It was a familiar headline in Bahrain today, as Max Verstappen took the first pole position of the 2023 Formula 1 World Championship .
Sergio Perez qualified just behind his teammate to help Red Bull lock out the front row. Ferrari was third and fourth, with Charles Leclerc just under 3 tenths behind Verstappen, despite setting only one lap in Q3. He finished just ahead of his teammate, Carlos Sainz.
Fifth went to an excellent Fernando Alonso in his Aston Martin , left with only one set of Softs in Q3 – finishing 0.628 seconds from pole position. At Mercedes?
George Russell finished qualifying in sixth position ahead of seven-time World champion Lewis Hamilton , with the W14’s 6 tenths behind Pole Position in their Q3 run.
Then came Lance Stroll (Aston Martin / +1.128), Esteban Ocon (Alpine / +1.276) and the highly impressive Nico Hülkenberg in his Haas.
Ferrari saves a set of Softs in qualifying – Leclerc plays the long game
No, there was no problem with the car. We have to bear in mind that in the race, we seem to be a bit behind Red Bull, and we thought that tomorrow it is better to start third but with a new set of tires rather than starting first (or second) but with a used set,” said Charles Leclerc after deciding against doing a second run in Q3.
Ferrari is aware that Red Bull will likely have too much pace during the Bahrain GP. Ferrari didn’t come to Bahrain to win, instead focusing on maximizing their result this weekend – as Fred Vasseur explains:
“The world championship cannot be won in Bahrain” . This is clearly a pragmatic and conservative approach, largely because the SF-23 is not seeing the same performance on the track as at the Maranello simulator . The Front-end grip is missing, with the Italian squad lacking four-tenths to Red Bull.
Ferrari made positive steps after a difficult test , with the team reaching a better understanding of their 2023 machine. Leclerc, in particular, seemed to make a forward step, as demonstrated by his performance today:
“I didn’t expect to be so competitive after the tests. We managed to find a good rhythm on one lap, which was fantastic,” said the Monegasque.
However, a certain realism follows the Ferrari camp; catching Red Bull will be a very difficult undertaking. It is no coincidence that Ferrari used all three free practice sessions to optimize their performance with the soft compound .
The C3 will be key in tomorrow’s race, alongside the harder C1 compound, which shouldn’t create major problems for the SF-23.
With this in mind, Ferrari made the conscious decision to save some tires for tomorrow’s race:
” Points are scored on Sunday, you don’t win the championship with pole positions. Had we been to Montecarlo, we have made another decision, however we are focusing on the race with the team, which seems to have done a good job. said Fred Vasseur.
The Aston Martin AMR23 is better on race day than during qualifying
Although he finished only fifth in qualifying today, Verstappen believes Alonso can be “very competitive” tomorrow. His Red Bull teammate Perez also sees him as “a threat” .
Whilst a few tenths off Pole Position, the Spaniard could be the biggest threat to the Red Bull duo . The AMR23 has shown very impressive race pace since testing last week.
Aston Martin’s 2023 machine, influenced by many former Red Bull technicians, performs strongly in long runs and has very good tire management – although it lacks some absolute pace to Ferrari in qualifying.
These two competitors have cars with completely different characteristics. The Maranello-produced car has its strong point in high-speed areas , such as the straights and fast corners, thanks to improved aerodynamic efficiency.
Conversely, the AMR23 is strong in the braking zone and goes well in medium and, above all, slow-speed corners. Conversely, Ferrari struggled quite notably in this area.
However, “it sounds too good to be true” when the Spaniard was asked about his podium chances tomorrow. As ever, the Spaniard is trying to manage expectations and reduce the pressure on Aston Martin to perform:
“Historically, Aston Martin has had very good tire management. That’s why if we have an opportunity, we will definitely take it,” concluded the Spaniard.
Verstappen with a “compromised” set-up, similar from pre-season testing
The Dutch World Champion was relieved after qualifying, which he struggled with more to optimize this weekend.
At Red Bull, they were aware of Ferrari’s strength over a single lap, while in the race, they believe that Alonso will be their biggest threat, “In long runs, Ferrari simply has too much tire wear”, – Helmut Marko said – “ The biggest opponent in tomorrow’s race will most likely be Alonso”.
Red Bull had to adapt the RB19 a lot to the new track conditions, with the team working heavily to adjust its set-up “a lot” during the weekend, before finding an important “compromise”.
It ultimately paid off, as Red Bull secured Pole Position and showed very good balance during qualifying. Rumours have circulated in the paddock that the RB19 began this weekend with far less aggressive ground clearances than during the tests, to help preserve the car. However, the Austrian team has firmly denied these rumours, insisting they are using heights “similar to those used in last week’s tests.”
Although Red Bull has already put both cars on the front row, Verstappen explained that tomorrow cannot be taken for granted:
“Many things can happen in a race, sometimes out of our control. We have to focus on ourselves and do our best. Let’s hope nothing strange happens. ” As ever, there will be pressure on the Austrian team to perform and capitalise on its very promising performance.
The Brackley-based team had a reasonable qualifying, finishing just six-tenths behind Verstappen with just one run in Q3. Hamilton described qualifying as “positive” after the session:
“I thought we would have gone much worse today, risking not getting into Q3”. Mercedes made a significant step forward set-up-wise heading into qualifying:
“The car felt much, much better than it did yesterday.” said the seven-time world champion. However, the W14 lacks downforce, although its instability, one of the Achilles’ heels of the 2022 car, has been significantly improved. Today, the W14 lost only a tenth and a half on the straight compared to the faster RB19.
On George Russell’s side, there was also a sense of optimism post-qualifying:
“After yesterday, things went much better than expected, thanks to some performance we found during the night”.
Russell described the W14 as “more pleasant to drive”, underlining that it is already a much better starting point than its predecessor. Tomorrow’s goal?
“We will fight for third position with Ferrari and Fernando. Ferrari doesn’t have its strong suit in race pace, while Fernando’s worries me more”.
Author: Piergiuseppe Donadoni
Translation: Jaden Diaz-Ndisang