The second race of the Formula One season takes place in Saudi Arabia this weekend, and it promises to reveal more details about the competitive order in 2023. Red Bull dominated the season-opener in Bahrain, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be the case in Jeddah, where different track characteristics could shake up the order. Ahead of the second round of the 2023 season, here’s a look at some of the big questions ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Is Red Bull’s advantage as big as it looks?
There’s a strong argument that Max Verstappen’s performance in Bahrain actually underplayed his true advantage over the rest of the field. The reigning champion cruised to victory with a 39-second advantage over his nearest non-Red Bull rival — Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin — and there’s little doubt he could have gone even faster if he’d been under pressure.
The counter point for anyone hoping for a more competitive race in Saudi Arabia is that the Bahrain International Circuit played to the strengths of the RB19 and exposed weaknesses of its main rivals, Ferrari and Mercedes. Red Bull’s two traditional rivals struggled with tyre management throughout the race in Bahrain, which is among the most extreme circuits for rear tyre degradation on the calendar.
Saudi Arabia, which has a much smoother track surface and faster, flowing corners presents a different type of challenge, which could help the entire field close the gap to Red Bull. What’s more, GPS data from Bahrain indicated Ferrari held a top speed advantage over Red Bull, which should translate to more performance relative to the RB19 in Jeddah.
Given the size of Red Bull’s advantage in Bahrain, it still seems foolish to bet against Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez this weekend, but there are genuine reasons to believe the gap over the field could get smaller.
Can Aston Martin challenge for victories?
Fernando Alonso stole the headlines in Bahrain with his brilliant drive to the podium for Aston Martin. The result wasn’t a complete shock for anyone following preseason testing, but in the context of Aston Martin’s seventh place finish in the 2022 constructors’ standings it was still a remarkable result. The question now is whether it can be replicated, or perhaps bettered, at a different circuit.
Much like Red Bull’s advantage, one of Aston Martin’s key strengths in Bahrain was its superior tyre management. In qualifying, the Aston Martin was the third fastest car (just 0.004s faster than Mercedes and 0.336s slower than the fastest Ferrari) but progress through the field came easy in the latter stages of the race as Ferrari and Mercedes hit trouble.
That might not be the case in Jeddah, but there’s no reason to believe Aston Martin will suddenly fall out of the hunt for podiums either. Victories still seem like a stretch, but never rule out a bit of drama in Jeddah. The street circuit is known for its big accidents and safety cars, which could present an opportunity for someone other than Verstappen to win the race — who better to capitalise on other drivers’ misfortune than Fernando Alonso.
Will McLaren improve?
McLaren’s first race of 2023 couldn’t have gone much worse, so the easy answer to the question is yes. A reliability issue saw Oscar Piastri retire after just 15 laps and Lando Norris finished last of the finishers after making six pit stops to top up the pneumatic pressure on his car. There were glimpses of promising performance between pit stops for Norris, but with fresh tyres being fitted on the car so often it was hardly a fair comparison to his rivals.
McLaren has been open about its missed performance targets over the winter and will not have a major update for its car until the fourth round of the season in Azerbaijan. Until then, the team will continue to look to make the best of a bad situation while relying on heroic performances from its two drivers.
What next for Mercedes?
After just one qualifying session of the new season, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted his team’s car concept needed a serious rethink to be competitive. In saying as much, Wolff appeared to be admitting defeat before the first race and raised questions of how the team got it so wrong as well as what it would do next.
After finishing the race fifth, Lewis Hamilton revealed Mercedes’ engineers had not listened to him about the direction of development over the winter, saying there was a need for “accountability” within the team. In an open letter to its fans, Mercedes has since made clear that it holds no individual accountable for the problems it has faced, while conceding it will take a lot of time to set things right.
A planned upgrade is due to reach the car at Imola in mid-May, which is expected to alter the team’s sidepod concept but Wolff’s comments hinted at the need for more fundamental changes to the way the car generates downforce. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be a happy hunting ground for the team, as GPS data suggests it is losing the vast majority of its lap time to Red Bull in high-speed corners.
What’s going on at Ferrari?
Unlike Wolff, Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur defended the competitiveness of his team’s car in Bahrain, although his comments were cast in a slightly different light by the surprise departure of Ferrari’s head of vehicle concept David Sanchez the following week. According to reports in the Italian media there has been a culture clash between some of the team’s senior engineers and Ferrari’s CEO Benedetto Vigna, who ultimately brought about the departure of former team principal Mattia Binotto at the end of last year.
While Ferrari always faces pressure from Italy when it isn’t winning, it seems the job facing Vasseur is far tougher than it first appeared. He has consistently said the result of the first race would not dictate the direction of the entire season, but it’s hard to see how anything other than a victory in Saudi Arabia will help steady the ship.