The 2023 Formula 1 season, which starts this coming weekend in Bahrain, will be the longest in the history of the sport. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen starts the season as a big favorite for the third consecutive world title, and in the “paddock” there is serious doubt as to whether anyone can be a worthy competitor, writes the BBC.
Verstappen enters the season after one of the most dominant campaigns in Formula 1 history, in which he claimed his second world title by breaking the record for most wins in a single year. If Red Bull’s advantage is as obvious as it seems, and team-mate Sergio Perez still can’t be a worthy challenger to Verstappen, it’s legitimate to worry for anyone interested in a close title race whether there will be a fight at all. Red Bull finished pre-season testing in Bahrain last week showing a clear high level of confidence.
Usually, teams are reluctant to say much after testing, as uncertainties in fuel loads, engine modes, track conditions and so on make it difficult to make definitive judgments about the teams’ relative competitiveness.
These are important factors, but the discussions in the paddock during and after the test were not about whether Red Bull has an advantage, but how much it is.
And even in Red Bull itself, they didn’t play the usual games.
“Times, as we know in testing, are relative,” said their motorsport advisor Helmut Marko for “Sky” after the test.
“We don’t know what the competition was like with fuel, so if they were heavier than us, then our time is relative. But it turned out that we are reliable, that we are fast, ahead of everyone”.
“On top of all that, what makes us very optimistic is that both Peres’ and Max’s long runs were clearly faster than those of the competition,” adds Marko. None of the above is a particularly good advertisement for the new F1 technical rules introduced last season with the aim of making racing closer and more competitive.
But amid fears that 2023 will be a repeat of the complete dominance achieved by Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in 2002 and 2004 or Red Bull alone with Sebastian Vettel in 2011 and 2013, the new rules offer one significant hope.
Among the myriad of changes, all carefully planned to give the smaller teams a chance to catch up with the bigger ones, was a change in aerodynamic research restrictions, which are inversely proportional to team success.
According to these rules, the leading team in the championship gets the least amount of aerodynamic research allowed, and the least successful the most.
This was never expected or intended to have an overnight effect, but in the case of Red Bull there is an additional factor to consider.
Their penalty for being found guilty of breaching the new 2021 budget cap last year was a 10% reduction in aerodynamic research. It started at the time of the sentence at the end of October and has been going on for a year.
Because of the way F1’s design processes work, it wasn’t early enough to significantly affect the design of this year’s car in its initial form, which would have been set over the course of last year.
But it will affect Red Bull’s development and design work for 2024.
The hope for rivals such as Ferrari and Mercedes is that even if Red Bull starts the season with a significant advantage, as expected, this compensatory research allowance will give them a better chance of catching up.
Looking at the rest of the “caravan”, both of Red Bull’s main rivals enter the season amidst uncertainty, but it seems that the main challenger for the champion will be Ferrari.
At Ferrari, they are cautiously optimistic that they can join the fight for the championship – or at least they say they are.
But even when they had a car as fast as Red Bull last year, they proved unable to mount a serious challenge.
Mistakes in race strategy cost their lead driver Charles Leclerc three potential wins – in Monaco, Silverstone and Hungary.
And engine failures cost them victory in two more races – in Spain and Azerbaijan.
After that, Ferrari was forced to run its engines in low power mode to avoid further breakdowns.
Diligent work over the winter has led to the belief that reliability issues centered around the hybrid system have been ironed out, allowing the engines to run in a more aggressive mode.
This is said to give an instant performance boost of 0.2 seconds per lap.
And Ferrari is confident it has improved its car, paying particular attention to its weaknesses compared to Red Bull last year, which mainly focused on speed on the road. However, during testing, Leclerc said he wasn’t sure if the drag reduction – which increases top speed – also had a negative impact on cornering performance.
“It has changed other features,” said the Monegasque, “All in line with what we expected, but we still need to find the right settings for these features.”
While Red Bull enters the new season as an example of stability – same drivers, same team, a refined and improved update of last year’s car – Ferrari has a new team principal, after president John Elkann grew tired of Matthias Binotto’s mistakes last year and lost confidence in him as a man. who will address them.
So far, first impressions of his replacement, Frederik Wasser, are good. The Frenchman arrived saying he recognized changes needed to be made, and he has already made one big one – moving former strategy chief Inaki Rueda to a factory role and promoting one of his former lieutenants, Ravin Jain, to replace him.
“Fred came in with very clear ideas and he understands the team, which is very big,” said Leclerc, “Within a few days he understood what needed to be done and did it. That’s positive. His job is to put people on the right positions, and he’s great at it. Amazing.” If pre-season testing in Bahrain has shown anything, it’s that Mercedes will have a hard time getting involved in the title race.
Mercedes ended the last season with progress compared to the terrible start of the year, worked diligently on its “disobedient” car and reached a double victory at the penultimate race of the season in Brazil – George Russell ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
They were expected to make further progress in the new season and return to the top during the winter, but analysts are not convinced that will happen.
Even before the new car got a feel for the track, team principal Toto Wolff used the word “eventually” to describe when he expected it to be competitive for race wins.
“I thought about that word for 15 minutes when we put out the press release,” Wolff said.
“On the one hand you want to say, ‘We’re going to be competitive’. But on the other hand, you want to stay humble and that’s why you say, ‘I hope we’re going to be competitive in the middle of the season, but we just don’t know when.’
“We are on the slope where we wanted to be in terms of performance, but you don’t know where the others are and humility is the most important thing. We always try to be humble and we have to remind ourselves that for a long time we were quite far last season,” added Wolff . Mercedes’ car is something of a standout in its aerodynamic design – the team has largely stuck to its ‘zero-sidepod’ philosophy since last year, largely against the trend of following Red Bull’s preference for a wider body with dramatic undercuts.
Mercedes believe their plan can bring them success, although Wolff admitted the new side skirt design will come later, but others have questioned whether they have kept it out of “engineering pride” and will pay the price.
Mercedes believe they will start the season between 0.3 seconds and one second per lap behind Red Bull, but should get closer as the year progresses.
The subject of Hamilton’s future is also present. The British driver’s contract expires at the end of the year.
He says he “plans to stay for a while” and that the car’s level of competitiveness will not be a factor in the decision, which Wolff presented as inevitable.
But questions will be raised until he signs the paper on a contract that will keep him in Formula 1 beyond the age of 40, an age he said not long ago he could not have imagined staying in the sport.