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BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 23, 2023 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Inside Line: Verstappen, Leclerc, and Sainz or Perez on Bahrain podium

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 23, 2023 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

You can’t read much into Formula 1 testing they say, well that’s BS… Here’s my take on the pecking order after witnessing three days of riveting 2023 pre-season testing from Bahrain.

I remain convinced that three days of testing is not enough. But I must concede that in this day and age of bullet-roof reliability of F1 cars, maybe adding an extra day to the three days would be better.

Whatever the case everyone is in the same boat, and honestly (barring McLaren’s duct-tape and rivet-gun adventures) the reliability was astounding; notably, two of the slower teams amassed the most mileage over the course of the three days. But more about them later as well as a shout-out to Sky F1 pundits

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I saw a very potent Red Bull team, probably even sandbagging a bit and yet way out front. And it was so typical of the Blues, reigning F1 World Champion Max Verstappen quick out of the box and through his stints in the car, always at the top or tickling the top of the time sheets while teammate Sergio Perez took his time to get going, kept his silver bullet in the chamber, fired it on the final day and went fastest of all.

The Mexican is up against it, perhaps like no other second driver in a team, while he takes his time to find the abovementioned silver bullet on race weekends, normally firing it late in Q3 after gradually finding his sweet-spot. The opposite of Max in other words.

Buoyed by a good preseason F1 test Perez will now have to find more silver bullets as Verstappen in the sister car has his chamber packed with them. In my opinion, the Dutchman will walk away from Sakhir with the winner’s trophy on Sunday night, having started from pole and cantered to a win.

With that in mind, also hard not to see Max walk away with a third F1 Title in as many years. Boring? Never! The journey will be interesting, probably closer than ever, and will be packed with intrigue and drama that makes F1 so unique, trust me.

Ferrari looked strong and might have not released all the Cavalinos just yet

ferrari pitwall bahrain testing sainz vasseur F1

Chasing the Blues (hopefully all the way this time) should be the Reds, with very little to choose between Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, the latter beating his ‘homegrown’ teammate in his first year at Ferrari,

However, last year Leclerc regained the upper hand and, IMO, he still has the slightest edge over the Spaniard, thus my prediction in the headline. I can see Leclerc scurrying off chasing Verstappen, with Sainz and Perez scrapping for third. Maybe a DNF will tinker with that order.

Which points to the next question: Mercedes where art thy?

Indeed the once serial F1 Title winners disappointed with the turd of a car (honestly it looks like one from above) they have persevered with for their 2023 campaign, which I only see bringing more pain to Lewis Hamilton and George Russell… I hope I’m wrong.

Stubborn or collectively stupid, maybe Mercedes need reminding that at the end of testing this generation of F1 cars, last year in Barcelona, the first version of the W13 topped the timesheets, with Lewis well fastest and George second. They were on to a good thing everyone thought.

But for the next test, they wheeled out the Ugly Thing which had them guessing all year, openly confused with their Jekyll & Hyde car. They never knew which version would turn up to a race weekend, the shit one or the very shit one. Only on rare occasions did a good one happen, and Russell of course took it and won Sao Paulo with it.

One would think lessons learned, but no they wheel it out again for this campaign, and here is me thinking: Mercedes don’t deserve third but they will probably get it come to the end of the season because they are Merc after all.

But I am not expecting the Black cars to get a look into the hot action up front, at least not at the start of the season or until they roll out the handy piece of kit they kept under wraps since Barcelona a year ago, or is it too late? We will soon know.

Hoping that Aston Martin are as strong as their Bahrain test pace suggests and beat Mercedes

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In fact, I hope Aston Martin teach Merc a lesson, for in testing at least Fernando Alonso got to strut his stuff. He was super confident and getting solid mileage in the new car, in a new team that he is turning into his own fast, whether Lance Stroll likes it or not.

Felipe Drugovich, who subbed for injured Stroll, and impressed the team, could make his F1 debut this weekend as the Canadian’s condition (at time of writing) is unclear.

How serious is the injury? What broke, the wrist only? Did he borrow Fernando’s bicycle? How many races will he miss? Photo?

Too many questions about Lance’s injury, and he was missed as he would have provided important insight to Aston Martin, evaluating and comparing this year’s car to the lemon they drove last year.

Nevertheless, he will be smiling watching Alonso putting the AMR23 through its paces and looking mighty handy in the process.

No matter what you think of Lawrence Stroll, the billionaire put his money where his mouth is with his F1 project and deserves better than he got so far. Maybe the Karma debt, or whatever, is settled now and Team Green start performing at a level all that investment deserves. Beating Merc would be very sweet.

Behind this quartet there is a small gap, I am predicting the midfield is even tighter than before, so much so with such small margins, I am seeing a pecking order that changes from track to track, and almost session to session on any given grand prix weekend.

The Bahrain Grand Prix venue, while logistically logical to host testing at this time of the year, is hardly ideal for maximizing new F1 cars, as the circuit’s old tarmac, weather, sand, etc conspire to create unrepresentative conditions. Thus, for me, mileage was king over the three days.

And that’s what Alpine did. Esteban Ocon and new man Pierre Gasly did the laps, focusing on Bahrain Grand Prix setup, opting not to run the softer, faster rubber which their rivals did. They kept to the three compounds they will be using this coming weekend; the no need to showboat is food for thought, very un-French. They could be the team to surprise, or they are going to bomb big time.

Alfa Romeo were not shy to flaunt their goodies

alfa romeo testing bahrain

In contrast to Alpine, Alfa Romeo were flaunting their stuff in Bahrain, hiding nothing as both Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu starred during their time in the car. Very much, an “if you got, it give it stick!” attitude at the Swiss outfit, perhaps already benefitting from the Midas touch that the Sauber (soon to be Audi F1) boss tends to have, ask Porsche, and BMW and Zak!

If Alfa can find reliability, which dogged them last year, they could be a surprise package this F1 season, with Bottas a known race winner and fast learning Zhou.

Also, there or thereabouts will be the Haas if the form we saw in Bahrain is anything to go by. Kevin Magnussen and newcomer Nico Hulkenberg looked well settled, the latter plugging in hassle-free, bringing a double-pronged experience to a team that now appears adequately financed, which they were not last year and thus went backw2ards as the 2022 season progressed.

Refreshed and rejuvenated again for this season, the VF23 appears good for the better end of the midfield at this early stage, the team moving forward with more financing, as Guenther Steiner said: “Now we have no more excuses.”

From what we witnessed in Bahrain, that’s my midfield prediction: Mercedes, with Aston Martin snipping at their heels, closely followed by Alpine, Alfa, and Haas, in no particular order.

Around the foot of the midfield, I am expecting the AlphaTauri lads Yuki Tsunoda and rookie Nyck de Vries to have an ordinary car at their disposal, maybe with occasional flashes of brilliance depending on the venue; ditto Williams with Alex Albon and their rookie Logan Sargeant.

While neither the AT04 or the FW45 are rockets, they were extremely reliable as they topped the mileage charts after three days of running. This is food for thought and will result, I believe, in the tightest F1 midfield battles in memory.

Targets!!! What targets did McLaren miss in Bahrain F1 testing?

Brown admits McLaren 'didn't hit' MCL60 development goals

And of course, there’s McLaren! My team (like my football team Everton!) in Shit Street again, missing their targets? What targets does an F1 team set?

I immediately imagine Zak Brown setting a target before Christmas: “We must be fastest of all in F1 testing.”

Of course, that’s Zak-speak for we have a crap car. And we know how ‘well’ McLaren builds bad cars, having done so only too recently, ask Jenson, Fernando, Stoffel, and the lads who suffered…

With that as a yardstick, one could argue that every year nine F1 teams missed their respective targets, and will always do so because one or two teams, sometimes three, get the maths right and the others simply don’t.

Whatever the case, my heart goes out to Lando Norris who deserves a good car, because he is the real deal and it’s time he starts winning races. Of course, so does his rookie teammate Oscar Piastri, if only to justify the hype and effort to get him into the top flight.

For Norris it will be pure frustration should McLaren drop the ball again and not recover this season. On the other hand, Piastri will have to play the rookie trying to shine in a bad car, a tough ask but Ayrton Senna did it, Michael Schumacher too, and more recently George Russell. As for us long-suffering McLaren fans, I think we deserve better.

Finally, a shout-out to the superb Sky F1 commentary team coverage of the three days of testing. They get slicker by the year – and apart from the Nyck de Vries rookie saga – they were on top of their collective games throughout.

Anthony Davidson stole the show for me with his insights into the mind of top-level race drivers; his broken-back story and comeback from it was a jaw-dropping listen, related to listener with abundant enthusiasm and rare honesty. Respect. Admiration.

However, if there was a highlight for me, Jolyon Palmer’s commentary of his own Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying lap was hilarious, iconic, and one for the ages. Thank you Sky F1 folks and keep up the good work!

There we have it, my take on the pecking order ahead of the 2023 F1 season which I and our GRANDPRIX247 Team look forward to enjoying with you from Bahrain this weekend until Abu Dhabi in November.