Seven big talking points ahead of the new F1 season

World champion Verstappen is favourite again but can Mercedes duo Hamilton and Russell stop the Red Bull star, are Ferrari finally up to a title challenge and is Alonso set for a shock return to the top? Seven big talking points ahead of the new F1 season

  • The Formula One season gets underway at the weekend with the Bahrain GP
  • Red Bull are among the early favourites following encouraging pre-season pace
  • Sportsmail looks at the big questions after just three days of pre-season testing 

Like Max Verstappen, the new F1 season has come around the corner pretty damn quickly as we prepare to get underway for the 2023 campaign.

The Dutchman heads into the season as the man to beat having won the previous two world championships with the Red Bull team – with his 2022 success coming in crushing style having won an incredible 15 grands prix last term.

But he is set to have a chasing pack behind him eager to end his dominance, with Ferrari as well as Mercedes’ British pairing Lewis Hamilton and George Russell looking to lead a championship battle.

However, there could be surprises elsewhere on the grid, with Fernando Alonso’s winter move to Aston Martin already offering signs that the veteran is gelling well with the British team following three days of testing at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain.

As ever there were winners and losers following the pre-season shakedown so Sportsmail looks at the big talking points heading into a new F1 campaign.

World champion Max Verstappen enters the 2023 season looking to retain his world title

Who has the edge after pre-season testing?

Testing is notoriously unreliable for producing data that can give us an undoubted pecking order heading into a new season – and it always has.

But this year is particularly tough given the teams have only had three days of running on one circuit – barely time to produce a shakedown.

Yet a crunching of numbers sees Red Bull have a minor but clear enough advantage – or to be more precise, Max Verstappen does.

This time last year it was also Red Bull leading the way and while they had more of an advantage, it was a little closer between the double world champion and his team-mate Sergio Perez.

That doesn’t appear to be the case this year, with Verstappen appearing to enjoy the balance of the new Red Bull that is more of an evolved concept of the car that dominated the 2022 season.

The Dutchman is therefore a clear favourite heading into the new season but there is not enough evidence to suggest he or Red Bull will destroy the competition like they did last season.

Red Bull’s pre-season testing pace at Bahrain marks them out as the team to beat this year

Can Hamilton  build on positive end to 2022?

Lewis Hamilton will be the first to tell you he that he couldn’t wait to see the back of 2022 or the Mercedes for last year after enduring his first winless campaign in Formula One.

Yet he could take encouraging signs heading into 2023 with a strong finish of podium finishes last term and producing pace that suggests he is far from being ‘past it.’

Even better news is Mercedes look in more shape to challenge Red Bull than at this point last year when they were literally bouncing all over the place with their porpoising issue.

Granted, they are not where they need to be given they still look to be a few tenths behind Red Bull but they can certainly challenge for wins from the off.

It’s not all smiles for the team though. The car was very unpredictable last term and that could prove to be the case with a few even questioning whether they can even hold on to third place in the championship given a very up and down three days at Sakhir.

Hamilton’s own mixed messages rather sum it all up, saying: the team ‘are not quite where we want to be’ and have ‘a mountain to climb’, yet also insisting they have a ‘good platform to build on’.

It does though feel like Hamilton says this every season so whether the concern is real or Mercedes are sandbagging – we will find out soon enough.

Lewis Hamilton will be hoping to return back to the front with Mercedes this season

Will Russell be able to defeat Hamilton again? 

One of the more curious outcomes to the season was George Russell waltzing into Mercedes and in his first season with the team convincingly beating the seven-time world champion Hamilton.

In doing so, the King’s Lynn star also took Mercedes’ only pole position and victory of the season – the latter a classy display in holding off Hamilton under large pressure in Brazil at Interlagos last term. 

Yet while all that makes it look like a slam dunk victory, it doesn’t quite tell the full story. 

Much of Russell’s resulting 35-point victory over Hamilton to finish fourth in the championship was down to the former McLaren star going extreme in set-ups earlier in the season in a desperate search to find a solution to Mercedes’ woes.

From the ninth race in Canada though, Hamilton appeared to have a constant, if small, pace advantage on Russell – yet intriguingly it was the ex-Williams racer who perhaps had the smarter racing calls in relation to pit strategy.

No race typified this more than the Dutch Grand Prix when Hamilton looked in an excellent position to challenge for a win mid-race only to fall away after a safety car period when Russell made a bold call to pit for tyres which saw him finish ahead of his British compatriot.

Russell certainly looks like an upgrade on Valtteri Bottas as a challenge for Hamilton, but don’t be surprised if the 38-year-old returns in 2023 to take top spot in the team again.

But Hamilton is likely to face another intra-team battle with British compatriot George Russell

Is this the year for Ferrari?

It’s not a completed pre-season in Formula One unless this question is asked and the early signs are inconclusive.

Ferrari, especially in the hands of the incredibly quick yet slightly still error-strewn Charles Leclerc, put up a strong fight in the first half of last season to Verstappen and Red Bull but a clumsy combination of poor reliability, baffling strategy calls and driver error saw them fall dramatically off the pace to end the season as only the third fastest car.

Another important development though was how Ferrari turned down the power on their engines in a bid to aid reliability, and it’s something they appear to have worked successfully on during the winter under new team principal Fred Vasseur.

Ferrari’s new parts introduced for testing didn’t seem to bridge a gap to Red Bull, nonetheless the team are confident they have a package that can keep them fighting at the front at least in the early stages of the campaign.

The team’s real progress will be a moving target though. Building a competitive car over the winter is not a foreign concept to the team from Maranello, but keeping their developments over a season have been suspect for a few years now as they look to win their first driver’s championship since 2007.

Ferrari look to have made progress over the winter to emerge as chief Red Bull challengers

Are Aston Martin and Alonso on the up?

Fernando Alonso announcing his 2023 move from an Alpine team on the up to a struggling Aston Martin outfit was one of the most sensational stories from last summer.

The two-time world champion has an infamous record of moving to the right teams at the wrong times and this appeared to be another in a long list of ill-advised moves given Alpine were the best of the midfield runners and Aston Martin were struggling to land top-10 finishes.

Yet one of the big stories emerging from pre-season testing was the apparent pace of the Aston Martin package especially with the 41-year-old at the wheel. 

With just track pace to go on with long and short runs, Alonso was just as quick as Mercedes over a single lap and potentially even quicker on longer runs. Given Ferrari’s recent trouble in protecting its tyres over a race it could also have a better package than the Italian outfit too.

At the very least, it looks like the Aston Martin will line up as the fourth-quickest car in a breakaway from the midfield… but this illusion could be shattered just by the amount of fuel each team were running as well as potential engine modes used during the Sakhir test.

Aston Martin set impressive lap times throughout winter testing with Fernando Alonso

What’s happened to McLaren?

As mentioned you can always gain a few clues over where a team is following pre-season testing and there is little to suggest that McLaren are where they want to be.

Limited running from an already limited programme will have severely hampered the Woking outfit following repairs to wheel brows and body work hurt their track time to pile on the concern of a car that already looks a little slow.

Lando Norris looked frustrated during running while his new Australian team-mate Oscar Piastri also struggled with a car that doesn’t seem to have hit development goals over the winter having been pipped to fourth place in the constructors’ championship by Alpine last term.

It’s a similar story to 12 months ago and means the team will likely spend the season playing catch-up once more.

Lando Norris (right) reflects during a troublesome pre-season testing for McLaren

And could Alpine be in even worse shape?

The numbers looked catastrophic for Alpine. Not only were they the slowest car out in Bahrain at nearly 2.5 seconds off Verstappen’s time but they were also the only team to go slower than their previous car compared to last season’s Bahrain test.

Yet, it’s intriguing to note the team is emitting anything but panic even though it’s clearly a car that won’t be challenging for podiums on outright pace from the very start of the season having been on the cusp of doing so throughout 2022.

Reliability problems hit the team, and especially Alonso, last term but there is a confidence in the team that new driver arrival Pierre Gasly and French compatriot Esteban Ocon can still compete regularly for points.

In fact on long run pace the car looks like it has potential to rival any midfield team with the exception of Aston Martin.

With more development upgrades set to be on their way too, don’t be surprised if the French-Anglo outfit prove to be the ultimate ‘sandbaggers’ from pre-season testing.

Alpine posted slow lap times during the Bahrain tests but are confident in their overall package

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