The start of the 2023 Formula One season brought with it renewed optimism of a potential championship battle between Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes following the former’s runaway conclusion to its previous campaign.
That optimism quickly and collectively shifted to thoughts of whether the imperious Red Bull RB19 in the hands of two-time reigning world champion Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez would actually be beaten this year.
After twelve events, Red Bull’s stranglehold of the top step of the podium is yet to be relinquished, as the energy drinks giant broke McLaren’s longstanding record from 1988 of consecutive wins for a team in a single season. And Verstappen himself mathematically has a chance to move into third all-time in terms of race wins, ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost.
It has been a season of maximal relentlessness thus far for the 25-year old; ten of Red Bull’s twelve wins are the Dutchman’s, while the three Sprint races run so far also have gone the way of Verstappen. Winning grand prix is simply inevitable, given the harmonious union between the championship leader and his RB19.
That’s something that cannot be said of his teammate Perez, who despite being flattered into championship contention by two impressive wins in the opening four races, is only just recovering out of a form slump that saw him fail to make it to Q3 in qualifying for six consecutive events.
Realistically, Perez’s objective for the team is to ensure a one-two finish in the championship, while titles for both Verstappen and Red Bull are guaranteed. Even during the dominant early 2010s for Red Bull, they’ve not yet had a one-two finish in the overall standings.
Max Verstappen. (Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Disappointing then, has been the lack of apparent competition to Red Bull’s reign as Ferrari again appear to have regressed despite ‘on paper’ having the quickest car in this new era of ground-effect regulations.
New team principal Frederic Vasseur, while projecting calmness publicly has seen the losses of key personnel in Dave Sanchez and Laurent Mekies. The pre-season benching of under-fire strategist Inaki Rueda has also done little to divert Ferrari away from indecision and lack of confidence on the pitwall.
Mercedes, off the back of their São Paulo Grand Prix victory at the end of 2022, were convinced their ornate ‘no sidepods’ concept was indeed worth sticking with coming into the new season. This development path was finally abandoned by the Spanish Grand Prix, as well as the sideways reshuffle between technical chiefs in Mike Elliott and James Allison, which saw the latter reinstalled as the out-and-out car designer.
Some positives though for the Silver Arrows, coming in the revival of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s form. The 38-year old endured his first winless season in Formula One and with his current Mercedes contract expiring at season’s end, the upturn in performance relative to junior teammate George Russell and positive noises regarding the development direction after ditching the no-pods all point to Hamilton signing on.
With the relative lack of progress made by the aforementioned two teams in comparison to Red Bull, the real surprise early in the season was to see the gains made by the Lawrence Stroll bankrolled Aston Martin. From finishing seventh in the constructor’s standings in 2022 akin to purgatory, the Silverstone based underdogs finally threw a legitimate punch at F1’s heavyweights and put other midfield mired outfits like Alpine and McLaren on notice.
Fernando Alonso’s move away from Alpine to Aston Martin amidst four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s retirement in 2022 was at first laughable, though the pre-season hype was vindicated with a podium in Bahrain, as well as a refreshing wheel-to-wheel duel with old foe Hamilton.
Six podiums from the first eight races had Aston Martin as high as second in the constructor’s championship, though progress made by Mercedes and McLaren in more recent events has seen them slip down in the pecking order. Whether or not the British racing green machine with Alonso could’ve delivered a win in Monaco is a debate to be had with hindsight, but what matters is the low standards of many critics including this writer, that they’ve inverted so far.
If only the same could be said about Alonso’s teammate Lance Stroll, who despite heroically starting the season in Bahrain recovering from broken wrists has largely stood in the shadow of the Spaniard, and has barely scored a third of the points the two-time world champion has.
An obvious question, if only a board member is brave enough to ask at Aston Martin; is whether Stroll junior is a liability to team’s desired trajectory.
With Aston Martin, McLaren have also shot up from the midfield after their less than impressive start to the ground-effect era. While Bahrain seems like a distant memory, where rookie Oscar Piastri retired on debut and Lando Norris undertook umpteen pit-stops to service a pneumatic pressure issue with a car barely capable of making out of Q1 – to now be in contention as second quickest team to Red Bull, has to be one of the most remarkable turnarounds.
New team boss Andrea Stella in the pre-season tempered expectations, stating their season wouldn’t properly begin till the fourth round in Baku, when the first of their B-spec upgrades for the bareboned MCL36 would start coming. Regular updates including seismic ones in Austria and Silverstone have really catapulted them towards the podium.
Oscar Piastri. (Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
How tantalising the thought is though that Piastri is close to a maiden F1 podium in his rookie season? Especially given the acrimony around his predecessor’s departure and negative narrative around McLaren as a team. The 22-year old is not only closer to the highly rated Norris on the relevant metrics, but has shown such composure in pointy-end moments such as going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen on the opening lap at Silverstone, or leading the Sprint race in Belgium.
With the rise of Aston Martin and McLaren, there is little that Alpine can do after the season they’ve had so far. All of which has been well documented in depth on this column. The stark reality is that, they’ll be lucky if they make any further gains this season to bridge the gap to the top five.
There has been massive intrigue too at the back end of the field, with the likes of Williams – courtesy of some stellar Alexander Albon performances – ahead of Haas and Alfa Romeo, who were expected to be closer to the rest of the midfield.
Under the new leadership of James Vowles, the team is slowly but surely bringing itself into modern-day Formula One – which for the future bodes well, with the arrival of Pat Fry from Alpine to head up their technical department.
If only the same could be said about their rookie in American Logan Sargeant, who’s largely had an anonymous campaign to date apart from being on the cusp of a maiden point at the British Grand Prix. Albon has comprehensively had his teammate covered, though again it would be good to see how the Floridan progresses in the second half of the year.
Daniel Ricciardo. (Photo by Mario Renzi – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
The Alfa Romeo-Sauber outfit looks like a group that are sorely waiting around till the injection of funding from their upcoming Audi takeover kicks in. Retaining the lineup of Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou was positive, although the car has lacked performance to really push a claim further up the field.
Haas are similar in terms of car performance. The error-strewn sophomore season for Mick Schumacher in 2022 was the reason for replacing him with a known quantity and midfield specialist in Nico Hülkenberg. Though not even the German’s flashes of brilliance and outperforming of Kevin Magnussen can right the fact the Haas is a great qualifying car, but cannot translate that to tyre management in the race.
Leaving us then with AlphaTauri and even with the relative inexperience in having Yuki Tsunoda and not-a-rookie but well credentialled Nyck De Vries as the driver lineup, there wasn’t a whole lot of thought that they’d be as dismal as they’ve been.
Last in the championship, though spared the indignity of no points thanks to Tsunoda trio of tenth places, the once famed breeding ground for Red Bull F1 junior drivers has really lost its way.
The underperforming De Vries was axed ten races in, to be replaced by ex-Red Bull alumni Ricciardo but perhaps what was more galling was the admission by senior motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko that he should’ve listened to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner’s advice and avoided signing the Formula E world champion.
Regardless, it will be intriguing to follow the direction in which the soon-to-be renamed AlphaTauri goes, ahead of the rebrand in 2024 and arrival of Mekies and the FIA’s Peter Bayer to replace the outgoing stalwart team boss in Franz Tost. On-track, the only thing to look forward to will be if Ricciardo can recapture his former mojo.
Ten races remain then in 2023, with three more Sprints and the hotly anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix still yet to come. While the lack of a title fight might dampen some viewers, the battles in progress and evolving behind Verstappen will suffice as the price of admission for now.