Formula 1 and it’s new dawn is now upon us. Testing is over and the Bahrain Grand Prix is nigh. But which team is looking strong? Is Aston Martin really as fast as it looks? Are Mercedes back into the hunt, or are Ferrari back from their chronic existential dread punctuated by moments of triumph? 2023 include a softer array of changes to the cars, mostly mandated towards porpoising elimination, which has indeed worked.
The teams have also managed to squeeze out laptimes and made their cars faster overall. So, I decided to dive into the treasure trove of data and dig out some interesting insights as to what could shape this championship of reckoning.
Now of course, this is just the round 1 of the 23 Formula 1 races this season and teams are just starting to get up to speed (pun intended) with their cars. But the purpose of the following analysis is to make a very educated guess as to how we can expect the teams to perform.
Buckle up for a nerd ride folks, of numbers and charts, for this is about to get wild!
The unanimous paddock favourites are, of course, Red Bull. Clearly the strongest team by far from testing data, aerodynamicist extraordinaire Adrian Newey’s pencil was clearly not dampened by FIA’s sanctions. Red Bull have opted for a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ route with their 2023 contender, polishing their bygone chariot from every angle and birthing the shiny new RB19. A more pronounced sidepod undercut, a floor edge with significantly more character and a pull-rod front suspension headline the changes, with Max Verstappen going on record to say the car has been improved everywhere.
All isn’t gilded for the title defenders, as they have been reported to change the RB19’s dynamics over the rear end ever-so-slightly towards Sergio Perez’s liking, with a more docile rear end (strange, I know) The Mexican also mentioned to media that his double-champion teammate ‘has been able to cope well with it’.
Coincidentally, Perez topped the timesheets on the third testing day, carrying over his momentum to FP1 and a 0.002 trail to Verstappen for FP2 at Bahrain. But to say Perez will straight up outperform Verstappen will be like saying Elon Musk making Twitter the best social network in the world: not impossible, but improbable.
Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying was also at the helm of Max Verstappen, as the Dutchman pipped his teammate by 0.138s and bagging his team their first pole under the Sakhir lights in since 2010 with a 1:29:708 lap. So, it is clear that Red Bull are the benchmark to beat, and oh boy would you look at the teams kicking around waiting about to pounce on an opportunity!
Perez seems to be a lot more confident this season with this ride, while braking later than Verstappen at most points on the track. Where Verstappen gains significantly is him being able to keep at full throttle for longer than Perez, and a subsequent advantage in traction. That said, these are kinks that can be ironed out fairly easily with car setup, so be ready to see a lot more of Perez-Verstappen action this year.
When you consider the wind tunnel sanctions that Red Bull has till August ’23 in addition to the mandated competitive disadvantage they have as the defending champions, you wonder if this potential handicap will make them rethink their upgrade strategies, opening up this perfect avenue for Ferrari and others to one-up them midway through.
Have Ferrari improved?
On the other end of the spectrum being accepted as the team with the heaviest of sandbags, Scuderia Ferrari went back to the drawing board this winter. After a commendable period of introspection, the Italian giants decided to fix their flaws and not live in denial, ironically. After refuting Mattia Binotto’s resignation rumours, the team roped in Alfa Romeo’s Frederic Vasseur as team principal and restore Ferrari’s French TP glory days (the Jean Todt-Michael Schumacher era, in case you needed help).
Feedback from drivers have been encouraging after Vasseur’s assumption of office, with a much appreciated strategy department rejig following suit. Inaki Rueda, then Ferrari’s chief strategist, was been replaced by Ravin Jain (yup, of Indian origin!), a man long at service as Ferrari’s race strategy engineer.
Coming to Ferrari’s greatest bane of existence in 2022 (apart from themselves), their power unit was revamped owing to an FIA rulebook exemption, also securing a power bump in the process. Ferrari themselves say their car will not blow up, but then again Hyundai India also says their cars are safe. So, you be the judge.
Considering the overhauls, it won’t be an absolute blasphemy to place them for a fight up top with Red Bull. Banking on last year’s proposition being a strong qualifier, the SF-23 at least on paper is a worthy contender for wins, even though their pace seemed to be the most hidden until qualifying.
How does Ferrari now compare against Red Bull? Numbers say they haven’t quite yet breached Red Bull’s comfort bubble. After sandbagging throughout the testing and practice sessions, Ferrari finally let their prancing horse loose in qualifying with Charles Leclerc bagging a 1:30:000 on the dot. A deficit of 0.292s, Ferrari are running a relatively lower downforce wing compared to Red Bull and that has helped them claw back their 325kmph top speed deficit against the energy drink powered team’s 323kmph in the speed trap.
Meanwhile, the Leclerc vs. Verstappen’s telemetry data paints a picture where the latter possesses a lot more control over braking into the high speed corners with a linear throttle application, evident of impressive traction, while Leclerc has a miniscule top speed advantage and the ability to brake marginally later.
Ferrari still aren’t optimistic about their tire degradation improvements, and paddock whisper isn’t either. The Scarlet Scuderia might have once again focussed more on one-lap pace and not on the lap-over-lap retention/generation of performance, and we can only wait and see if their race pace can improve to any scale with upgrades.
Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: probably yes?
Heh, what is that supposed to mean?!
That actually pretty much sums up their unimpressive and unsurprising testing presentation. The Brackley-based team could only wish they replicated their last blacked out car’s performance (the all-mighty W11), but on the bright side, their strict diet and sans-paint livery has made them the closest car to the weight limit.
Discounting an obvious victory over porpoising, the Mercedes engine power is not something to bloat of in particular. The aero package is a hit-&-miss, but can the out-of-the box concept make the car go as fast as it looks? Mercedes have retained the Zero-Pod concept by slightly increasing inlet area while splitting the airflow surfaces over the engine cover, which Toto Wolff now regards to as a mistake. Yup, it’s not even the first race and the howling Wolff regrets his design choices.
Overall drag is suboptimal, with top speed numbers backing up an unintentional magnitude of air resistance from its aerodynamic philosophy. The W14’s Bahrain setup incudes a low downforce rear wing, while practice and qualifying timesheets suggest a rather heavy loaded setup, revealing the high drag. The new wing helped them recover some top speed, but still a mere 319kmph in the face of Ferrari’s 325kmph (as if 319kmph is sloth-ey to us mortals).
A Verstappen vs. Russell plot of their qualifying times put a fairly straightforward image: the Red Bull can do basically everything better than the W14. Interestingly enough, through the slow speed corners, not the Red Bull’s forte either, Verstappen can maintain a higher speed for a lower percentage of lift off. This isn’t really a surprise, is it?
Compare Russell to Leclerc, and you see the gargantuan top speed and grip deficit that Mercedes has against the Ferrari. Through the fast middle sector, the SF-23 was able to maintain throttle for longer and with lesser lift-off, gaining that 0.2s out of Russell’s basket. Therefore, even though the W14 is more draggy, downforce isn’t too pleasant resulting in the lack of confidence in its drivers.
So with a healthy dose of upgrades, Mercedes can indeed get back to competitive ways, but as for winning, that’s a road ahead as long as the Nordschleife.
Addressing the elephant (read: the dark horse) in the room:
Aston Martin, to put it simply, are exceptional. The Silverstone team has managed to turn next to everyone’s heads in the Formula 1 world, with regular timesheet-topping outings throughout testing.
“But Priyam…” you might say, “testing times aren’t representative, teams are always sandbagging”.
Yeah, 41 year old Fernando Alonso also topped two of the three practice sessions for the Bahrain Grand Prix itself. Talk of a $20Million career move.
Aston Martin have clearly made a monster, and has the best cornering performance out of any car on grid. What this means, is that the AMR23 will practically be untouchable in tracks like Miami, Hungary and tracks which require a prowess over downforce. How have they managed to do that? In hindsight, by snatching Dan Fallows from Red Bull.
Ok I’ll admit that’s perhaps too harsh. But Lawrence Stroll’s pour of his sweet Benjamin’s are paying healthy dividends already. A unique waterslide sidepod design, a simplified floor edge and a lowered front wing have made them easily the 3rd fastest car on the grid, potentially even 2nd.
Data shows that the Aston AMR23 has the best lateral grip among any team. They are the ones to beat in slow speed corners, with Alonso being able to brake way later than the other front runners as well. Having a predictably behaving set of brakes under his left foot, Alonso also gets on the throttle earlier than most, carving himself a beautiful exit through turns 1, 8, 10 and the likes.
Affirmative, I am giving into the hype train and considering him a front runner up until there’s clear proof the green team isn’t.
When you conjunct to that Alonso’s race simulations on the final two days of testing, the front aero and suspension setup seems to be sweet music to the tires! Fuel loaded race-sim lap times indicated that the car goes incrementally pacier with every lap as the fuel burns out, and to top it off, an apparent negative tire degradation! In other words, tire management is perhaps its pièce de résistance, and guess who’s really bad at it? Of course, Ferrari.
FP2’s qualifying simulations at Sakhir poised him on pole, but with Ferrari still sandbagging the hell out of their bathtub sidepods. Fernando’s pace was on point towards the initial phases of qualifying, despite his Q3 lap not being ideal, and his P5 deficit to Verstappen was only 0.6s. Agreed, in Formula 1 terms that’s ages worth of time, but you have to consider this is Aston Martin against a peak performing, low fuel, engine mode cranked to eleven Red Bull, basically the benchmark of the 2023 grid. So it is only appropriate you cut the nouveau-riche team some slack.
Yes, time for some more Aston Martin data mongering (my readers might already be hating me for this).
So, how does Alonso compare to Verstappen, how bad is his deficit? Alonso qualified P5 with a 0.628s gap to the pole sitter. But plots are slightly more interesting than this. Clearly, there is a top speed deficit, thanks to the Mercedes powertrain and setup. Verstappen is simply faster considering the top speed data, while getting hand from a quicker responding Honda engine.
Take a look at the braking chart: Alonso outbrakes Verstappen at almost every turn, carrying more speed into the corner. When you take a look at the throttle map, Alonso one-ups Verstappen again as he impressively doesn’t even lift off through the turns 5-6-7 complex. In what is a demonstration of grip and car agility, Alonso can get to a lower speed than Verstappen, chuck his car around and get back up to RB levels just as quick. The 41 year old double world champion thus exhibiting a pure ballad of eminence, a racing equivalent of ‘point and shoot’! What a sight to behold.
Braking performance is mostly better than Ferrari, with the latter matching on certain occasions. Once again the AMR23’s characteristics are seen when you compare it to the W14, a sharp braking followed by a linear throttle application, and Alonso carrying considerable more grip through the slower corners while braking later. Clearly one of the biggest year over year leaps in performance in F1 history!
As for Lance Stroll, I would yet reserve my judgement on the Canadian, albeit his impressive P8 qualifying and non-eyebrow-raising practice outings, simply because of the fact that he isn’t performing at his top level. Stroll returned to the grid after skipping testing and just a couple of weeks of recovery from his bike accident-induced wrist fracture. He even went on the radio regarding not being able to follow his team’s directions owing to his incapacities. Given time to recover, I feel this man has the rightful potential to put some forehead wrinkles on his seasoned teammate.
What can Alpine vs. McLaren present to the Formula 1 table?
From the high side of F1 improvements to the low, McLaren is unanimously the biggest disappointment out of the bunch. The Woking-based team’s pace, or its lack thereof, has prompted pretty much every other pundit to keep them conservatively lower down the pecking order, and Bahrain’s qualifying seems to speak for it. If Piastri’s P18 is not worrying enough for him, the car is blisteringly aero-inefficient. Reliability also not something to be proud of, with the papaya team running the least mileage of all in testing. Drag levels are well beyond favourable limits, and upgrade packages aren’t to be seen anytime soon, at least not until Baku.
There’s not much to speak of McLaren, apart from Norris still driving his shitbox to Q2 and qualifying P11. Tire degradation is something to look for in the MCL60, although their 2022 brake overheat pangs have been dealt with. Cause behind McLaren’s pitiful state, you might ask? The paddock whisper is that they started off with one philosophy, then decided to scrap it and get back to the drawing board, thus coming up with a design that didn’t even meet their own targets. So much so, they are now poised to fight against the likes of Williams!
Don’t be surprised if you see McLaren fighting for P17, like Haas in 2021. At least feel pity for Oscar Piastri: after all that drama out and against Alpine, the Australian has perhaps started his Formula 1 career off with a classic Alonso switch!
And as for Alpine, they aren’t free of their own shackles. Found towards the lower ends of testing timesheets, Alpine themselves have gone full-blown stakeholder pleasing mode to say they are hopeful the A523 is fast. A 1.1s deficit to pole and a P20 qualifier, the French team’s French drivers haven’t been able to present data backing up their claims. But here’s how they stack up against McLaren and the other players.
From the rest of the Formula 1 grid, here’s what to expect:
First off, Haas. Capitalising on Ferrari’s engine and parts improvements, while bagging a sponsor for themselves in the form of MoneyGram, Haas now have on their backs the expertise of a very versatile driver and one with a knack for one-lap pace. Their aero package seems to work just as they expect it to, while test and practice sessions have placed them firmly at the midfield’s spire. Dare I say, if they can maintain the positive trajectory, that first Formula 1 podium won’t be too much of an ask.
Alfa Romeo: Again what seems like a quiet grid presence, the Swiss outfit is presenting another Formula 1 case of “yeah, ok”. Average performances in testing, a Q2 elimination in Bahrain make for a team that is far from the front-of-grid action, albeit should be a regular at the midfield’s pinnacle.
Alpha Tauri: continuing their lacklustre performance last season, the second Italian team could only be found towards the tail end of the table throughout testing. Even with the extraordinary services of the Dutch Formula E world champion Nyck de Vries, their qualifying once again wasn’t pretty, the rookie starting off at P19. Most expect a meagre performance from the Faenza outfit, the technical data is there to prove otherwise. So if upgrades are taken into consideration, we can see them fighting for points towards the summer break.
Williams: Formula 1’s fallen legacy outfit has made big strides, and I’d safely iterate that they are no longer the backmarkers, with improvements upwards of +1.2s over last year’s car. Recovered outright pace will not be taking them the distance, but their aerodynamic design is one for the books, in a good way that is. After parting ways with the wasted potential that was Nicolas Latifi and roping in James ‘Valtteri, it’s James’ Vowles from Mercedes, Williams are once again back in the development game, and it can only get better for them now on the backs of their rookie Logan Sargeant and Alex Albon.
So what does the Formula 1 pecking order look like?
If all this data influx comes off as overwhelming to you, you won’t be the first. Therefore at this juncture, let me summarise what I think could be the probable team performances as the season progresses.
- Red Bull: untouchable, undebatable. Newey’s engineering riot, unabated.
- Ferrari: limited Improvements, but not just to the car.
- Aston Martin: I’ve written enough to explain why…..
- Mercedes: heavily on the back foot, dire need of upgrades to survive
- Alfa Romeo: not that they’re good, the rest are mediocre.
- Haas: improvements and funding to (literally) bank upon.
- Alpine: gargantuan potential to improve, if upgrades are lined up right.
- Williams: better aero package and a lot of trackside experienced personnel.
- McLaren: you know why they are here.
- Alpha Tauri: half-baked car, again.
Formula 1 2023 has bunched up the field in ways absolutely no one expected. For reference, the Q1 timings spread throughout the entire field at the Bahrain GP qualifying was an earth shattering 1.128s!! This just goes to show how well the teams have coped towards the ‘23 floor-side changes, and even an infinitesimal mistake can cost teams a whole chunk of points. It is especially an upgrades’ game sliding down the season now: if you can keep up, the points are yours!
Formula 1 returns to the Bahrain GP right around the corner and will be the acid test for many-A-teams. Make sure to look out for our Race Review after the Grand Prix!
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