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Bahrain Grand Prix: Red Bull dominate but Fernando Alonso and Aston Martin play starring role

Fernando Alonso enlivened a first race of the Formula 1 season that was dominated by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a fashion that suggested the destiny of this year’s World Championship might already be known.

Alonso produced a starring drive, featuring two quite superb overtaking moves, to fight back from seventh in the early stages to take the final podium place behind Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez.

The remarkable rise to the front of Alonso and his Aston Martin team was the story of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen’s superiority was expected by most – even if the extent of it left his title rival of last year, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, in a downcast mood. And while Aston Martin had looked impressive in pre-season testing, even Alonso did not expect them to be as good as they turned out to be.

Before the cars turned a wheel on the race weekend, Alonso told this writer over coffee last Thursday morning that he was thinking about qualifying in the lower reaches of the top 10 and perhaps finishing in the top five or six.

But his was probably the second fastest car in the field at Sakhir on Sunday, and the delicious moves he pulled on Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari in the closing stages sparked into life a race that, at the front, had long since become soporific.

“We didn’t expect to be that competitive,” Alonso said. “The aim in 2023 was getting in the mix in the midfield, leading that midfield and getting close to the top three teams. But even a podium was maybe not on the radar.

“And we found ourselves second-best car today in Bahrain, or the whole weekend, just behind Red Bull. So this is a little bit of a surprise.”

Alonso’s long road back to the sharp end

Race winner Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium with second placed Mark Webber of Red Bull Racing and third placed Fernando Alonso of Ferrari following the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2013
Alonso’s last season of regular podium finishes was in 2013, as seen here at that year’s final round in Brazil. In the decade since he has stood on the F1 podium just four times – twice in 2014, once in 2021 and now in 2023

Notwithstanding the crushing superiority of the Red Bulls, Alonso has had a long wait to get his hands on a car as competitive as this.

He scored a podium for Alpine in Qatar in 2021, but that was a performance that transcended the car’s natural level that year.

Before that, his last podium was for Ferrari in Hungary in 2014, another great drive in a chaotic race in which his skills came to the fore. But it was one of only two top-three finishes in a poor year for Ferrari which led to him negotiating an exit from his contract two years early because he had lost faith in the team’s ability to deliver him a competitive car.

It was 2013 – 10 years ago – that he last had a car capable of regularly being on the podium. Since then, he has been in a kind of competitive purgatory, his status as an all-time great secure, but his talents held back by his machinery.

Alonso left Alpine for Aston Martin this year believing in the vision and finance of owner Lawrence Stroll, and accepting it was probably – at the age of 41 – his last team. He said he had faith they would make progress, but he never believed it would happen this quickly.

The reaction in F1 in Bahrain to his appearance regularly at the top of the timesheets was universally warm.

Alonso is a divisive figure, and not everyone enjoys his complex and sometimes confrontational character. But no-one doubts his incredible talent, his relentless, unquenchable desire, nor resented his return to the front.

Verstappen, with whom Alonso has a warm relationship, said: “He has had a few years where there was not really a possibility to fight at the front, so I’m happy to see him sitting here already in race one.

“For this year, difficult to say if they’re going to challenge for the championship, but race wins are definitely on the table.

“I’ve been in the same position where some races I’m finishing 20 to 40 seconds behind the winners and you still win two or three races a year because sometimes there are some tracks which really suit your car and everything just comes together and you can win a race with maybe sometimes a bit of help or luck. They have a really strong package.”

First-lap scare gives way to sublime drive

George Russell under pressure from Fernando Alonso
Alonso had to catch and pass George Russell, Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz to earn his podium finish – an unthinkable task in last year’s Aston Martin but made possible by the strides taken by the team over the winter

Alonso had to work hard for this podium, and he did it with a drive that befitted the magnitude of the achievement.

Fifth on the grid, he lost places to Mercedes drivers Hamilton and George Russell on the first lap, the second because he was clouted from behind by team-mate Lance Stroll at the fourth corner.

From seventh at the end of the first lap, he caught and passed Russell in the first stint, closed in on Hamilton in the second, and then homed in for the kill after his final stop.

Alonso snuck ahead into Turn Four on lap 38, but an oversteer moment on the exit allowed Hamilton back past.

Next time around, Alonso realised that he needed to try something different to catch Hamilton by surprise, and he set the Mercedes up through the first part of the lap, before making a move down the inside of the Turn 10 hairpin, approached through a difficult, downhill, turning braking zone, and most emphatically not normally an overtaking point.

A couple of laps later, Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari retired from third place with an engine problem, so now Alonso was fourth, with the second Ferrari of Sainz looking vulnerable and a podium in his sights.

Again Alonso had to improvise. Sainz was wise to the move at Turn 10, but Alonso cut back and exited the corner much faster, passing into the fast, uphill Turn 11 – another unconventional overtaking place.

“You normally pass into Turn One or into Turn Four,” Alonso said. “And I passed Lewis and Carlos in not the normal places, because we could not match their straight-line speed.

“We had to make some moves in the corners before Turn 10 and Turn 11 and change trajectory, and then get the overtake done.

“To Lewis, it was more playing a surprise move there, because no-one overtakes into Turn 10, let’s say. And then with Carlos, it was close into Turn 10 again, he closed the door, and then I have a better exit into Turn 11.”

Aston Martin’s quantum leap shakes up established order

Aston Martin’s new-found pace will lead to questions for other teams, not least Mercedes, whose engine, gearbox and rear suspension Aston Martin buy, and in whose wind tunnel Aston Martin develop their car.

Aston Martin have achieved this step forward after a major investment and restructuring programme by owner Lawrence Stroll, which has included poaching highly regarded designers from top teams – including new technical director Dan Fallows from Red Bull and his deputy Eric Blandin from Mercedes. A new factory will be completed in the summer, and a new wind tunnel is coming along, too.

Fallows was at Red Bull when the car that dominated the 2022 season was conceived, so it is hardly a surprise that the Aston Martin bears more than a passing resemblance to the the car that looks as if it will also take control of this year.

Even so, Aston Martin finished last season seventh in the championship after starting it with close to the slowest car in the field. And for a team to make this sort of progress from one season to the next is extremely rare in F1.

“We are extremely proud, happy with the job done at Silverstone in the factory,” Alonso said. “So big congratulations to everyone. Let’s enjoy this moment, and build from here hopefully a good 2023 campaign and get closer and closer to the top guys.

“This is just the starting point. The top teams worked on the concepts they had and tried to build on their advantage. We had to change 95% of the car. There is more to learn from the car and more to come.”

What now for Ferrari and Mercedes?

For Red Bull’s more usual rivals, it was a chastening weekend.

Mercedes admitted they need a major rethink of their car, and have effectively already given up on challenging Red Bull this year.

Ferrari were the closest thing to a challenge to Red Bull, and Leclerc by far their best driver in the race. But he was losing nearly a second a lap to Verstappen in the first stint before the Dutchman backed off into cruise control.

That was bad enough for a team who felt they had done a good job with development over the winter only to find Red Bull had moved the goalposts. Worse was the return of the reliability problems that were one of the reasons for last year’s title challenge falling apart, when they thought they had fixed their engine troubles.

Max Verstappen leads the Bahrain Grand Prix from Charles Leclerc
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc managed to split the Red Bulls at the start but Sergio Perez recovered the position as he and Max Verstappen eased to a one-two for the reigning constructors’ champions

“I cannot say it feels good,” Leclerc said. “It’s impossible to look at the positives on a day like this when you don’t finish the race. Obviously there was quite a lot of work on that. We need to keep working because first race and first reliability problem, not good.

“Red Bull seems to have found something really big during the race pace. In terms of quali pace, they are actually pretty similar to us, so at least we managed to extract the lap time. But then we come to the race and we are a second every lap off the pace, which is huge.

“Bahrain is also a very specific track so I hope that the picture can change a little bit for the next race but we cannot rely on that.”

New team boss Frederic Vasseur was defiant. He insisted that if Ferrari can challenge Red Bull in qualifying – Leclerc was just over 0.1secs off Verstappen on their first runs in the final session and did not do a second run, preferring to save tyres for the race – they should be able to in the race as well.

“I never saw a car able to match the pace of another one in qualifying and not to be able to in the race,” Vasseur said. “Then it is a matter of set-up and some choices on the car. We have to understand what we are doing well, and to come back next time stronger.”

At Red Bull, meanwhile, they were saying all the things one would expect – it’s the first race, it’s a long season, Bahrain is a very specific track and so on.

“Let’s just wait and see what happens [at the next two races] in Jeddah and in Melbourne,” team principal Christian Horner said, “and at some of the other circuits before drawing too many conclusions.”

It was Russell, though, who gave voice to the feelings of many in the sport.

“They have this championship sewn up,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to be fighting with them this year. They should win every race is my bet with the performance they’ve got.”  –