HomeTop StoriesF1 season preview: Who's hot and who's not

F1 season preview: Who’s hot and who’s not

SAKHIR, Bahrain — After three days of testing in Bahrain, Formula One is just seven days from the first race of the new season on March 5. The single preseason test ran remarkably smoothly for the vast majority of teams, but it was clear by the evening of the final day that some are much happier than others.

Below is a ranking of the teams based on the data available from the Bahrain test and conversations in the paddock over the three days. Thanks to the vast number of variables at play, raw lap times from testing are notoriously unreliable for predicting true performance, but that hasn’t stopped us trying.

The Formula One season starts with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 5, live on ESPN at 9.55AM (Eastern time).

1. Red Bull

Last year: 1st

Fastest preseason lap: 1:30.305 – Sergio Perez (C4 tyre)

Total laps: 413 (5th overall)

Red Bull looked like the class of the field throughout testing and appeared to have the best single-lap and long run pace at the Bahrain International Circuit. The team went about its test in a confident manner, completing a race simulation on the morning of the second day with stint times that still looked competitive compared with those of rival teams on the final day, once track conditions had improved.

Sergio Perez‘s fastest time on Saturday evening comes with all the usual caveats about fuel loads and engine modes, but it was still 0.3s faster than Lewis Hamilton in second place despite Perez using a tyre compound a step harder. Factor in the difference in performance between the C4 compound used by Perez and the C5 used by Hamilton and Perez’s advantage was closer to 0.7s over Mercedes.

Ferrari opted against joining the performance runs on the final evening of testing, making it harder to draw a single-lap performance comparison with Red Bull. The timings of the race simulations of the two teams didn’t make for an easy comparison either, but taking into account a few variables, Red Bull appeared to have a long run advantage of roughly 0.3s over Ferrari.

Combine that with almost every other team in the paddock pointing to Red Bull as the team to beat, and it would be foolish to put anyone other than the world champions at the top of this list ahead of the first race.

What they said

Reigning world champion Max Verstappen: “The car is working really well. Just going through a lot of things that we wanted to try, and everything is very interesting, what we have been trying. So very positive days for me. And just in general enjoying driving the car.”

2. Ferrari

Last year: 2nd

Fastest preseason lap: 1:31.024 – Charles Leclerc (C4)

Total laps: 416 (3rd overall)

Ferrari enjoyed three smooth days of testing in Bahrain, but unlike last season — when it emerged as the clear favourite ahead of the first race — it appears to be playing catch-up to Red Bull this year. Direct comparisons between Ferrari and Red Bull — such as long runs or performance runs on the same tyre compound at a similar time of day — were hard to come by over the three days, but that didn’t stop a theme running through the data in Red Bull’s favour.

In terms of raw fastest laps, Charles Leclerc‘s best effort was 0.7s off Perez’s benchmark, with both drivers using the same C4 tyre compound. But that comparison comes with one very obvious problem in that Ferrari was chasing lap times during the heat of the midday sun while Perez set his time once the sun had set and the track had cooled to a more favourable temperature for the tyres. Each team has a different approach to testing, and Ferrari opted to use the best of the track conditions on the final day to work through the opening stints of a race simulation with Carlos Sainz rather than trade fastest lap times with its rivals.

As mentioned above, from the few glimpses of long run data that cross over between the two teams, the gap between Red Bull and Ferrari looks closer to 0.3s, but again the different approaches to testing mean that figure is hard to trust.

One concern surrounding Ferrari’s heavy fuel running was tyre degradation, which was also a weakness of the car in the second half of last season. During this week’s test, the pace of the car tended to drop off over each lap of a longer stint, whereas some rivals, particularly those running heavy fuel in the evening sessions, appeared to be more consistent.

Speaking to the media on the final day of the test, new team principal Fred Vasseur played down the concerns. He said his engineers had been working through a wide range of setup options, which might have resulted in alarming numbers on the timing screens but was in fact a result of the team pushing the limits to better understand the car.

It’s also important to remember that the Bahrain International Circuit is one of the most punishing tracks on the calendar for an F1 car’s rear tyres, and any gap to Red Bull in Bahrain might be a symptom of track characteristics at one of 23 circuits on the upcoming schedule.

More generally, Vasseur appeared satisfied with his team’s approach to testing and went to great lengths to discourage comparisons between teams because of the different run plans.

What they said

Ferrari boss Vasseur: “Whenever we managed to put everything together, the performance seemed to be there, but we are clearly still in the process of getting to know the car, so it’s too early to say anything. The mood in the team is perfect, and we are in a good shape to start this long season.”

3. Mercedes

Last year: 3rd

Fastest preseason lap: 1:30.664 – Lewis Hamilton (C5)

Total laps: 398 (7th overall)

The good news for Mercedes is that testing went a lot better this year than it did 12 months ago. The bad news is that the gap to Red Bull still looks too big for Hamilton and George Russell to compete for victories from the first race in Bahrain.

Mercedes is no longer suffering from the bouncing that limited its development at the start of last year, but curing that issue alone is clearly not enough to put the team back at the very front. While Mercedes seems confident it has a better platform on which it can develop, the behaviour of the car on track is still causing issues for the drivers.

Day 2 of the test was particularly tricky as windy conditions amplified the issues with the car’s balance, resulting in Hamilton catching huge drifts between corners in the morning session. To make matter worse, a hydraulic issue cut the team’s day a couple of hours short — a significant chunk of track time to lose when testing is limited to just three days.

Overnight work in the team’s simulator at its factory resulted in a more predictable car for the drivers on the final day, with Russell completing a race simulation in the morning before Hamilton set the team’s fastest lap time in the evening. Hamilton’s best was 0.3s off Perez’s benchmark time for the test but that was with the Mercedes on the softest C5 tyre compound and the Red Bull on a the slightly harder C4 compound. Compare Hamilton’s best C4 time from the same evening and it was over 0.9s off Perez.

The long run pace, which is often a more reliable indication of true performance, suggested a smaller gap of around 0.3s-0.6s as Hamilton and Perez both went out on heavy fuel runs on the C3 tyre in the late afternoon of the final day. But because they weren’t doing like-for-like race simulations, it’s still possible for fuel loads to skew that comparison by a few tenths.

Rather ominously for Mercedes fans, Hamilton said his team still “had a mountain to climb” after jumping out of the car on the final day.

What they said

Lewis Hamilton: “The bouncing that we had has pretty much gone. That’s a huge step for us. It’s nice to drive it without the bouncing in the corners. But there are still some underlying things that we are working through.”

4. Aston Martin

Last year: 7th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:31.440 – Fernando Alonso (C4)

Total laps: 387 (8th overall)

Although testing can be misleading, it seems safe to say that Aston Martin has made the biggest step forward over the winter. Not only did it emerge from the three days in Bahrain as the likely leader of the midfield pack but there is a belief in some corners of the paddock that it might be able to take the fight to Mercedes in the opening race.

A lot of the hype around the team is based on a race simulation by Fernando Alonso at the end of the final day. Setting out just after sunset, Alonso completed the 57 laps over three stints, using the C3 compound first, followed by the C1 and the C2. The car’s tyre management appeared exceptional, with Alonso setting the fastest time of his second stint the lap before he returned to the pits for his final pit stop and then setting the fastest lap of his entire race simulation — a 1:36.125 — with five laps remaining.

But the big caveat is the time at which Alonso completed the race simulation on Saturday evening, as he benefited from the best track conditions of the three days. Team principal Mike Krack played down some of the excitement, saying the presence of multiple cars on track using the softer compound at the same time significantly ramped up the grip level on the final evening.

No other driver completed a full race simulation at the same time of day to directly compare with Alonso, although his average lap times from the opening stint looked in a similar ballpark to those of Sainz, who was lapping in the Ferrari on the same tyre compound. Again, the Ferrari started fast but seemed to suffer from tyre degradation more than the Aston Martin.

On single lap pace, Alonso’s best effort was 1.1s off Perez’s benchmark on the same C4 tyre compound and 0.8s off Hamilton’s time on the C5. Perez and Hamilton both benefited from setting their times later in the day, and, correcting for Hamilton’s tyre compound advantage, it’s possible to make the case that Alonso’s “true” pace was within a couple of tenths of that of the Mercedes.

What they said

Fernando Alonso: “We’ve been experimenting a little bit with very different routes on setups, and we always found positives on these new routes, so there is a clear indication that we need to change philosophy in many things on this car compared to last year’s car. And that is a concern in a way, because we will need a couple of races to optimize the package.”

5. Alpine

Last year: 4th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:32.762 – Pierre Gasly (C3)

Total laps: 353 (9th overall)

Alpine flew under the radar during testing, but the confidence within the team and its respectable long run pace suggest it remains among the top five teams going into the new season.

Based purely on the fastest lap data, it would be easy to write Alpine off (it was the 10th-fastest team by the end of the three days), but the lack of glory runs is consistent with the team’s approach to testing in previous years and further proof that the time sheets tell only a fraction of the story in testing. Alpine opted not to use either of the two softest tyre compounds during the test and on the first day used only the C1 and C2. Its fastest lap was set on the C3 tyres, and even then rival teams believe the car was running with a significant amount of fuel in the tank based on the testing habits of Alpine in the past.

Long run performance looked solid, with the team saying it was confident in its performance and its rivals marking it out as a solid midfield runner. Another positive was that major changes to the car over the winter — including its switch from pull-rod rear suspension to a push-rod design — worked in line with the team’s expectations. An upgrade package is also planned for the first race, and the team is confident it can unlock more performance

What they said

Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer: “I’m cautiously optimistic, if you want to coin a headline… ‘Szafnauer cautiously optimistic’! My optimism comes from our long run pace looks pretty good and that we’ve had decent feedback from the drivers, they’re happy with the car, it’s predictable, there’s no gremlins, snappiness.”

6. Alfa Romeo

Last year: 6th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:30.827 – Valtteri Bottas (C5)

Total laps: 402 (6th overall)

Much like last year, Alfa Romeo looks set to make a strong start to the season in 2023. The team found itself at the top of the time sheets on the second day of the test and third fastest on the final day, although those times have the potential to be misleading based on the team’s history of flattering to deceive in testing.

Nevertheless, Valtteri Bottas logged a promising race simulation on the morning of the final day, which had average lap times that compared very favourably with those of fellow midfield rivals AlphaTauri, who were on track at the same time. The lap count was also promising for a team that struggled with reliability last year, although a technical issue (the team didn’t specify exactly what) stopped the car on track on the morning of the final day, resulting in one of the few red flags of the week while the car was recovered.

Sixth to tenth in this ranking appears to be the tightest part of the grid, so it’s entirely possible that some of the teams lower on this list could turn up at the first race with updates or solutions that move Alfa Romeo down the order.

What they said

Alfa Romeo technical director Jan Monchaux: “We can be satisfied about these three days of solid work. The most important thing when having limited testing is to tick off all the boxes, and we’ve managed to do that: we collected plenty of data, and I feel we’ve prepared for the season as best as we could.”

7. Haas

Last year: 8th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:31.381 – Kevin Magnussen (C4)

Total laps: 414 (4th overall)

For a team that always seems to attract drama, Haas had an incredibly smooth three days of testing. All the signs of a solid test were there, with decent mileage, a respectable performance run on the final day (Kevin Magnussen was seventh fastest overall using the C4 compound) and a full race simulation.

On single-lap performance, Haas looks as if it might have the edge over Alfa Romeo once the visible variables such as tyre compounds are taken into account, but the long run data told a different story, with Bottas’ strong race simulation edging Magnussen’s effort on the final day.

Either way, the battle looks close between the two Ferrari engine customers, and Haas will be hoping its decision to opt for two experienced racers in Magnussnen and Nico Hulkenberg will pay off if points are up for grabs in the opening races.

What they said

Haas boss Guenther Steiner: “I call this the best test because last year was our worst test, we were down so much. This year we went through our full programme, almost everything. We lost a few runs because of the throttle issue we had, but not a lot.”

8. McLaren

Last year: 5th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:32.160 – Lando Norris (C3)

Total laps: 312 (10th overall)

By its own admission, McLaren is someway short of where it wants to be ahead of the first race. New team principal Andrea Stella revealed his design office had missed its targets regarding aerodynamic efficiency over the winter, and after analysing the performance of its rivals, McLaren believes it has slipped down the order as a result.

The lap times back that up, with both drivers in the second half of the time sheets by the end of the final day, albeit with fastest times set on the relatively slow C3 compound. More tellingly, there were few signs of a silver lining from McLaren’s long run pace — partly due to an overall lack of mileage as a result of reliability issues and the need to strengthen winglets on the front of the car to complete the final day of testing.

McLaren has been relatively open about its preseason struggles so far and is now pinning its hopes on aerodynamic upgrades that are scheduled for the fourth round of the season in Baku. In the meantime, the opening three races could prove frustrating for the team, especially if upper-midfield rivals Aston Martin and Alpine follow through on their testing performances.

What they said

McLaren boss Andrea Stella: “We didn’t take a step backwards. We just didn’t develop fast enough. I think we will see again that the midfield is very compact. And this means that if you don’t do a good enough job, even in setting up and maximising what you have, you may struggle to get out of Q1. At the same time, you might be a Q3 contender.”

9. AlphaTauri

Last year: 9th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:31.261 – Yuki Tsunoda (C5)

Total laps: 456 (1st overall)

AlphaTauri’s test was one of the hardest to read into, with impressive single-lap pace but less impressive long run performance. Its position towards the bottom of this list is based on the latter as well as the team’s history of showing promise in testing only to fall short of expectations when it goes racing.

Yuki Tsunoda set the sixth-fastest time of the test using the C4 compound — putting him 0.12s ahead of Magnussen’s Haas using the same compound and in the same ballpark as Bottas once the Alfa Romeo’s use of the faster C5 tyre compound is taken into account. Counting against AlphaTauri were the average lap times of Nyck de Vries‘ race simulation on the same day, which hinted at a different story.

The Dutch rookie was on track around the same time as Bottas but appeared to suffer more from tyre degradation in each stint, finishing with average lap times over a second off the Alfa Romeo. That margin seems too big to be entirely accurate — especially as Tsunoda turned in a better performance during a race simulation on Friday morning — but in such a tight midfield, it’s enough to move AlphaTauri down this order.

On the plus side, the team completed more mileage than any other during the three days, suggesting reliability won’t be an issue.

What they said

AlphaTauri chief race engineer Jonathan Eddolls: “[On Saturday] we made the most progress out of the three days in terms of understanding the car, optimizing the tyres, aero work and setup, which seems evident in the lap times. Clearly, everyone is on different plans, especially in terms of fuel loads, so we are being realistic in our expectations for performance at the start of the season, but we believe we should be able to put up a fight with the midfield group.”

10. Williams

Last year: 10th

Fastest preseason lap: 1:32.549 – Logan Sargeant (C5)

Total laps: 439 (2nd overall)

Although Williams looks likely to remain at the back of the grid at the start of the new season, there were some clear positives from its three days of testing in Bahrain. The FW45’s mileage was impressive, with the second-highest lap count over the three days, and its increase in performance compared with last year was the biggest of any team — with a 2.3s gain from its fastest time in Bahrain testing in 2022.

Both drivers still finished in the bottom quarter of the weeklong time sheets, but their times are somewhat misleading. All of Williams’ performance runs were completed in the middle of the day as its engineers chose to save the best track conditions in the evening for long runs.

Much like Alonso in the Aston Martin, Albon seemed to benefit from the cooling track conditions in the evening of the final day to set consistently fast laps over long runs without the degradation many teams suffered while running on a heavy tank of fuel in the heat of the day.

Overall, the team is better placed than it was a year ago but remains the most likely candidate for being knocked out in the first stage of qualifying.

What they said

Alex Albon: “We’re definitely in a better place in comparison to this time last year, it’s just more about how far we can take it.”

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