Alonso joy amid brutal truth of Verstappen's 2023 Bahrain GP win: race report


"Today we were fighting for big things" said Fernando Alonso. But that didn't include victory in the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix. The ominous gap to Max Verstappen suggests Red Bull is set to dominate F1 — for now

Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen spray champagne on F1 podium at the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

A result beyond expectation... for both?

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“It’s only testing, you can never read too much into the times.”

Repurposing such a stereotypical quote might well come back to bite in future years, but as far as this year’s Bahrain Grand Prix goes, the impression from testing was spot on.

The Red Bull came out of the box and was instantly the class of the field, and while Ferrari and Mercedes remained closely-matched, there was a new presence in the mix in the form of Aston Martin. Second, third or fourth quickest depending on which team you spoke to, but Aston was definitely up there.

Qualifying had already added further confirmation to those views with Red Bull locking out the front row, but if there was any doubting of the picture it was due to Ferrari being closer than expected on like-for-like low fuel runs.

Sparks fly as F1 cars race off the start line in a blur at the 2023 Bahrain GP

Leclerc (right) surges past Perez and alongside Verstappen at the start

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

Charles Leclerc had saved a set of soft tyres for the race by not completing a final Q3 run — allowing Sergio Perez to jump him for second on the grid and Max Verstappen to extend his final advantage — and that move paid off as Leclerc made the best start of the three to slot into second place out of Turn 1.

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The fairytale story at Aston Martin was almost over before it began as Lewis Hamilton put a strong move on Fernando Alonso into Turn 4 to take fifth spot behind Perez and Carlos Sainz, but with Alonso turning in for a late apex his team-mate Lance Stroll was arriving far too quickly and hit the Spaniard’s right rear corner.

“Really lucky, really lucky,” Stroll admitted afterwards, with his broken wrists being painfully tested in the incident. “I braked late to stay in front of George [Russell]. Fernando went for it, cut back on Hamilton in Turn 4 and just really bad timing we came together. So really lucky to get away with that one.”

Alonso was quickly on the radio to complain about being hit by another driver, unaware it was his team-mate who had caused it, but after losing another place to Russell as a result of the clash, he was able to compose himself.

Fernando Alonso fights with George Russell at the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Alonso began his fightback by regaining the place from Russell

Peter Fox/Getty Images

As the pitstops kicked in early with 19 of the 20 drivers started on softs – Kevin Magnussen the outlier on hards – Alonso started his fightback. Lap 13 was a busy one as the Spaniard set-up Russell at Turn 1 before getting the move done through Turn 4 and Turn 5, triggering a pit stop from Russell.

The Mercedes came in after Leclerc entered the pits from second place and Sainz followed him for a smart double-stack from Ferrari, but it was at McLaren where a tough start to the season got worse as Oscar Piastri reported a gearshift issue and came into the pits. A change of steering wheel didn’t solve the problem and the rookie became the first retirement having had a solid opening to the race.

Another rookie running well was Logan Sargeant, closely matching Alex Albon in the early stages as Williams opted to stay on the soft tyres at its first pitstops and moved into points contention. It was a strategy mirrored by Red Bull, and with the rest of the field on hards it allowed Perez to easily get Leclerc down the inside into Turn 1 for a second place he would not relinquish.

McLaren of Oscar Piastri sits in the pit garage after retiring from the 2023 Bahrain GP

In the pits: Piastri

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“It was a shame that we lost a position to Charles because that really prevented us to be able to fight for the win,” Perez said. “Once we lost so many seconds to Max it was game over, it was more about getting Charles, because he was very strong in that first stint with his new tyres.”

Verstappen by now was a dozen seconds up the road and already managing the race, but a great fight was developing behind. First, Stroll made an earlier second stop to use fresh rubber to close up on Russell, then pulled a good move around the outside of the Mercedes into Turn 4 to climb into seventh place.

“Today we were fighting for big things”

Having made his own second stop on lap 34 — four laps later than his team-mate — Alonso then also cleared the Mercedes he was chasing. Getting down the inside of Hamilton into Turn 4 on Lap 37, Alonso lit up the rears in a sign that he wasn’t fully happy with his car’s power delivery, and Hamilton was back through. Two laps later, though, and he positioned his Aston Martin cleverly for a number of corners before diving down the inside into Turn 10 to take fifth.

“I enjoyed it because you ended up in front!” Alonso said. “That’s always the same thing in any battle. But when you fight at the front and with these great drivers, great champions, it is a little bit more intense, more adrenaline when you are wheel to wheel. I didn’t want to have any mistake or any contact, because when you are P12 you lose nothing, but today we were fighting for big things.”

Ferrari of Charles Leclerc at the side of the Sakhir circuit during the 2023 bahrain Grand prix

Reliability cost Leclerc a podium

Eric Alonso/Getty Images

Fernando Alonso ahead of Lewis Hamilton

Alonso passes Hamilton for fifth

Xavi Bonilla/DPPI

One lap after completing the move and Alonso gained another spot, but it was due to Ferrari woe as Leclerc reported a loss of power exiting the penultimate corner and was forced to retire on the spot.

“Zero [warning],” Leclerc said. “It completely died, I couldn’t do anything after that.

“[Aston Martin] seem to be quick, today third was possible, I had a bit of margin to the guys behind and managed well but they were starting a bit further back.”

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The virtual safety car imposed to clear Leclerc’s car allowed some of the runners further back to make a second stop, with Albon doing so ahead of Pierre Gasly as the pair fought over the lower points. Gasly was having a good recovery drive from last on the grid, in stark contrast to his team-mate…

“Quite impressive how it was not our day today,” Esteban Ocon said after being penalised three times. “We are usually quite good on these operational things. Pitstopping, stopping at the right places, and these are things that we put a lot of effort on, so everything went wrong today for sure. It has never gone like that in the past ever, so I’m a bit surprised to see that this happened. But we will analyse and come back stronger from it.”

Esteban Ocon serves a penalty in the pits during the 2023 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Ocon serves a penalty – having received a trio

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Ocon had first been hit with a five-second time penalty for being out of position on the grid, marginally overshooting his grid slot. Alpine was then adjudged to have not served that penalty properly, earning a further 10-second hit, and then Ocon was caught speeding in the pit lane to compound matters before retiring.

“It’s been a great start for us. This is not something we are used to”

He could still have been joined in retirement by his former team-mate Alonso, who again escaped drama at Turn 4. Attacking Sainz for the podium, Alonso repeated the issue on throttle and tagged the rear of the Ferrari after the door was closed on him, but the pair continued unscathed and after Sainz defended the inside into Turn 10, Alonso got a better exit to get the high ground into Turn 11 to take third place.

“Obviously a perfect start to this project,” Alonso said after his first podium since Qatar in 2021. “We didn’t expect to be that competitive. The aim in 2023 was getting the mix in the midfield, leading that midfield and getting close to the top three teams. But even a podium was maybe not on the radar in 2023. And we found ourselves second-best car today in Bahrain or the whole weekend, just behind Red Bull. So this is a little bit of a surprise.”

Fernando Alonso fights Carlos Sainz in 2023 Bahrain GP

Alonso took third from Sainz

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Valtteri Bottas leads Lance Stroll in the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Bottas drove his Alfa to eighth

To be brutal, “just behind Red Bull” is a bit of a stretch, after Verstappen cruised home with Perez a comfortable second, and Alonso nearly 40 seconds off the winner.

“It’s been a great start for us, for the whole team,” Verstappen said. “This is not something we are used to. We’re very happy at the moment. But we always keep working.

“It was a really good race. I think it was important to have that first stint where I could open up the gap a little bit and after that I could look after my tyres quite well. But obviously the car was working well, a bit like what we’ve seen in testing and what we’ve done throughout the weekend.

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“This of course, you need to show that in a race, you never know what can happen throughout the race. We were on top of things. It was quite straightforward. I think also with all the calls and pit stop, we did a good job.”

That might be an understatement, but it’s a fair point that Red Bull isn’t used to winning in Bahrain as Verstappen picked up only the team’s third victory here, and first season-opening win since 2011. What is more usual based on last year was a Ferrari reliability issue, Mercedes struggling for pace to start the season, and Valtteri Bottas impressing for Alfa Romeo on his run to eighth.

But even amid Gasly’s climb to ninth and Albon scoring points for Williams in tenth, it was Aston Martin who provided the feel-good aspect of the race courtesy of Alonso’s podium and Stroll’s massively impressive sixth despite two broken wrists and a broken toe. And it was needed in the face of Red Bull’s ominous start, just as testing had suggested.