Can Red Bull win every race in 2023?
Hours after Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, some of Max Verstappen’s rivals seemed ready to give him this year’s title with 22 more races to go.
The Red Bull driver won the first race of the season by 11 seconds from his teammate Sergio Pérez and by a full 38 seconds from his nearest non-Red Bull rival, Fernando Alonso.
It was an utterly dominant performance and Verstappen achieved it despite racing within his or his car’s limits.
“Red Bull has done well in this championship,” Mercedes driver George Russell told reporters on Sunday evening.
“I don’t think anyone will fight them this year. They have to win every race, that’s my bet.”
At first glance, Russell is hard to argue with. The history of Formula One is littered with seasons dominated by one team or driver, and it seems the sport is in the early stages of a new era of relentless success for Red Bull and Verstappen.
While the team has never won every race of the season (McLaren was closest in 1988 with 15 wins in 16 races), Red Bull’s performance lead in Bahrain was big enough to raise the question of whether such a feat is possible in 2023.
However, Sunday’s result also comes with a big caveat: As one-sided as the Bahrain Grand Prix is, it remains a one-race model in this year’s 23 seasons. What’s more, the Bahrain International Circuit is a notorious exception to the F1 schedule, with an unusually rough track surface and complex traction layout that does more damage to the rear wheels than any other circuit on the calendar.
Along with Alonso’s Aston Martin, Red Bull were the only team to deal effectively with their rear tire wear in Sunday’s race, making the win look surprisingly easy. The next round in Saudi Arabia will do much less damage to the rear tires and while it’s also an unusual circuit compared to the vast majority of F1 circuits, there is a chance that Red Bull’s advantage will be limited in Jeddah.
“The Saudi circuit is very different from this one,” said Verstappen. “You have a lot more straight, fast turns and a lot less degrees. And I think that here we were especially good at the degrees. So I expect Jeddah to be closer in terms of racing pace, yes.
“Our car seems to be pretty strong at high speed, but I think the Ferrari is pretty fast on the straight, which in Jeddah is very nice to have, let’s say.
But yes, time will tell. It’s really hard to understand. We have only driven these cars here in Bahrain so you just have to wait and see and of course try to get there in the best shape possible and we will find out during practice exactly where we are.”
That doesn’t mean Red Bull won’t have the fastest car in Saudi Arabia or any other circuit this year, but it would be wise to tone down some of the broader predictions until a few races have been played. Maintaining 100 percent reliability while avoiding crashes, strategic mistakes and ill-timed safety cars means a perfect winning record will require a significant dose of luck to combine with Red Bull’s engineering prowess.
“Twenty-three races is a marathon and it’s about being consistent throughout the campaign,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said when asked if his team could win every race this year. “Today was a great start, but we fully expect the contenders to return for future races.
“I’ve been around long enough to see things change so quickly and I still think these cars are still relatively immature. As teams evolve and updates come out, things will change.”
Why was it so easy for Verstappen to win in Bahrain?
After three days of pre-season testing ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, it was clear that Red Bull would be the winning team on Sunday, but the size of Verstappen’s advantage was still a surprise.
When Charles Leclerc retired his Ferrari with engine problems on lap 40, he was 24 seconds behind Verstappen, representing a 0.6 second per lap lead for Red Bull over Ferrari.
This doubled the gap between the two cars on the same lap in qualifying, which was 0.297 seconds, highlighting the fact that Ferrari had excessive tire degradation compared to Red Bull in Bahrain. This theory was reinforced by Carlos Sainz’s lack of speed in the last leg of the race, when he lost the last podium to Alonso despite having a 0.2 second lead over Aston Martin in qualifying the previous day.
Knowing that rear tire degradation would be a key factor in Sunday’s race, and confident that it would have spare performance on one lap, Red Bull adopted a car setup that protected the rear tires in the race, even if it meant sacrificing some pace in qualifications.
“Single lap performance and race performance are very different in terms of balance requirements,” said Verstappen. “So even when I said earlier in Friday practice that I was unhappy with the long distance, my long runs were still okay. So I’m not really surprised. [by the performance]Of course, I’m glad it happened.”
Red Bull’s ability to take care of its tires also meant that Verstappen could use a faster but less durable soft compound tire on both of his first stints before switching to a hard compound on his last pit stop. Meanwhile, the rest of the riders in the top eight had no choice but to use one set of soft and then two sets of hard to get to the finish line. Simply put, Red Bull’s competitors couldn’t make the same tire strategy work without suffering a catastrophic drop in performance.
“We are a little more focused on the race. [with the setup] than in qualifying tests, and today it paid dividends for us,” said Horner. “So we were able to run through a softer compound, especially in the middle of the race, and still maintain strength.”
Perhaps what concerns Red Bull’s rivals the most is that Verstappen has never gone beyond the limits of his car. As his opponents got smaller in his mirrors with each lap he completed, he was able to survive Sunday with relative ease, meaning Red Bull’s true potential remains a mystery.
Will Red Bull face serious competition this year?
Red Bull’s impressive performance at the opening race in Bahrain was only half the battle. While the world champions have taken a significant step forward over the winter, it is clear that Mercedes and Ferrari have not improved enough.
Verstappen’s 38-second lead over third-placed Alonso underscored the performance of this year’s Red Bull RB19, but perhaps not surprisingly. Such a gap between Red Bull and the leaders of the F1 midfield at the race distance was not uncommon last year – the big difference in Bahrain was that neither Ferrari nor Mercedes were there.
Red Bull and Aston Martin were rightly lauded for their winter performance gains, but look at it the other way, and Mercedes and Ferrari (plus other midfield teams like McLaren and Alpine) are well behind where they should be. Mercedes has particularly fallen into an area previously occupied by top midfield teams, while Ferrari is already showing a continuation of its last year streak of being fast on one lap but struggling to match Red Bull at race distance.
From that perspective, it’s easy to see why Mercedes is already so keen to change the concept of its car – that’s what team boss Toto Wolff told reporters after just one qualifying session. Wolff’s call to action is made even clearer when you consider that Aston Martin, who finished in the 12-second race, buys the engine, gearbox and rear suspension from Mercedes and develops its car in a Mercedes wind tunnel.
Being beaten to victory is always humiliating for one of the top three teams in Formula One, but losing to a client is almost embarrassing.
“If you look at where we were at the end of last season, when it looked like we were catching up, this year we have almost doubled if not tripled the gap with Red Bull,” Wolf said.
“What Aston Martin has been able to achieve is a good inspiration because they came back from a two-second lag in pace and became the second best team.
“For us, everything is bad, and in the race you saw the consequences, and we went back.
“I am not exaggerating, the gap is very large, and in order to catch up, we need to take big steps. Not ordinary.”
Looking at the results of the first race in Bahrain in hindsight, it becomes easier to draw a link between the winners and losers of the winter break. After a hugely disappointing start to life under the new F1 technical regulations last year, Aston Martin abandoned its original car concept and shamelessly turned to Red Bull bodywork for inspiration from the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix.
The move to a Red Bull-style concept saw Aston Martin post a modest performance boost for the 2022 season, but clearly opened up a rich vein of performance to tap into during the winter. What’s more, the signing of new CTO Dan Fallows from Red Bull and his deputy Eric Blendin from Mercedes last April brought both teams a wealth of knowledge to compete in this year’s AMR23.
Meanwhile, Mercedes and Ferrari developed their own car concepts quite different from Red Bull’s, which clearly resulted in a slower rate of improvement. Wolff’s comments over the weekend show Mercedes is ready to get back to the drawing board, but new Ferrari team principal Fred Wasser remains confident his team’s concept car can still challenge Red Bull once reliability and tire degradation issues are cleared up on Sunday. In the evening.
“I am fully convinced of this,” Wasser said. “I have never seen a car that can compete with another in qualifying and not be able to do the same in the race – then it’s a matter of settings and some options for choosing a car. But this is not a matter of concept at all. so we don’t have to go in that direction.”
But from Red Bull’s point of view…