Formula One’s Bahrain Grand Prix: Continuation of Red Bull’s Reign?

The first weekend of the 2023 Formula One season took place at the Bahrain International Circuit, as has been tradition for the post-COVID race calendar. Qualifying saw teams clustered surprisingly close together in the first round, as all 20 drivers finished within a 1.1 second range. The sharp curbing and strict enforcement of track limits proved to be challenging, especially for Ferrari’s Charles LeClerc – who lost part of his front wing and caused the session to be red-flagged. Aston Martin, who had been incredibly quick in pre-season testing, saw incredible results with both drivers placing in the top 10 despite Lance Stroll facing significant pain from his pre-season bike accident injuries. Qualifying finished out with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez of Red Bull on the front row, and Charles LeClerc and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari in the second row.

One of the most appalling results of qualifying was the performance of the McLaren car, which performed fairly well last season but is presently struggling to keep up with competitors. This was especially disappointing for their rookie, Oscar Piastri, who is fresh off of his stint as a reserve driver for Alpine which hired him soon after his Formula 2 championship win. He gave an interview citing his own shortcomings as well as those of the car. Due to these factors, Piastri was outperformed by his teammate Lando Norris, who started his fifth season with McLaren off by placing eleventh in qualifying. Logan Sergeant, the first American driver since Alexander Rossi’s exit from the sport, found his way into twelfth despite being eliminated in the first round of qualifying. The Williams rookie is optimistic that he can rise from this baseline position, however, and better himself in the season to come.

In terms of the actual race, the results were as expected: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, two-time world champion, finished first, with his teammate Checo Perez behind him and Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin soon after that. Each of the three drivers on the podium drove cars equipped with a Red Bull-contracted Honda engine, and some may argue that they even had the same car. In terms of the rest of the field, the results were lackluster. McLaren struggled yet again, with six pitstops for Lando Norris and a DNF for Oscar Piastri. Charles LeClerc had a power system failure that took him out midway through, despite him running in third after passing Checo at the race’s start. This came after his power unit had been replaced after qualifying, meaning that LeClerc has already used his allotted two power units per season and may face penalties in the future if issues continue. Carlos Sainz finished in fourth, however, which seems to suggest that with a working power unit the Ferrari isn’t half-bad. Overcoming his injuries, Lance Stroll placed sixth. While there were a couple of impressive overtakes and nail-biting undercuts, the race stayed very close to what was set in qualifying.

Despite promising performances from other teams, many predict that this season will look much like last season –with Red Bull dominating the field and leaving others in the dust. George Russell of Mercedes predicted in an interview that Red Bull would win every race, saying that they have the championship veritably “sewn up”. Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, was quick to tell Russell off, saying “Twenty-three races is a marathon… It’s about being consistent over the campaign”. Whatever happens in the coming season, it’s clear that other teams have some catching up to do to prevent a repeat of the Red-Bull-dominated 2022 season.