2023 F1 Season Preview: Who’ll Be Smiling at The End?
F1 is back this Sunday, and here’s what you can expect to see during the longest season in F1 history.
There are only a few certainties in a Formula 1 season: It will rain at Spa, Christian Horner will complain, and Monaco will be simultaneously the most glamorous and most boring race on the dockets. Those are constants. For all the other variables, it’s why they race.
The 2023 F1 calendar has 23 entries to figure it all out, the longest season in F1 history. This weekend’s opener in Bahrain is bookended by the finale in Abu Dhabi and there are lots, and lots, and lots, of miles in between. Let’s go:
Of course, we’re not hugely surprised about Red Bull’s apparent dominance this year—even after a slap on the wrist in wind tunnel testing for overspending. Despite winning back-to-back championships, Max Verstappen’s reign as the top dog still feels pyrrhic; the first came on a controversial last-race call, and the second came in a year the team was charged with cheating. Can Max convince all his skeptics that he’s the best driver on the grid, not just an opportunist? (Eds note: Probably not.)
Perhaps a bigger question is how Sergio Perez fits into his role with the team. In theory, both Red Bull drivers will start the season on even ground, although the car is undeniably suited for Max. Checo’s shown panache at times to assert his rightful place as a top-tier driver, but in equal turns he’s deferred to team orders when it suited Max’s agenda. Between the two, it should be possible for Red Bull to achieve something that’s never been done before in an F1 season: a complete lockout. That is, unless the two turn against each other.
The Scuderia’s in a weird spot this year. With Mattia Binotto gone at the top and Fred Vasseur taking the reins, the focus this year is less on the drivers and more on management. That’s a pretty boring storyline, to be honest, but Ferrari could use a break from finding new ways to lose races. Charles LeClerc and Carlos Sainz are reportedly on the same footing without a named No. 1 driver, although that’s not likely to last if Ferrari can legitimately compete for the top podium spot.
Sainz is in a win-more-or-go-home point in his career, and he could redirect his legacy from “frontrunner” to “front” with another win after the first of his career last year at the British Grand Prix. LeClerc isn’t quite in the same spot, but growing tensions last year with team management could spill over this year if Ferrari can't get out of its own way.
Lewis Hamilton’s legacy is largely already written, but the rest of his career could be contingent on how this year shakes out. Hamilton has signaled his interest in continuing to race, although it’s an open question for long he’ll continue in an F1 car—and a Mercedes one at that. Hamilton’s contract reportedly hangs on the idea that Mercedes can field a competitive car this year and from early season tests, it doesn’t appear that Mercedes will be fighting for podiums in the first few races. If Hamilton’s contract isn’t settled by the summer break, the silly season could find a high gear between teams looking to hire the legendary driver.
George Russell’s ascent at Mercedes could help Hamilton make up his mind, too. As Mercedes ponders life after Lewis, Russell could be the team’s top concern going forward and they may need to find ways to secure his future long-term with the team. Russell is confirmed to drive for Mercedes through 2024, and his performance this year in an off-contract year could show the Brackley team where to build going forward.
Lance Stroll’s quick return after an injury isn’t the most surprising news from Bahrain, Aston Martin’s pace is. The team has been derided before for bringing out copycat cars—even dating back to the prior ownership group—but this year’s car appears to have the outright speed that could keep it competitive on tracks with long straights: Monza and Azerbaijan, places where Stroll has earned podium finishes before. The Fernando Alonso love-in may not last for long, especially if he’s forced to give up pace for his teammate. Fernando does Fernando best.
Alpine’s lineup of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon is its own storyline: the two reportedly were good friends before on-track spats split the two. But its management of reserve driver Oscar Piastri and their on-then-off relationship is a cloud hanging over the team. Piastri is reportedly the next Max Verstappen—whatever that means—and some pundits have said Alpine’s misdealing with the Australian driver will go down as one of the biggest recent blunders in F1.
Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri have their work cut out for them. Their cars were no doubt disappointing during preseason testing, and it's unclear which driver will be their top priority. Norris has been the team’s focus for a while now, and aside from a third-place finish in the constructor’s championship in 2020, the team has averaged a finish in the bottom half of the grid for the past decade. Piastri’s promise and potential are huge, but how he fits in with McLaren isn’t immediately apparent.
Kevin Magnussen’s Cinderella season back in F1 is done and the only American team on the grid has a long walk to take to get back into the promise they once showed as a new team. Mick Schumacher’s gone, and if Drive to Survive is believable, team boss Guenther Steiner couldn’t be happier. Nico Hulkenberg doesn’t feel like a long-term fit for the team, but the 11-year F1 vet driver could offer some predictability that Schumacher couldn’t. There’s no indication the Haas will fight for anything more than a mid-pack finish this year again, although like the team’s first pole last year: anything can happen when it gets wet.
Without Vasseur at the helm, Alfa Romeo’s early pace is promising but the car is perpetually struggling with technical issues. Will Valtteri Bottas' mustache get any creepier this year? Will their new team boss Andreas Seidl tame those this year for his team? Or is he looking forward to Audi’s integration into the team in the coming years? Williams F1 driver Logan Sargeant is the only full-time American racing on the grid this year but his campaign is reminiscent of the last time an American raced in F1: Alexander Rossi’s tenure behind the wheel of an F1 car in the back runners wasn’t much to cheer about. Nyck de Vries isn’t a rookie by any means for AlphaTauri—his debut F1 race was last year with Williams at Monza—but it’ll take veteran patience to deal with a team that has raw pace to compete in the midfield, but not much more.
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