In his first column of the 2023 season, Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reviews the Bahrain GP, as Red Bull made a "devastating" statement, Aston Martin "energised" the weekend, and Mercedes were left floundering after "accepting defeat" on their car concept
Wednesday 8 March 2023 18:31, UK
In his first post-race column of the 2023 season, Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle reflects on a dominant start from Red Bull and Aston Martin's feel-good rise to contention, and ponders the problems facing Ferrari and Mercedes.
Formula 1 is back and congratulations to Red Bull and Max Verstappen for a perfect start to the defence of their titles.
It was the first time Red Bull have been one-two on the grid and then finished one-two in the race since Abu Dhabi 2013, so basically the first time in the hybrid power unit era, which started in 2014. Surprising really, given their relative dominance last year too.
Talking to a couple of key people after the race it clearly wasn't as plain sailing for Red Bull as it looked. Both the cars had new oil inlet pipes fitted in parc ferme, and in the race they were managing critical transmission issues on both cars.
But whichever way you cut it Verstappen was cruising out front and it's not difficult to believe he could easily have been 10 seconds further up the road if required. Maybe much more.
I'm sure they had the motor turned right down too to save that high power mode energy for another day, and he could have won the race at will, whatever they did strategy wise. As it was, they did something other teams couldn't match - the soft-soft-hard tyre combo.
It was a devastating performance - the two Mercedes cars and the two Aston Martins were fighting hard among themselves all race as well as trying to catch the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz. And yet Lewis Hamilton was still 50 seconds behind Max at the end of the race, with George Russell even further back. The six-tenths per lap they were missing in qualifying was more like a second per lap in the race, and that's a shocker.
George said after the race that he believes Red Bull will win all 23 races, and while that might have been an emotional and disappointed reaction, you couldn't rule it out on the evidence we've seen so far.
A great car is a great car whether it's Monza or Monaco, and they'll take some beating not least in the calm, effortlessly fast, and now very experienced hands of Verstappen.
Red Bull's limitations, given the 'cost cap breach penalty' on wind-tunnel and CFD time, don't matter so much if you have a great car to start with. The only scenario that could hurt them would be if they were firefighting problems and playing catch-up, which they're clearly not. But inevitably reliability, driver errors, Safety Cars, or rain will destabilise them at some point.
It was a disappointing weekend for Ferrari, with Charles Leclerc retiring when on course for third place after an apparent issue with the electrical system in his Ferrari power unit.
Leclerc's failure came after Ferrari had to change the Energy Store (battery pack) in his car before the race, which was a surprise given you only have the use of two of those through the season before penalties kick in.
As for their general lack of race pace compared to the Red Bulls, they're saying it was down to the car set-up in race trim, but after three relentless days of testing in Bahrain and then a three-day GP weekend, it seems a bit odd that the set-up wasn't close to optimal.
Carlos Sainz struggled a little throughout the event and will be looking forward to putting that right next week in Saudi Arabia. Ferrari still look the closest challengers to Red Bull in this phase though.
Much credit must go to Aston Martin and their drivers Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll - they totally energised that race with some great side-by-side action. It would have been rather dull without them.
Fernando was at his absolute most feisty, aggressive, irrepressible best and made the final podium slot his own through sheer determination. And his tyres somehow survived his demands.
The skill with which Fernando passed both the Mercedes cars - including that cheeky move on Lewis into Turn 10 - and Carlos' Ferrari was brilliant. He was all over the back of them and whichever way they went, he sliced the other side with so much command and confidence. It was a pleasure to watch.
What Lance went through to get onto the grid let alone finish the race ahead of a works Mercedes was simply outstanding, bordering on unbelievable. I don't want it to sound negative about his previous exploits, but he massively went up in my estimation this weekend with his determination to drive the car despite tolerating the wrist and toe injuries that forced him to miss pre-season testing - that's the sort of spirit I like to see.
When he decisively got ahead of George, I assumed he simply had to physically fade at some point, but he didn't and held on to sixth.
It doesn't bear thinking about how different if could have turned out when the two Astons made contact at Turn 4 on the opening lap. It could so easily have been a right-rear puncture for Fernando and broken front wing for Lance. How it didn't puncture the sidewall, I don't know. Fernando got out of the car and said 'Lance, you're my hero', and thankfully he didn't have to use other words. It was amusing to hear him on the radio during the race demanding to know if whoever ran into him had been penalised…
In terms of Aston's prospects going forward, once again a good car works everywhere and gives the drivers confidence. Ferrari might well be a bit quicker than Aston and Mercedes over one lap, but when it comes to the longer stints there's little in it.
Because of their lowly championship finishing position last year, under the latest rules Aston Martin have so much more wind tunnel development time than their main three rivals. It's already a good package but if they know where to go to improve it, then by mid-season they could emerge as the major challengers to Red Bull.
That's doubly painful for Mercedes because Aston Martin have the same engine, gearbox and rear suspension and use the same wind tunnel. At this juncture Red Bull will pipe up that, due to personnel movements, Aston have followed their design philosophy remarkably closely. That's the playground politics of what is in effect a very small group of intensively competitive people.
It seems to me that Mercedes went the wrong way in 2022 and refuse to turn around. Even Lewis and Toto were openly expressing their disappointment at certain points of the weekend, and normally they only sing the praises of the teams at Brackley and Brixworth. It must be tense at the team right now; the quality is there it just needs direction and oxygen to calm heads.
'Zero-sidepod concept' is not the buzz phrase they'll want to hear again, but the mantra from the team was that to change direction would necessitate a step backwards first before working up and understanding a new philosophy of aerodynamics. George Russell has already said that he's prepared to suffer that pain for longer term gain.
They dogmatically turned the Mercedes into a late winning car last season, but I don't see or hear the appetite for another year like that.
In the early phases of the hybrid era, they had such a hugely dominant power unit - they haven't got that anymore. When the window was open to improve the power units, they lost out. They've also lost key people like Andy Cowell, James Vowles, and others, with James Allison also currently focused elsewhere. The remaining talent pool is immense, but it hasn't gelled yet.
And before changing the philosophy and architecture of a Formula 1 car you need to understand what you want and where you're heading, which is especially difficult in the cost-cap era 23 race season.
McLaren likely had the most disappointing weekend with neither speed nor reliability, with Lando Norris last of the 17 cars that finished, and Oscar Piastri forced to retire on his F1 debut.
Lando put on a brave face but told me after the race that his problems with a pneumatic pressure leak, which ultimately forced him to make six pit stops, started on lap one.
I assume they just wanted to run the car to see if anything else broke and to get a race distance experience, because otherwise it seemed like a waste of good engine mileage.
Although, maybe Esteban Ocon rivalled them in terms of a bad Sunday, as he equalled the record by being penalised three times during the race, beginning before the start lights even went out by not placing his car accurately in his grid box.
Penalties whilst serving penalties, at the same time getting a penalty for pit-lane speeding is quite the nightmare. That was one to forget for him and Alpine.
On a brighter note, what an impressive start from Logan Sargeant, who defied his standing as the least heralded of F1's three 2023 rookies to finish 12th on debut, just 10 seconds or so back from Williams team-mate Alex Albon.
To stay that close to Albon, who drove a fine race too while finishing 10th, was a super drive. Both Williams drivers stayed out of trouble, pushed hard, and rewarded their new team principal James Vowles.
It's now onto Saudi Arabia, where hopefully the considerably different challenges of the circuit layout will enable the pack to take it to the Red Bulls, who crave the predictable season we desperately don't want them to continually enjoy.