For some time in the buildup to the opening qualifying session of the new Formula One season, there was a frisson of excitement in Bahrain it was impossible to ignore. Was change in the air? Might F1’s wiliest, oldest dog, Fernando Alonso, have a lesson left in him for the young pups of the new generation?
Well Alonso wagged his tail with a gleeful abandon that was infectious but when it all shook down F1’s new season pecking order remained firmly under the iron grip of Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
If there was deja vu here, then Mercedes felt it too but of an altogether more disagreeable variety, as the team were forced to admit that they have once more chosen the wrong concept for their car and will now be playing catch up for the season as they chase a new design.
It was, after all the anticipation, very much business as usual for Verstappen following his dominance last season as he claimed a commanding pole from teammate Sergio Pérez with Charles Leclerc third for Ferrari, three-tenths back.
Alonso took a great fifth for Aston Martin beating both the Mercedes drivers, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, who were in sixth and seventh. Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz will start in fourth.
This was, just one competitive session into the new season, conceded as an unacceptable nadir for Mercedes. After the travails of 2022 they had targeted this year for a resurgence but the team were six-tenths off Verstappen’s time. Almost exactly the gap they were down at this point last season.
Mercedes have largely carried their design over into 2023, convinced they could make it come right having developed it strongly through last season. Yet the opener here, surely sounding the death knell on Hamilton fighting for an eighth title this year, has also sounded time on the car itself. The team principal, Toto Wolff, admitted they had got it wrong and would be pursuing a new direction forthwith.
“We got it wrong last year, we thought we can fix it while sticking to this concept of car and it didn’t work out,” he said. “So we just need to switch; we need to switch our focus on to what we believe can be the right direction and what it is we are missing.”
Wolff conceded the car was lacking downforce especially through the fast corners. He said the team was already examining alternative concepts in the wind tunnel, potentially relating to the controversial zero-sidepod idea with which they have persisted, with the intent of bringing a new design to race as soon as possible. Wolff insisted the team believed it could still target race wins this season.
That they were leapfrogged by Aston Martin, who use a Mercedes engine and who have found a full two seconds on track since this time last year, emphasised the straits in which Mercedes are now struggling. Aston Martin have been the talk of the paddock all weekend, Alonso topping the time sheets repeatedly in practice and allowing the remarkable notion of the 2005 and 2006 world champion grabbing pole to take real root in the imagination in Bahrain.
When it mattered Red Bull had the edge, they unleashed the full potential of their car and Ferrari also switched it up. But fifth was still an absolute tour de force for Alonso and Aston. It was a moment he had longed for, once more able to mix it meaningfully at the business end of the field. At 41 he is the oldest man on the grid and having made his debut in F1 in 2001 for Minardi is now in his 20th season in the sport. Yet he has never lost his passion for competition nor belief that given the tools he could deliver and he felt vindicated as he beamed with pleasure afterwards.
“It was amazing, the whole weekend has been unreal for us,” Alonso said. “It was too good to be true, every session, every performance of the car. I don’t know what to say. Eight months ago the project was just dead but now to be race one with a completely new car, from which we have still to unlock the full potential, to be in the top five fighting with Ferrari and Mercedes? It seems unreal but we will take it.”
His ebullience sat in stark contrast to the stern stoicism at Mercedes, while in front of them both with quiet but commanding diligence Red Bull and Verstappen made their first move in what looks to be a robust title defence. They will build from the front in Bahrain come Sunday.
Lance Stroll was eighth for Aston Martin, driving with a broken wrist after a cycling accident. Esteban Ocon starts in ninth for Alpine and Nico Hülkenberg, on his return to F1, in 10th for Haas.
Lando Norris was in 11th for McLaren, whose poorly performing car was expected to struggle at the start of the season and was indeed off the pace. Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou were 12th and 13th for Alfa Romeo, Yuki Tsunoda in 14th for AlphaTauri and Alex Albon in 15th for Williams.
Logan Sargeant went out in 16th for Williams, With Kevin Magnussen in 17th for Haas, Oscar Piastri in 18th for McLaren, Nyck de Vries in 19th for AlphaTauri and Pierre Gasly in 20th for Alpine.