key takeaways from Friday’s Bahrain Free Practice – Top Performers, Strugglers, and Surprises
The opening day of the 2023 Formula 1 season provided plenty of excitement and surprises. Fernando Alonso and the AMR23 car look impressive, while Mercedes struggled. Haas showed why they needed Nico Hulkenberg, and Williams could outperform struggling AlphaTauri.
Following an unremarkable pre-season test that lacked any intriguing narratives, the initial official day of Formula 1 2023 proved to be considerably more captivating.
Friday’s Bahrain Grand Prix saw a somewhat disorderly pecking order emerge, leaving us with numerous aspects to contemplate across most of the teams. While some teams appeared impressive, others performed well, while some certainly struggled.
Here are the significant takeaways from Friday’s event as observed by our correspondents on site.
Fernando Alonso and the AMR23 car showed impressive pace on both single-lap and long-run performance, indicating that they could be a podium contender.
During the free practice session at Bahrain Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso recorded the fastest lap time and showed impressive pace on the long runs. Despite his attempts to downplay the performance of the AMR23 car, it is undeniably quick, and while it may not necessarily be able to beat Red Bull, it appears to be faster than all the other teams.
Alonso himself expressed satisfaction with the car, stating that it felt good to drive and was well-balanced, allowing him to extract the maximum pace without pushing too hard. The car also appeared to be gentle on the tires during the long runs, making it the second-fastest in terms of race pace and with a comfortable advantage over Ferrari.
At the beginning of the day, Aston Martin looked like a top-six contender, but with Alonso’s performance, it is now capable of challenging for a podium finish on merit. If Red Bull encounters problems, such as the fuel cavitation issues they faced last year, it is not impossible for Alonso to secure his elusive 33rd victory.
Red Bull’s initial advantage from pre-season testing appeared to have narrowed down, with Max Verstappen expressing dissatisfaction with the lack of grip and struggling to find comfort while driving the car.
Red Bull appeared to have a significant advantage during the pre-season testing, but on Friday at Bahrain Grand Prix, that lead seemed to have narrowed down. Max Verstappen expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of grip and appeared to be struggling to find comfort while driving the car. Additionally, Red Bull experienced a few hiccups during the day.
Despite these setbacks, Red Bull still seems to be in a strong position, having recorded the best long-run pace and decent qualifying simulations with room for improvement. However, it is evident that the RB19 car is not as well-behaved as it was during testing, and it produced the most sparks as it hit the track surface in various parts of the circuit. Although this wasn’t a major problem, it was noticeably different from the car’s behavior during testing.
Ferrari seemed to be struggling to keep up with Red Bull, with Charles Leclerc ruling out a fight for pole position and the team already in damage limitation mode.
Friday’s events were disappointing for anyone hoping to see Ferrari challenge Red Bull right from the start of the season. Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur acknowledged that Red Bull is currently ahead of the pack, and Charles Leclerc has already ruled out a fight for pole position.
Leclerc admitted that although they may not have the pace for pole, they would try to make the most of any opportunities during the race. However, it’s clear that the team is already in damage limitation mode. In Bahrain, this could mean focusing on getting ahead of Aston Martin to secure a spot on the podium.
Unfortunately, the long-run pace during practice suggested that Ferrari is further away from the front than they were during testing or even the 2022 season. If this trend continues, Ferrari could be in a difficult position this weekend, stuck in no-man’s land with little hope of challenging for the top spots.
Mercedes faced challenges with both their single-lap and long-run pace, indicating that they could have a slow start to the season.
During testing, Mercedes resolved the porpoising and ride problems that plagued them in 2022, but the car’s pace looked brisk rather than fast. Based on their performance on Friday, Mercedes is likely to have a challenging start to the season, especially as they await a significant upgrade around May’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. Their single-lap pace was not impressive, and the long runs were a cause for serious concern. As the stint went on, the rear instability and traction limitations became more apparent, indicating that the car’s back end isn’t as stable as desired.
Lewis Hamilton confirmed that Mercedes is still a long way off from their expected pace, and any overnight improvements would only result in milliseconds rather than the second needed to close the gap. Therefore, it’s clear that Friday’s performance in Bahrain solidified the expectations for a slow start to the season for the Silver Arrows. Hamilton suggested that the car concept isn’t quite right, and it may only be until the significant development package appears that Mercedes can hope to get back to where it wants to be.
Lance Stroll impressed despite his injured wrists, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain his performance throughout the weekend.
Considering Lance Stroll’s lack of pre-season testing and a compromised start to FP1 due to an ignition problem, he did a decent job by lapping just over half a second off Fernando Alonso on Friday. However, given his injured wrists, which are causing discomfort, his performance was even more impressive.
Despite this, there are still concerns about how Stroll will manage for the rest of the weekend.
In FP2, the team requested that he change his approach to Turn 1, but he explained that he was unable to do so due to his injured hands. It was clear that he was in considerable discomfort, and he had to reposition his left hand at the base of the wheel instead of its usual position to apply the lock in Turn 1.
Stroll intends to continue racing for as long as possible, hoping that he can use the car’s pace to achieve a good result despite his injuries. However, his wrists’ response to the 45 laps he’s completed so far will be closely monitored, and it remains to be seen if he can maintain his performance throughout the weekend.
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Alpine’s performance was as expected, leading the midfield pack by a comfortable margin.
During pre-season testing, Alpine’s headline times were in the lower reaches of the timesheets. However, there were indications that the car’s performance was where it should be, leading the midfield pack by a comfortable margin.
On Friday, Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon showed that the expectation was broadly confirmed as they picked up the pace. However, the A523 still has some untapped speed, and the drivers are gradually easing into the weekend after a tricky FP1 was followed by a more comfortable FP2. Therefore, it seems that Alpine is in a strong position and could potentially challenge for a top midfield finish this season.
McLaren faced difficulties with single-lap pace and qualifying, with Lando Norris being the team’s best hope.
McLaren had a difficult start to the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, which confirmed the impressions from testing that they could face a tough start to the season. The team recorded the seventh-fastest car on single-lap pace, and while Lando Norris’s long-run pace was stronger, qualifying seems to be their significant challenge.
Norris is experienced in handling and pushing McLaren’s tricky cars and looked more comfortable with the car on the limit than rookie Oscar Piastri. Therefore, he appears to be McLaren’s best hope for avoiding both cars’ elimination in Q1.
McLaren’s season is expected to take off in Baku at the end of next month when their significant change of direction major upgrade is deployed. However, the team needs to make the best use of what they have in the interim, and Norris is likely their best bet for achieving that.
Williams could potentially outperform struggling AlphaTauri this season.
Alex Albon’s target of being a “better 10th” for the Williams team did not change the initial impression that they would likely be at the back of the grid. However, there are indications that they may have the edge over struggling AlphaTauri.
While the Williams car lacked downforce, it seemed to be well-balanced in the hands of both drivers. In contrast, the AlphaTauri struggled for pace and appeared to be a handful at times. The drivers seemed downcast after the session, with Nyck de Vries attempting to focus on the positives.
Overall, AlphaTauri is on the back foot and may genuinely start as the slowest team in the 2023 season, with Williams potentially outperforming them.
Nico Hulkenberg’s return to Haas served as a reminder of why they needed him, with him setting the fifth-fastest time in qualifying simulation and pushing the car to its limits.
The large position difference between Nico Hulkenberg, who finished fifth, and Kevin Magnussen, who finished 16th, exaggerated the gap between them as drivers. However, Hulkenberg’s return served as a reminder of why Haas needed him.
During his qualifying simulation, Hulkenberg looked much more comfortable and pushed the car harder than Magnussen, who was visibly struggling with more understeer. Hulkenberg was quick, but it was still a surprise when he set the fifth-fastest time. This was excellent news for Haas, which had further validation for selecting Hulkenberg.
Haas replaced Mick Schumacher with Hulkenberg because they needed someone who could push the car to its limits when Magnussen had his off days. Friday was an excellent example of that, and Haas now goes into the rest of the weekend with a fantastic benchmark.
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