The 2023 Bahrain GP was a memorable season opener as Max Verstappen stormed to victory by a country mile. We saw on-track overtakes and some intense battles as the drivers battled for positions for points and bragging rights in the opening race. Verstappen got the maximum bragging rights and won the race with a 12-second gap to Perez, with Perez having a further 20-second gap to Alonso in 3rd. Red Bull were comfortably the best, with incredible raw pace, which helped them complete a radical strategy.
Ferrari, on the other hand, struggled. With Leclerc retiring from an engine issue, and Sainz losing P3 to Alonso, Ferrari had a disastrous day. Alonso, on the other hand, had a dream day in Bahrain. He defeated both the Mercedes cars and Carlos Sainz on track to score the podium. He had lost 2 places at the start, which is why he had to play the long game to gain positions later on in the race. We’ll be analysing Ferrari’s pain and Alonso’s gain later in this post.
Speaking of pain and gain, McLaren and Haas struggled at the 2023 Bahrain GP. Some other midfield teams & drivers like Williams, Bottas and Gasly had strong season openers. McLaren found themselves with Oscar Piastri DNF-ing due to an electrical issue with the steering wheel. Lando Norris finished in P17, meaning he was last on-track. He had a horrible 5-stop race and struggled constantly. Haas went from finishing P5 in the season opener last year, to finishing P13 and P15. Even though Hulkenberg had a surprising Q3 appearance, he fell down the order and saw himself fall out of the Top 10. It was a difficult race for them, with strategies that didn’t seem to work. Kevin Magnussen started the race on the hard tires, and couldn’t make up the deficit on the softs at the end. Nico Hulkenberg just had no race pace and struggled out on track.
Williams, on the other hand, had a fantastic race. Both the Williams drivers had strong starts, catapulting themselves closer to the points positions. Surprisingly, Logan Sargeant wasn’t too far off his more experienced teammate Alex Albon. Albon once again successfully scored points for Williams, finishing in P10, with Sergeant only 2 places off. It was a strong start and will hopefully lead to a more consistent season ahead. Valtteri Bottas had a fantastic Bahrain Grand Prix for the 2nd year in a row. He finished in P8, despite starting. He capitalized on a rapid start and a strategy that saw the top drivers ruining their strategies.
And now, let’s get into the detailed analysis! While the racing action itself wasn’t as exciting as last year, when reading between the lines, some incredibly interesting details and strategies arise from the 2023 Bahrain GP.
Alonso Catches Top Teams Napping
Fernando Alonso, take a bow! At the 2023 Bahrain GP, Alonso had a dream debut at Aston Martin. There were rumors after pre-season testing and Free Practice that Alonso and Aston would be faster than Ferrari this season. However, after qualifying, I believed that P5 seemed to be a more realistic result for Alonso. He was faster clearly than Mercedes, but I believed that Ferrari still had a pace advantage. However, I stand corrected after a fantastic podium result for Alonso.
Alonso proved the value of experience during this race. He did this through very strong tire management, pace management, regular and accurate feedback to his team, and racecraft. Let’s quickly break down what Alonso did to leapfrog Mercedes and Ferrari. He got a fairly weak start to the racing, losing 2 places to the Mercedes cars. However, he waited and watched as Russell struggled ahead of him. He knew that the dirty air of a car ahead can ruin that first stint on the soft tires.
That’s exactly what Russell was suffering from behind a slower Hamilton. Russell had ruined tires, which Alonso capitalized on having saved his own tires. They battled on Lap 13, and in an attempt to undercut Alonso, Russell pit at the end of the lap. Alonso then pushed in order to get an overcut on the Mercedes and then defend the position. Alonso performed the overcut successfully.
Next up, Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton and Sainz, who were ahead of Alonso, deviated off the optimum strategy due to protecting themselves from other drivers’ undercuts. However, Alonso, who had managed his tires, felt that they were still good, which is why he extended his first stint. That not only got him ahead of Russell, but it allowed him to have fresher tires than Hamilton. He then saved his tires at the beginning of the 2nd stint, and caught up to Hamilton towards the end of the stint, as he had done with Russell.
Due to the undercut threat, Hamilton was forced to make his final stop early, which Alonso didn’t react to. However, Sainz did, which will be crucial later on. Alonso said: “Traffic hurts a lot, it affects tyres a lot. Hopefully they find traffic.” He added: “We keep on going, tyres are still good.” That allowed him to build a tire advantage. Then, in the last stint, Alonso was on fire. He overtook Hamilton in an INCREDIBLE move down the inside into Turn 10. That’s a hugely risky and difficult overtake. And then, a few laps later, he caught up to Carlos Sainz. Alonso pressurized the fellow Spaniard for a few laps, before pushing hard and making a move stick.
After that, he found himself in clean air. The experience of 22 years in F1 proved to be valuable. Alonso knew the importance of getting into clean air, and used that to power through his rivals and secure a memorable podium at the 2023 Bahrain GP. His 99th career podium came on his 1st race with Aston Martin. Fantastic. Of course, Aston have designed a fabulous car, with innovation and aggressive designs. I have reason to believe that Aston Martin have leapfrogged the midifield and could potentially be a top team this year. I can’t wait to see their performances in the upcoming races!
Leclerc’s Race Ruined As Sainz Struggled
On Lap 41 of the 2023 Bahrain GP, Leclerc screamed “no power!” over the radio as his car slowed to a standstill. He was running in 3rd place, and was on course to secure a podium after a difficult race. A Ferrari spokesperson said that they seem to have “lost the engine on Charles’ car”. That is bizarre to me considering how they already replaced the energy store in his car prior to the race. The allocation of energy stores is only 2 energy stores in a year, meaning Ferrari and Leclerc will feel the effects of this engine issue further down the line. It’s a shocking problem that has surfaced, and is quite painful to watch as a Ferrari fan.
Considering how they started off with a 1-2 last season, and have finished the first race of this season with one driver DNF-ing and the other losing to an Aston Martin is a drastic change. It’s like Ferrari have been slipping down a slope since the beginning of the 2022 season; it seems to keep getting worse. Apart from the clear reliability issues, Ferrari are struggling on race pace. They just aren’t able to extract the best performance from their tires over a course of multiple laps.
It could link to tire wear, which is a recurring issue that Ferrari have faced in recent years. That Ferrari car seems to be very tough on its tires. This can be evidenced by both Charles Leclerc’s and Carlos Sainz’s struggles during long stints. Both drivers had to pit early off the soft and hard tires for their 2 pitstops, partly due to an undercut threat.
This left them helpless later on during a stint, especially in Sainz’s case when fighting Fernando Alonso. On the same tire compound, Alonso, as I explained earlier, was way faster. He had been able to manage his tires, and extend his tire life. And in this case, Red Bull were on another level. Max Verstappen pulled off a gargantuan 22-lap stint on the soft tires in the middle stint of the race – it was longer than his stint on the hards at the end!! Verstappen utilized the pace from the soft tires, but at the same time, managed his tires incredibly well to ensure they lasted and actually provided an advantage. Red Bull did the same with Perez, because Perez, as we all know, is the tire whisperer and is fantastic at managing them. Below is a live video of Perez’s overtake on Leclerc!!
Now, since Red Bull’s strategy team went for a radical strategy, it’s very easy to blame Ferrari’s strategy team. It’s easy to say that Ferrari’s strategy team had a poor strategy that lost them the race, but that’s not the case. For Red Bull to pull off a radical strategy like they did, they needed a car that could extract pace out of the tires for a prolonged period of time. And they needed drivers to be able to keep the tires fresh. On top of managing their tires, they needed their drivers to maintain a safe gap to the cars behind so that they didn’t lose places while saving their tires.
The RB19 is such a quick car that it’s very much possible to do that. However, the SF-23 is not that quick. Ferrari knew that they lacked race pace, which is why they had to go for a very conservative strategy. They were trying to protect themselves from the undercut threat that the Mercedes cars posed behind, or in Leclerc’s case, that Sergio Perez posed. But since Perez was also on that radical strategy, he built a strong gap on the much faster soft tires. That meant Ferrari were left in the dust.
In conclusion, Ferrari lacked overall pace and need to sort out their reliability gremlins. A faster and more consistent car will open avenues for strong strategies. The Bahrain International Circuit is a historically strong circuit for Ferrari, which leads me to worry about their performance in the upcoming races…
Ocon’s Penalty Frenzy and Gasly’s Great Race
Ocon got almost as many penalties as Argentina did in the 2022 World Cup! Except in Formula 1, receiving a penalty is no good. I feel very bad for Ocon, as he had to deal with a disastrous season opener. And what makes it even worse is that each penalty was given due to either Ocon or the team breaching the rules by the very finest margins.
First of all, the stewards gave Ocon a 5-second penalty for being out of position at the start. After observing video evidence, it is visible that Ocon’s right-front tire is slightly over the line of his grid spot. It was a very minute driver error, given that drivers have limited visibility and learn how to line up their car simply through memory rather than really being able to see the grid hatching. After the FIA picked up on that and awarded him a 5-second penalty, the team brought Ocon in for a pitstop, which is when they would serve that 5-second penalty.
However, things got even worse for him. Ocon received a 10-second penalty for incorrectly serving the 5-second penalty. When a penalty is being served in the pits, the mechanics are not allowed to work on the car until the time penalty is fully served. However, Alpine had an operational error, and the mechanics were given the go-ahead 0.4 seconds too early. Unfortunately, Ocon had to bear with another penalty because of that.
The pain did not end there. After Ocon came in for his 2nd stop, when exiting the pitlane, released the pit lane speed limiter too early. He released it too early by an incredibly fine margin, because he exceeded the speed limit by a mere 0.1 km/h. These mistakes that both Ocon and Alpine have made need to be fixed, because although they were very minor, they were very costly. Alpine decided to retire Ocon’s car from the race to save the power unit from wearing out in a race where they were going to finish last or in the last couple of positions. It’s safe to say that Ocon was incredibly unlucky at the 2023 Bahrain GP.
However, Pierre Gasly had a more successful season opener. He finished in the points positions in his first race at his new team. Gasly finished in 9th after a very strong race for himself and the team. Much to the contrary of drivers like Fernando Alonso, Gasly utilized an undercut strategy to gain places on the other drivers. He managed his race very well, and it paid off in the form of a points finish. Gasly was the first driver to pit in the entire race. He had a very short 9-lap stint on the soft tires.
But after the first stop, Gasly capitalized on the fresh set of hard tires, putting in some quick laps in order to gain an advantage on the undercut. Gasly’s stop set off a flurry of pitstops that saw almost the entire field pitting very early. The undercut on Gasly’s first stop proved to be powerful. He was in P18 before he pitted. After the first pit window, when a bunch of cars came into the pits, Gasly found himself in P12. He gained 6 places just because of the undercut. Gasly did the same for his 2nd stop onto the hard tires, which was also very early for a 2nd stop. He started off with some fast laps, and then gradually slowed down. After the 2nd stop, Gasly gained 1 position, promoting him to P12.
To seal the deal, Gasly pitted onto the soft tires during the Virtual Safety Car period that Leclerc’s retirement caused. Ironically, his last stint on the soft tires was his longest stint, and was 17 laps in comparison to his 16-lap and 15-lap stints on the hards. During that last stint, Gasly overtook Alexander Albon’s Williams to achieve a P9 finish, capping off a strong first race for Gasly at Alpine.
After an exciting season opener, the F1 world is left with a plethora of questions. Have Ferrari fallen off once again? Will Red Bull dominate this year’s championship even more than they did last year? The raw pace and the radical strategies will be incredibly hard to contest. And will Fernando Alonso become a championship contender? But the ultimate question that it will take all season to answer is: Will Max break the season opener curse? I can’t wait for the Saudi Arabian GP, thank you for reading, and enjoy F1ntastic!