Another Formula One off-season has come and gone, as the 2023 season has kicked things off in Sakhir, Qatar, ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix. The first of three days of competition is over as the drivers participated in a couple of free-practice sessions prior to the subsequent qualifying session and race.
Following the three-day practice session held at the same venue in Sakhir, we have a pretty good picture of what the end results will most likely look like. However, with a testy qualifying session in line, there might be a lot still up in the air heading into the opening Grand Prix.
Free-Practice Sessions 1 & 2
The first two free practice sessions of the year were held Friday, March 3, with all twenty drivers bracing the track. In what should come as no surprise is the dominance of Red Bull, as both of their drivers finished top 3 in both sessions. Red Bull is the clear favorite to reclaim the Constructors Championship, and the testing results from the past week back this up.
The big surprise from the first two free practice sessions is the continued brilliance of former two-time World Driver Champion Fernando Alonso for his new team. The Aston Martin Driver followed up his impressive pre-season testing with a second-place and first-place finish, including the fastest overall time.
Another sigh of relief for Aston Martin, Canadian driver Lance Stroll has returned to the track after dealing with a number of injuries. His status for the Grand Prix on Sunday is still up in the air, but things are looking up as Stroll was able to muster up back-to-back 6th-fastest laps in the Friday free practice sessions.
Moving towards the two teams looking to dethrone Red Bull, both Ferrari and Mercedes were unable to gain ground on the reigning champs. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc had solid outings, finishing with the 4th and 5th fastest laps in the two free practice sessions. However, Leclerc’s teammate had somewhat of an alarming outing, with the slowest lap in the first session and the 6th slowest lap in the second session. Ferrari will need to figure things out fast before the qualifying session on Saturday.
As for Mercedes, things may be even worse. Lewis and George finished with the 10th and 11th fastest lap in the first free practice session, and Lewis improved to the 8th fastest lap while George fell to the 13th fastest lap in the second free practice session. Although these finishes are not terrible, it is concerning for a Mercedes team who have been in the championship conversation for the past decade. Unless swift changes to the car are made, we could see Mercedes fall to a mid-table constructor.
As mentioned earlier, all twenty drivers on the grid participated in the free-practice sessions on Friday. Nineteen of these drivers are confirmed for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with Stroll’s participation still up in the air. The Qualifying session will take place on Saturday, March 4, from 10:00-11:00 AM EST. Similar to qualifying in years past, there will be three different qualifying sessions, with the five slowest drivers eliminated for the first two sessions and the order of the remaining ten drivers at the end of the third qualifying session determining the order of the Grand Prix.
Racers to Watch
Heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit, there are definitely a number of drivers to watch for. The first is the most obvious, Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver won 15 races last year as he went on to claim back-to-back World Drivers Championships, enough said.
After a quick start to last year’s campaign, car troubles haunted Charles Leclerc for a majority of a season. It has yet to be seen whether Ferrari has solved their mechanical issues, but Leclerc still enters this year as the top contender for the World Drivers Championship. Although I don’t think Verstappen will be caught by anyone this season, the Ferrari driver has a shot.
As for other drivers to watch, my eyes will be fixated on the two drivers that underwent team changes during the offseason, Fernando Alonso to Aston Martin and Pierre Gasly to Alpine. Alonso enters his 23rd season in F1 and shows no signs of slowing down. Whether it’s been luck or veteran experience, Alonso could very well be in the championship picture.
Shifting towards Alonso’s vacated seat, French driver Pierre Gasly has moved away from Alpha Tauri to take over as the Alpine lead man. After a highly impressive 2021 season, Gasly, and Alpha Tauri as a whole, struggled immensely in the following season and finished near the bottom of the standings. Now, heading into the 2023 season, the French driver will try to lead his French team to new heights.