Formula 1 testing is rife with smokescreens and unknowns, hearsays and red herrings—and drawing concrete conclusions can be a fool’s errand.
But, we'll try anyway.
Here’s some takeaways from threes day of F1 action that concluded Saturday in the Bahrain desert:
The Champions Are Favorites
To absolutely no one's surprise, the driver and team that romped to last year’s Formula 1 Driver's and Constructor's Championships in commanding fashion are favorites heading into the new season.
Red Bull’s RB19, which was hidden from view until Thursday’s opening test day, is fundamentally an evolution of last year’s rapid RB18. Headline times can be deceptive but Max Verstappen was fastest on the first day of testing, and showed rapid speed on the second day, while Sergio Perez was already able to complete an encouraging race simulation on the second morning.
There was a buoyant mood around the Verstappen camp previously unseen during past preseason periods.
“The car was responding well to everything we did,” said Verstappen. “We learnt a lot for next weekend and of course for future races as well. I’m very pleased with the testing period, every time I jumped in the car I felt comfortable and could push instantly. We’ll have to see how quick we will be next week but I’m feeling positive. Overall it’s definitely an improvement to last year.”
Sergio Perez set the fastest time of the test during Saturday evening’s one-lap runs – three-tenths clear of the rest on a tire compound one step harder – albeit with the usual caveat over unknown fuel levels and engine modes.
Verstappen’s closest (but distant) challenger in 2022, Charles Leclerc, labelled Red Bull as “very strong” heading into the opening round of a new season.
“They look very strong, very stable,” said Mercedes’ George Russell. “The car is looking really strong, and obviously Max performing really well.”
What About Ferrari?
Getting an early read on the Italian marque in recent years has been a difficult proposition.
That’s because last year in testing it looked strong, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz went on to claim a stunning 1-2 finish in the first race of the season, and nearly everyone thought ‘Yes! Ferrari will challenge Red Bull this year!’
Then its title ambitions collapsed for a multitude of reasons: strategic blunders, driver errors, reliability issues and subdued in-season development.
Consequently, rating Ferrari’s prospects at this stage is a tough proposition. After all, improved reliability will only be known later on in the season. New team principal Fred Vasseur has already made changes. Inaki Rueda was replaced as head of strategy by Ravin Jain—a tacit recognition that last year’s structure was inadequate. Whether the new set-up is an improvement will clearly only be known come the races.
Ferrari’s issue in 2022 was not fundamentally raw pace—though that can obviously be improved—but race execution and management. Leclerc nonetheless explained some of the different approaches adopted for the SF23.
“The first day was all about doing big scans and trying to understand how well the data is matching with the ones we had at the factory prior to that test,” said Leclerc. “They were matching pretty well, which was good news.”
Ferrari has sacrificed some of its aerodynamic prowess in order to reduce drag and it is still striving to find the right trade-off.
“I can say that we are still working quite a bit on trying to find the sweet spot of the car in terms of set-up,” he said. “So I hope there is some margin on that still, that we haven’t found the sweet spot yet.”
No Alarm Bells But Mercedes Still Trails
Mercedes has made a step in the right direction but it does not feel that it is yet in a position to challenge for victory.
The W14 is still struggling for mid-corner balance but the team feels it is an easier proposition to remedy than the troublesome W13. However, after a decent first day, it struggled on the second day amid changing temperature conditions, prompting a lengthy investigation into the night. Friday was slightly better, but Mercedes still looks to be third-best of Formula 1’s big three teams, behind Red Bull and Ferrari.
“We definitely believe eventually we will have a car capable of giving that fight,” said driver George Russell, who had the team's only victory last season. “Whether we’re going to have that next weekend in Bahrain, I think may be a bit of a stretch. There’s no reason why eventually we can’t get there at some point this year, and we’ve always seen the strength of Mercedes and their development rate. So definitely, the belief is there.”
Mercedes was at least devoid of the chronic porpoising that blighted the early stages of the W13’s development but the car is not there yet.
“It’s nice to drive it without the bouncing in the corners,” said Lewis Hamilton. “But there are still some underlying things that we are working through.
“We are still not able to match the Red Bulls currently, or the Ferraris maybe, but it is better. There are things that have changed, and there are a couple of elements that have been better so far. Who knows where we will be next week? We’ve just got to stay positive, we’ve got to manifest what we want and just got to continue to push and that’s what we live for.”
Aston Martin Turning Heads
Aston Martin’s off-track saga surrounding Lance Stroll’s injury has dominated the headlines but on-track the AMR23 appears a tidy proposition. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given how Aston Martin rallied from a woeful start in 2022 to finish seventh overall (tied on points for sixth), and developed strongly in that midfield pack.
The AMR23 is also the first car to benefit from Aston Martin’s high-profile recruitment, such as Dan Fallows and Eric Blandin, and as a result expectations have been raised. Rival teams have talked up Aston Martin, believing it has the potential to front the midfield pecking order, especially in the hands of the relentless Fernando Alonso.
That would be a welcome jump for a team that finished 118 points behind fourth-placed Alpine in 2022—with the French firm again among the contenders to lead that midfield pack. Alonso, who made the switch from Alpine to Aston Martin for 2023, undertook an eye-catching race simulation in representative evening conditions, indicating the AMR23’s potential.
“The car felt competitive across the three days, but we need to compare to the others next week,” said Fernando Alonso. “There is a lot of potential left for us to unlock and I think we are in a decent place heading into next week.”
Stroll Already Falling Behind
Lance Stroll has been a bedrock of Formula 1’s lower midfield in recent years, but amid Aston Martin’s desire to climb higher, and with the undiminished Fernando Alonso as his new teammate, the Canadian already enters the new season at least a little behind.
Stroll was the lone driver absent from the three-day test after sustaining minor injuries in a bicycle accident while training in Spain. It means Stroll’s only experience of the AMR23 can be drawn from just a handful of laps of Silverstone in damp conditions during Aston Martin’s shakedown.
Stroll can lean on Alonso’s experience, and he himself has forged relationships and understandings of Aston Martin’s nuances during his four years at the team, but it is a sizeable setback. The injuries will also have disrupted Stroll’s training program and rhythm during a crucial time of preparation ahead of the new season – and it cannot yet be certain when he will even manage to return to action.
Stroll is going to head to Aston Martin’s simulator to assess the situation and boss Mike Krack emphasized that the team will push the decision until as late as possible.
Felipe Drugovich, who replaced Stroll in testing, is the obvious choice in the event that Stroll cannot return to race.
De Vries' Experience Making a Difference AlphaTauri
Nyck de Vries is an atypical Formula 1 rookie.
At 28, he is relatively ancient when it comes to contesting a first full season. He is older than the current two-time World Champion Max Verstappen, and five years the senior of teammate Yuki Tsunoda, who is entering his third year in Formula 1.
De Vries has a wealth of experience from sports cars, Formula E, as well as Formula 1 roles at Mercedes, McLaren and Williams. That is quite a divergence from a team that usually hires fresh-faced youngsters straight out of junior divisions.
“I think that our engineers got a good technical feedback from his side,” said AlphaTauri team principal Franz Tost about De Vries’ late 2022 runs in the car. “He fortunately complained a lot about the car, because this was a wake-up call for the engineers. I hope that we can provide him with a car which performs in the way he likes it.”
De Vries provided AlphaTauri with “a long-to-do-list,” which the boss admired. “It was so funny, because the engineers wanted to argue that our solutions are good, but I said to them ‘look where we are in the constructors’ championship’.”
AlphaTauri finished a disappointing ninth in last year’s Constructors’ Championship.
Tsunoda added that De Vries’ feedback was “quite impressive – and I think definitely as a team gives us a step forward, so it’s good.”
AlphaTauri had a quietly productive test, completing 456 laps, the most of any team.
Sargeant Ready for the Real Thing
American Logan Sargeant will head into his Grand Prix debut as prepared as possible after a solid preseason test.
Sargeant drove Williams’ FW45 on Thursday afternoon, completing 75 laps, and was given the full day on Friday (Alex Albon drove all Saturday) as he added 154 laps to his tally. That gave him 229 laps, pretty much equivalent to driving four Bahrain Grand Prix races. And he completed the day and a half in the car without any reliability setbacks or dramas of note.
Sargeant was able to undertake shorter runs—in the unrepresentative daytime heat—before longer runs in the afternoon session, and evaluate different tire compounds.
“We got through so much, it’s a testament to the team to run that much, we were on a strict run plan—so credit to the team, we moved in the right direction, and it’s really positive,” said Sargeant. “I feel like I would like another day! But to be honest we were able to build and build and build and ended in a really happy place with the car. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
Williams is not going to be at the sharp end of the grid but the team is confident that the FW45 has addressed some of the main weaknesses of the limited 2022-spec FW44.
“Logan did an excellent job, completed a lot of useful work and although his preseason testing has been very short in time, he has been able to complete a lot of valuable laps,” said Williams’ head of vehicle performance Dave Robson.