Is it March yet? Why, yes it is, which means the new Formula 1 season is set to start this Sunday with the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Pre-season testing, like spring training baseball, can inspire optimism but the true test doesn’t begin until there’s something on the line.
We’ve already analyzed the driver and team lineups plus offered some bold predictions, now here are some burning questions we’ll be looking for clarity on when the 2023 campaign gets underway.
Will Verstappen and Red Bull repeat as champions?
Max Verstappen is coming off of a banner season winning a record 15 races to successfully defend the drivers’ championship. Teammate Sergio Perez chipped in a pair of victories as well and finished third overall as Red Bull claimed its first constructors’ title since 2013.
They’re still the kings of the castle until proven otherwise.
To think they could have had an even better season in 2022 had they not been hampered by reliability and weight issues to start the year. A disastrous debut saw both Verstappen and Perez bow out from the Bahrain GP due to mechanical issues. According to Verstappen, this year’s model is a “100 per cent” improvement over the car they brought to the track a year ago.
“(The weight) was the issue at the beginning of last year,” Verstappen told to formula1.com. “(We) already improved across last year; this car has a few different things on it but from the start felt much more to what I liked.”
That bodes well for Red Bull and spells bad news for the rest of the field.
Does Ferrari have a chance?
Of course, Ferrari has a chance! Wait, you’re not also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, are you? Ferrari haven’t won the constructors’ championship since 2008 while their drivers’ title drought extends another year back to 2007.
Ferrari looked like a force out of the gate last year with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finishing 1-2 in Bahrain. If you’re a Ferrari fan you’ll want to just skip to the next paragraph now and avoid opening old wounds. Ferrari struggled with reliability issues as the season progressed and some puzzling pitstop strategies only made matters worse. Despite securing pole position a combined 12 times, compared to seven for Red Bull, they were only able to convert three of those opportunities into wins.
Something had to give and team principal Mattia Binotto took the fall. Frederic Vasseur is now calling the shots and the former Sauber boss must instill a winning culture you often hear when a team hires a new coach or GM.
Leclerc and Sainz are a proven formidable pair. Although Leclerc was a distant second, he finished second nonetheless in the championship with a career-best season. Meanwhile, Sainz scored his first career victory at Silverstone.
Leclerc, who held the lead briefly during Day 3 of testing, has his eyes firmly on the prize.
“I feel like Red Bull is a little bit ahead, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Leclerc told formula1.com. “It’s only the first race of the season (and) the season is extremely long. … Last year we finished second in the drivers’ and constructors’ championship, now the next step to improve is being a world champion, so this is still our target.”
Can Mercedes return to the top?
“Everybody has a target on their backs next year.” Those were the chilling words from Mercedes boss Toto Wolff in the Season 4 finale of Drive To Survive that dropped on the eve of last season.
The “Mercedes Revenge Tour” didn’t materialize, however, with their record eight-year reign as constructors’ champions coming to an end. Mercedes were plagued with “porpoising” issues to start the year and Lewis Hamilton finished the season winless for the first time in his illustrious career.
New driver George Russell provided plenty of positives though as he finished on the podium eight times including his maiden F1 victory in Sao Paulo. Even without a win, Hamilton didn’t have a “bad” season per se, just when you win six drivers’ championships in a seven-year span, sixth overall in the standings can seem like a letdown.
Mercedes weren’t at their best in pre-season testing although they certainly have the resources to get back on top eventually. Wolff also hinted they’re “still hiding a little bit” so we’ll just have to wait and see if they’re bluffing or not.
Is the Aston Martin hype for real?
Aston Martin — yes, Aston Martin — were the buzz of pre-season testing with Fernando Alonso and reserve driver Felipe Drugovich (filling in for Lance Stroll) leaving quite the impression. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner called them the “most improved” team while Russell is expecting Aston Martin to battle Ferrari for second place in Bahrain.
Considering they’ve finished seventh in the constructors’ championship for the past two seasons, Aston Martin really have nowhere to go but up, however, those are also quite the compliments from the field.
It was a bit puzzling when Alonso left Alpine despite finishing ninth in the championship but maybe the two-time world champion was onto something. Alonso might have also been fed up with reliability issues as he had five retirements in 2022 while Stroll and the now-retired Sebastian Vettel had fewer combined with two apiece.
Stroll, who is now the lone Canadian on the grid, appears good to go for the opener after sustaining a wrist injury while cycling that forced him to miss pre-season testing.
Who will struggle this season?
All signs point to McLaren as the likely culprit at least at the start of the season. CEO Zak Brown already admitted they were behind their projected targets while Lando Norris finished 11th and rookie Oscar Piastri was 16th during the final day of pre-season testing. Their fortunes could change once their upgrade package arrives in late April for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but that’s four races away and McLaren could already be facing an uphill battle by then.
There’s also the question of “do they or don’t they get along” at Alpine between Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly. The childhood frenemies appear to be getting along at the moment but keep an eye out if they happen to be near each other on the track.
What else can fans look forward to in 2023?
• Sprint qualifying has doubled from three events to six this year. Whether you love or hate them, they definitely add an extra element of intrigue to the schedule. Azerbaijan, Austrian, Belgian, Qatar, United States (Austin, Texas) and Sao Paulo Grands Prix will feature Saturday sprints while the Emilia Romagna GP has reverted to a traditional format.
• The Canadian Grand Prix returns to Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on June 18. Drivers and teams should be in mid-season form when the ninth stop on the calendar rolls along.
• Call it the Drive To Survive effect as there will be three races held in the United States during the same season for the first time since 1982. On top of the aforementioned Austin event, Miami returns for its second year while a new street track on the Las Vegas strip makes its debut as the penultimate Grand Prix of the year. Las Vegas knows how to put on a show and it’ll be interesting to see how F1 rolls the dice on Nov. 18.