
Logan Sargeant (USA) Williams 1:33.665
Alexander Albon (Tha) Williams 1:33.882
Nyck de Vries (Ned) Scuderia AlphaTauri 1:34.082
Good afternoon F1 fans
And welcome to our coverage for qualifying for the season-opening 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. We've had three practice sessions so far, in differing conditions. The results, so far, have been interesting to say the least.
Heading into the season, naturally the expectation was that Red Bull would walk it. That may well be the case. Practice is better than testing, but qualifying is the real test when all the kidology ends and the lap times tell the whole story.
No doubt the biggest surprise has been the pace of Aston Martin, all weekend. Yes, they looked handy in testing and there was some talk of them being able to break through into the top three – Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – but the extent of their pace has been surprising.
Fernando Alonso, who joined the team from Alpine for this season, topped yesterday's second practice under lights and was fastest again in morning practice, just 0.005sec ahead of the defending champion, the Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Of course, it would still be a shock (even after all this) if Alonso were to put the AMR23 on pole for tomorrow's race, but you have to say that Red Bull do not look quite so bulletproof as they did heading into the weekend. There is always the chance of the team holding something back, but it is hard to think they have that much in their pocket?
It would certainly no longer be a surprise if Aston Martin were the best of the rest behind Red Bull. A front row start for Alonso does not seem that unrealistic any more.
The top six finished second practice within 0.4sec of one another and the top eight was made up exclusively from drivers from Aston Martin, Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari. It would be nice to think that there is a degree of equality among them heading into qualifying.
Q1 begins at 3pm GMT, the first part of a three-part, hour-long session. Soon the time for mystery will be over. Let us not get too excited until the very end. We can surely wait until then?