Seven talking points from a disappointing 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

06th March 2023
Damien Smith

Thank goodness for Fernando Alonso. As world champion Max Verstappen waltzed to an easy win and Sergio Perez completed a comfortable Red Bull one-two, Alonso enlivened an otherwise deflating 2023 Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain with a fantastic drive that was rewarded with a podium third on his debut for Aston Martin. At 41, the great matador is back in contention, with a team that has made a remarkable leap in performance.


Verstappen and Red Bull in a league of their own

George Russell has already predicted Red Bull will win every single grand prix in this 23-race season, such was the superiority Verstappen and Perez showed on Sunday. From pole position, Verstappen’s 36th career win was never in doubt as he drove an unblemished race. Behind him, Charles Leclerc got the better of an initially sluggish Perez off the line and held on to second through the first round of pitstops. But Checo’s pace in the second Red Bull left Leclerc powerless when on lap 26 the Mexican swept past him on the run to Turn One. Wonderful for Red Bull, not so great for anyone else – including F1 as a whole, in a year in which the hopes of a multi-team title battle already appear to be wishful thinking.


Familiar woe for Leclerc

The bald fact is Verstappen finished 38 seconds up the road from Alonso, although it must be said Leclerc would likely have finished closer – had his Ferrari lasted. Yes, the Scuderia’s 2022 reliability woes returned with a vengeance in Bahrain when on lap 41 Leclerc suddenly lost power and pulled over into retirement. New boss Fred Vasseur shook his head on the pitwall as Piero Ferrari ran a hand through his hair in the garage. What a terrible and all too familiar way to start the post-Mattia Binotto era.

Carlos Sainz Jr. looked set to have inherited the podium finish, only for his countryman Alonso to come streaking by. Sainz did at least hold off Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes to secure fourth place and Ferrari had shown decent pace in qualifying, just like last year. But as Leclerc acknowledged later, it seems Red Bull’s race pace is on another world right now.


Alonso’s adventures on his way to third

“This is a lovely car to drive,” purred Alonso to his team on the radio in the closing stages of the Bahrain GP. You could say he’s satisfied with his decision to defect from Alpine.

But it had been a day that teetered at times on disaster. Alonso made an uncharacteristically bad start, dropping from his excellent fifth on the grid to seventh behind the two Mercedes. Then at Turn Four as he took a wide line into the apex, his team-mate Lance Stroll tagged the Spaniard’s right rear. Alonso was understandably nettled – and unaware it was the other Aston that had almost caused an embarrassing calamity. Fortunately both escaped without damage and Alonso soon got his head down.


The pass on Russell out of Turn Four and through the following sweepers was typical Alonso – and also confirmation that Aston has jumped from sixth in the constructors’ standings last term to be the third fastest team right now, and a genuine threat to Ferrari too. But there was even better to come. The two-lap battle with Hamilton was a rare highlight from the disappointing night race, as the old rivals jousted with style. How Alonso decided it with a surprise move into the Turn Ten hairpin was just what you’d hope for from such a battle between seasoned warriors. We might not see a better pass all year.

Leclerc retired a few laps later and suddenly a podium was in Alonso’s grasp, if he could demote Sainz. He chased his countryman down and the moment came on lap 46. Again, it could all have been thrown away at Turn Four when Alonso came a twitch away from contact with the Ferrari. But having survived the moment, he harried Sainz through Turn Ten and got a great run to pass on the straight before Turn 11. “Yes. Bye-bye,” he said with glee.

What a performance.


Sober defeat for Mercedes

Hamilton briefly looked set to push Sainz further down the order, but in reality the Mercedes never quite had the pace to beat the Ferrari. Fifth was as good as it was going to get and, as the seven-time champion glumly admitted, he only managed that because of Leclerc’s retirement. Team chief Toto Wolff has already admitted the decision to persevere with the waisted sidepod concept has backfired and that heavy revisions are needed. But in an era of the budget cap, the once-dominant team are facing another hard road to dig itself out of the mess its own designers and engineers have created – just like last year. It’s all looking a little bleak for the Black Arrows after a depressing first round.


Stroll shows grit in face of injury

Yes, he almost took out Alonso on lap one. But Lance Stroll also deserves credit for his performance in Bahrain given that he’s still in recovery from surgery on his damaged wrist. The Canadian missed the single pre-season test following his mountain bike fall and appeared to be a doubt for the race. But Stroll showed the depth of his determination and character to make it on to the grid, and he raced well too. Inevitably he was left in Alonso’s shadow, but passing and beating Russell to sixth completed a great day for the green team. Proud dad Lawrence Stroll had every reason to smile on Sunday night.


Bottas at his best for Alfa Romeo

The Aussie-style mullet and moustache suggest Valtteri Bottas isn’t taking life too seriously these days – but there’s clearly nothing wrong with his commitment to F1 and Alfa Romeo in his second season with the Sauber team. From 12th on the grid, he put in a great first lap to run eighth and maintained that position all the way to the chequered flag.

Behind him, Pierre Gasly saved a miserable opener for Alpine by finishing ninth from the back of the grid, while Alex Albon starred by seeing off Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri to score a valuable point for Williams in Tenth. Kudos too to his team-mate Logan Sargeant, who was the best performing of the three rookies and finished a decent 12th on his debut. Again, such a showing and result wasn’t a popular prediction in the build-up to the new season.


Horror show for McLaren duo and Ocon

What a disaster for McLaren and how humiliating for Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. Let’s take the latter’s race first. He picked up three penalties during the grand prix, the first for edging beyond his starting box on the grid. What a rookie error for a grand prix winner to make. Then as he pitted to serve his penalty, one of Alpine’s crew went to work on his car before the five-second punishment was up. That led to a further ten-second penalty – and when Ocon was caught speeding in the pitlane he had his ignominious hat-trick.

That leaves McLaren. Oh dear. Oscar Piastri appeared to acquit himself well in an uncompetitive car, only for an electrical gremlin to end his first F1 start after just 12 laps. As for Lando Norris, he qualified 11th as he once again outperformed his car, but then suffered a pneumatic pressure leak which forced him to pit every ten laps or so for top-ups of air.

A dreadful day for McLaren, only made worse when, in the IndyCar race over at St. Petersburg in Florida, Pato O’Ward briefly lost power four laps from home and handed victory to former Sauber F1 racer Marcus Ericsson. All in all, a day everyone at McLaren will want to forget – but never will.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1

  • F1 2023

  • Bahrain Grand Prix

  • Max Verstappen

  • Fernando Alonso

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