Red Bull, Ferrari, and Rookies: What We’re Watching in F1 Preseason Testing
New drivers, new team bosses, and plenty of new storylines to follow in the upcoming 2023 F1 season.
It's Formula 1's opening day if we can mix IndyCar and F1 analogies. All 10 F1 teams gathered Thursday at the Bahrain International Circuit for three days of preseason testing, where they will get the chance to shakedown a race-prepped version of their 2023 contenders for the very first time. And while every season-opening test is important, this year it appears to be even more so, given all the changes that took place during the off-season. From drivers and team principals switching teams to new youngsters joining the global racing circus, the Formula 1 Class of 2023 possesses all the ingredients for a fantastic season.
With all on-track action already wrapped up for day one of testing, let's look at the main storylines to follow for the rest of the weekend.
Red Bull Topped the Charts, But Is Anyone Surprised?
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner hasn't passed up the chance to cry to the media about his 10% reduction in aero testing as a result of their 2021 budget cap infringement, but that hasn't slowed the bulls down. Reigning world champion Max Verstappen managed 71 laps (third highest) Thursday and set the fastest time of the day with a lap time of 1:32.959.
Unlike most teams, the crew from Milton Keynes did not switch drivers between the morning and afternoon sessions, instead giving Verstappen the entire day. It is believed that Sergio Perez will drive most, or all, of Friday, following a similar testing procedure that was mostly aero-heavy.
Carlos Sainz followed in second place with a lap time of 1:33.253—0.294 seconds behind the Red Bull. Most surprisingly perhaps, it was the Williams of Alex Albon setting the third-fastest time of the day with a lap time of 1:33.671. Alfa Romeo's Zhou Guanyu and Mercedes' George Russell rounded up the top five with 1:33.723 and 1:34.174—0.764 and 1.215 seconds behind Verstappen, respectively.
It's worth noting that these lap times don't mean a thing yet, but is anyone surprised Red Bull's on top? Not me.
Aero, Aero, Aero
As it's the case at these tests, just about every team sent their cars out with one or multiple devices to help them learn and improve their aero performance. It's always entertaining to see the world's fastest single-seaters with bits of scaffolding attached to them or splashed with fluorescent flow visualization paint. All top teams spent several laps running aero rakes and flow-vis, with Red Bull, Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren making it a point that their new aero concepts must be validated before the start of the season.
It's somewhat unfair to call folks like Oscar Piastri, Felipe Drugovich, or Logan Sargeant "rookies" considering the ranks they must climb on their way to F1, but they are the least-experienced drivers at this weekend's test. McLaren's controversy-ridden Piastri and Aston Martin's Lance Stroll stand-in Drugovich both ventured out Thursday, with the youngsters setting 52 and 40 laps respectively.
Drugovich's first outing came to a premature end after his AMR23 suffered an electrical failure and ground to a halt within 10 minutes of hitting the track. This triggered the first red flag of the 2023 season and also marked Aston's first "retirement," something that it hopes won't happen too often this year. The Brazilian-Italian was able to rejoin later in the day and managed to clock in 40 laps.
Following Albon's 74 laps Thursday, Sargeant will be piloting the Williams FW44 on Friday, kicking off a new era for American racing drivers in F1.
New Names in New Places
The off-season was particularly hectic with folks jumping ship left and right. While most driver swaps are confirmed earlier in the year and most storylines are exhausted by the time the final grand prix rolls around, most staffing changes are done over the winter. And this year there were plenty of them.
The most important one is Fred Vasseur's departure from Alfa Romeo to run Ferrari. Say whatever you want to say about Mattia Binotto, but he got most of the job done during his presidency. I believe Vasseur will have to endure enormous pressure to exorcise the Scuderia's many cultural and logistical demons so it can produce a constructors' or drivers' championship once more.
In fact, he's wasting no time and the team confirmed Thursday that Ferrari's former strategy chief has been sacked from his position and sent back to Maranello. His replacement, Ravin Jain, is an Oxford University graduate with a degree in physics and a master’s degree in mathematical and theoretical physics. Hopefully, he can use all of that to bring Ferrari back to championship-winning shape.
Andreas Seidle is now running things at Alfa Romeo after departing McLaren a few months back. His replacement at the Papaya Orange squad is Andreas Stella (yes, McLaren traded an Andrea for an Andreas), while former Mercedes strategy director James Vowles will be running point at Williams F1 after Jost Capito's departure over the winter.
It'll be interesting to see how days two and three of the preseason test develop, especially as folks warm up to their new cars and the likes of Lewis Hamilton get the opportunity to sample their new racers. Stay tuned.
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