Why Red Bull may not be as dominant as Bahrain GP suggests: analysis


The 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix was a display of domination by Max Verstappen, but F1 rivals could well find themselves closer to Red Bull away from the Sakhir circuit, writes Mark Hughes

Sparks fly from Red Bull of Max Verstappen driving on his own in the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix

Even compared to Perez, Verstappen was in a class of one

Florent Gooden / DPPI

Max Verstappen’s 36th grand prix victory was one of his most emphatic, leading from pole in his Red Bull-Honda, 6.5sec clear by the 10th lap and cantering home 11sec clear of team mate Sergio Perez. That much wasn’t such a surprise, but in putting an Aston Martin on an F1 podium for the first time, Fernando Alonso was something of a sensation, turning back the hands of time. He’s even talking about the likelihood of taking his 33rd victory this year, a decade after his 32nd. It was only partly an inherited podium – in that Charles Leclerc retired his Ferrari from third with a power unit failure before Alonso could get to him. Alonso did however have to pass the Mercs of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, all of them actual on-track overtakes and bold ones at that. He was in magnificent form and the Aston’s speed represents a refreshing break in the competitive hierarchy.

But that was really only a pleasant distraction from the nitty gritty of Verstappen’s domination. The structure of the race was relatively simple, dictated by downforce, balance and rear tyre deg – and one of the fastest drivers the sport has ever seen. The latter point will be a constant through the season but the reward of the Red Bull’s aero efficiency and tyre usage may not always be this great once away from a track which demands such an extreme conflict between Saturday and Sunday traits.

2 Fernando Alonso Aston martin 3 2023 Bahrain GP

Alonso ripped up the recent form book with third for Aston

The RB19, just like its predecessor, has a great spread of downforce throughout the speed range. Which means it is easy on its rear tyres. Which in turn – at the track which eats rear tyres more than any other – means less of a compromise is needed on Saturday set-up. Verstappen was still not entirely happy with the car balance as he set pole 0.138sec ahead of Perez’s sister car. It still understeered too much for his taste, but that was less than the others and everything is relative to the competition.

On Sunday, from his late afternoon pole slot to his floodlit drive past the chequer 57 laps later he was never anything less than dominant. There was a bit of rear locking on downshifts, but other than that he just drove to the rear tyre temperatures – which enabled a pace far beyond anything feasible from the competition. Alonso could have been closer than 38sec back, given a simpler race. Leclerc’s Ferrari might have been around that 38-40sec adrift albeit with a cleaner race than Alonso’s. But the 50sec deficit of Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton fifth, behind Sainz’s Ferrari – was totally representative.

“I’m as confident as I can be being a second off the pace”

Asked about his own prospects of the season after a PU failure that had a nasty resonance of 2022 about it, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc replied: “I’m as confident as I can be being a second off the pace, which is not confident… we really need to work on that plus the reliability.

“Aston seem to be quick. I think today third place was possible – we had a big enough margin with the guys behind and were managing well in that last stint. But they were also starting a bit further back, so I don’t know. Bahrain is also a very specific track so I hope that the picture can change a little bit for the next race but we cannot rely on that. We need to work and find some things.”

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Although the outcome was derived from downforce and chassis balance, the way it got there was randomised a little in the opening lap, mainly by Alonso’s team-mate Lance Stroll. He’d confounded the estimations of the medics in being able to race at all with his wrist injury and showed real grit in qualifying the Aston eighth, within 0.5sec of Alonso, having never driven it before the weekend. He got Russell around outside of Turn 1, having been held up by him off the line. But Russell came back at him on the outside approach to Turn 4 and was marginally ahead. Stroll went deep on the brakes on the inside attempting to retain the place – but just as he was doing this, Alonso was moving sharply across to take up his line and Stroll didn’t have enough stopping power left to avoid hitting the sister car, collecting a big opposite lock slide afterwards and re-passed on the outside by Russell who then dived across the track to make for the outside of Alonso.

The loss of Stroll’s momentum also saw Valtteri Bottas’s Alfa come past. The kickback through the steering as Stroll had hit the back of the other Aston sent pain searing through his damaged wrist and whether it was that or the emotion of possibly having ruined the whole team’s race which were responsible for the tears he said were in his eyes, we can only speculate. But the Aston Martin is clearly a strong car. That collision accounted for two of three bits of contact an Aston would have and it didn’t seem affected by any of them. Stroll picked off Bottas and Russell to go sixth and was closing Hamilton down as the chequer fell.

2 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 2023 Bahrain GP

Ferrari suffered yet more reliability issues as Leclerc halted with engine trouble

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For his part, Alonso’s start had got him up to Turn 4 on the back of the Ferraris but Hamilton stormed down inside just as he was being hit up the rear by Stroll – and this knocked him enough offline that Russell was able to zap him where Turn 4 merges with 5. Alonso bided his time, using the Aston’s lower tyre deg to help put some aggressive and creative moves on Russell, Hamilton and Sainz. Bottas was no more than 1.6sec behind Russell’s seventh place and only just clear himself of Pierre Gasly’s Alpine and the Williams of Alex Albon.

The competitive order had shuffled out like that and it read Red Bull in big letters, Aston Martin in shiny ones, Ferrari’s blurry and those of Mercedes downright foggy.