After three long months of waiting, and the anticipation that’s built throughout that time, testing could not have come soon enough. It passed in a relative blur, those three days providing as many questions as answers over the relative performance potential that exists in the field, and with the opening race now only a matter of days away, that anticipation has morphed into expectation and excitement.
Before the cars had even hit the track, we were already keenly aware of certain key narratives for the season, but with the knowledge we now have over the relative competitiveness of every team, each has now started to form a unique, and in some cases unexpected, path.
The headline, of course, is Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, who embarks on a season aiming to do what only the fabled and finest few in Formula 1 history have achieved; namely, taking three World Championships back-to-back.
What’s more they’d be his first three. Only Sebastian Vettel achieved such a feat before. That he has the car underneath him to do so appears undeniable. But we were saying something similar this time last year, only for Ferrari to have arguably the stronger and, certainly initially, more reliable car.
But last year was the first of a new set of technical regulations, the single most revolutionary change to the cars in the sport’s history. There were always going to be teething troubles. And when Red Bull had mastered its initial issues, they became an unstoppable force.
Can Red Bull do the unthinkable?
There’s a strange dichotomy to our love of Formula 1. For while with one breath we all pray for close racing and a field where any number of drivers and teams can win, we also cannot help but marvel at the achievements of any team which is able to exploit the regulations so masterfully and create a car so exquisite that when it is allied to a driver at the peak of their powers they prove unmatchable.
The holy grail remains the complete lockout. Every race won. No team has ever achieved it. Only one came close. McLaren won 15 of 16 races in 1988. Ferrari fell two short in 2002, Mercedes that same number shy in 2016. With the calendar at its longest ever in 2023, such an achievement might seem impossible. Were Red Bull to have created a car capable of emulating such a record, it would be worthy of history.
And while testing suggests they have the initial advantage, we’re a long way from the story of this season having been written.
Ferrari look excellent, even if long run pace and tyre management appear a struggle. Mercedes look to have taken a step forward after a troubled 2022, and with major upgrades and new specifications already in the pipeline, the dominant team of the past decade shows no sign of being content to make up the numbers.
Is Aston Martin’s performance promise the real deal?
But by far the biggest and most positive surprise of the pre-season is that the rumours emanating from Aston Martin about their pace appear to be holding true. And things might be looking better for them than possibly even they expected. The car is fast. Perhaps not front row fast, but in race trim there are suggestions that possibly only Red Bull has the legs on them. Astonishing if true. And sure to be one of the stories of the year.
Alfa Romeo have a great car out of the blocks, albeit one which suffered from a few gremlins over the three days of testing. Haas seems to have done a solid job, too. And with Alpine admitting they haven’t shown anywhere near their full potential, and with their first upgrade due to make an appearance this very weekend, there’s much to be excited about in the midfield.
Even last year’s bottom two teams, AlphaTauri and Williams, had reasons to smile in testing, the former recording the most laps of any team and the latter enjoying what some were describing as their best pre-season in a decade or more.
That McLaren struggled is undeniable. From the rhetoric at the launch, it was apparent that expectations were low, but even the modest targets the team had set themselves appear to have been missed. Best expectations from across the paddock and the most experienced reporters in the game have them fighting at the back of the midfield.
But that’s precisely where they were this time last year, too. And they ended up coming very close to snatching fourth in the constructors’ championship by season’s end…
Plenty of change at the top
Allied to the technical challenge, there’s the incredible narrative arc of team leadership to consider. Forty percent of the field has someone new at the helm, from James Vowles taking championship-winning knowledge to Williams to Fred Vasseur taking giant-killing acumen sprinkled with humour and self-awareness to Ferrari, there are fascinating new directions being forged in the heat of competitive fire.
How will the budget cap and limitations on development time further level the field? If one thing was clear at testing, it was how the top teams had all made developments of their 2022 designs, while those behind had been granted the opportunities to take bolder gambles and push the innovation and exploration of their concepts to the maximum.
And how will the driver line-ups match up? Will Max Verstappen still be able to call on Sergio Perez as a rear gunner for his assault on the title, or will the bad blood which bubbled up towards the end of 2022 flow again? Fred Vasseur has said there is no number one at Ferrari, but how long will that prove to be the case should the car show race-winning pedigree?
After being beaten by a team mate for only the second time in his career, will Lewis Hamilton and George Russell be able to maintain their cordial relationship should they too be granted a car capable of fighting at the front?
Will time have healed the childhood animosity between Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, and was Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen’s tiff ever really anything more than a simple red mist spat? How will the rookies fare?
And will Fernando Alonso step not just back onto a Formula 1 podium, but to that elusive top step? While many might cruelly have suggested the Spaniard had found himself in green thanks more to the colour of money than the colour of the car, and questioned whether two such strong characters as the two-time world champion and his new boss Lawrence Stroll could ever happily co-exist, theirs might yet be the story of the season.
At 41 years of age, and showing signs in 2023 he’s as hungry now as he was when he burst onto the scene two decades ago, Fernando Alonso might just have a car underneath him to shock the world.
We’ll know by Sunday night. Not how the story plays out, but what’s contained in that very first chapter.
As at this time every year, I can’t wait to see what it says.