Is Red Bull’s advantage as big as it looks? What next for Mercedes? Five key questions ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
The second race of the Formula 1 season is taking place in Saudi Arabia this weekend, with more details on the competitive order promised to be revealed in 2023. Red Bull dominated the season opener in Bahrain, but that doesn’t mean the case in Jeddah, where different track characteristics could change the order. Ahead of the second round of the 2023 season, here are some of the big questions coming up ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Is Red Bull’s advantage as big as it seems?
There are strong arguments that Max Verstappen’s performance in Bahrain is in fact underplayed his true advantage over the rest of the field. The defending champion was driving to victory with a 39-second lead over his closest non-Red Bull rival, Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin, and there’s no doubt he could have gone even faster if pressure had been put on him.
The opposite point for those hoping for a more competitive race in Saudi Arabia is that the Bahrain International Circuit has exploited the strengths of the RB19 and exposed the weaknesses of its main rivals, Ferrari and Mercedes. Red Bull’s two traditional rivals struggled with tire handling throughout the race in Bahrain, which is one of the most extreme rear tire wear tracks on the calendar.
Saudi Arabia, with a much smoother track surface and faster, smoother corners, is a different type of challenge that could help the entire field close the gap to Red Bull. What’s more, GPS data from Bahrain showed the Ferrari had a top speed advantage over the Red Bull, which should translate into better performance over the RB19 in Jeddah.
Given the size of Red Bull’s lead in Bahrain, it still seems silly to bet against Verstappen and teammate Sergio Pérez this weekend, but there’s good reason to believe the gap could close.
Can Aston Martin fight for victory?
Fernando Alonso stole headlines in Bahrain with his brilliant podium finish for Aston Martin. The result did not come as a complete shock to everyone after pre-season testing, but in the context of Aston Martin finishing seventh in the 2022 constructors’ standings, it was still an outstanding result. Now the question is whether it can be reproduced or perhaps improved on another circuit.
Like Red Bull’s advantage, one of Aston Martin’s strengths in Bahrain was excellent tire handling. In qualifying, the Aston Martin was the third fastest car (only 0.004 seconds faster than the Mercedes and 0.336 seconds slower than the fastest Ferrari), but progress was easy in the latter stages of the race as Ferrari and Mercedes ran into trouble.
This may not be the case in Jeddah, but there is no reason to believe that Aston Martin will suddenly drop out of the podium hunt. The victories still seem like an exaggeration, but I never rule out a bit of drama in Jeddah. The street circuit is known for its big crashes and safety cars, which can give someone else a chance to win a race, and not Verstappen, who better than Fernando Alonso will be able to capitalize on the failures of other drivers.
Will McLaren improve?
McLaren’s first race in 2023 couldn’t have gone much worse, so the simple answer to the question is yes. Reliability issues forced Oscar Piastri to retire after just 15 laps, with Lando Norris finishing last after making six pit stops to increase air pressure on his car. Between pit stops, Norris had glimpses of promising results, but with the car so frequently fitted with fresh tires, it was hardly a fair comparison to his rivals.
McLaren has been open about its unfulfilled winter performance plans and will not seriously upgrade its car until round four of the season in Azerbaijan. Until then, the team will continue to try to make the most out of a bad situation by relying on the heroic performances of their two riders.
What’s next for Mercedes?
After just one qualifying session for the new season, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted that his team’s car concept needed a major rethink to be competitive. While saying this, Wolf seemed to admit defeat before the first race and raised questions about how the team had gone wrong, as well as what it would do next.
Finishing fifth, Lewis Hamilton said the Mercedes engineers didn’t listen to him about the direction of the winter, saying there was a need for “accountability” within the team. In an open letter to its fans, Mercedes made it clear that it was not personally responsible for the problems it encountered, but acknowledged that it would take a long time to correct the situation.
The planned upgrade is scheduled to arrive at Imola in mid-May and is expected to change the team’s side pontoon concept, but Wolff’s comments hinted at the need for more fundamental changes to how the car generates downforce. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be a good hunting ground for the team as GPS data shows it loses much of its lap time to Red Bull in fast corners.
What’s going on at Ferrari?
Unlike Wolf, Ferrari boss Fred Wasser defended the competitiveness of his team’s car in Bahrain, although his comments were cast in a slightly different light due to the unexpected departure next week of Ferrari head of car concept David Sanchez. According to Italian media reports, there was a cultural clash between some of the team’s senior engineers and Ferrari CEO Benedetto Vigna, which eventually led to the departure of former team principal Mattia Binotto at the end of last year.
While Ferrari always faces pressure from Italy when it doesn’t win, it seems like the job ahead of Vasser is a lot harder than it might at first appear. He has repeatedly stated that the result of the first race will not determine the direction of the entire season, but it is difficult to see how anything other than a victory in Saudi Arabia will help stabilize the ship.