At the sharp end of the Formula 1 grid, it’s clear that Red Bull have stolen an early lead at the start of the new season. Fulfilling the huge promise the RB19 showed in testing, Max Verstappen opened the campaign in Bahrain with pole position and a perfectly controlled victory. Thanks to stablemate Sergio Perez finishing second both times he asked, the team fell just short of a fastest lap point for a perfect score to start the campaign.
Fernando Alonso stunned in a wheel-to-wheel battle to complete the podium, while Lance Stroll’s injury-battered sixth place proves the Aston Martin AMR23 is a fast and confident creation. While there are still questions about Ferrari’s tire degradation and lingering unreliability, plus the Mercedes camp has fallen apart now that its car concept has been brutally exposed, they don’t hold up to the times either.
But which group was slower out of the blocks?
Certainly, Williams was the top player in 2022 as its first crack at a new-age ground-effect car that wanted downforce and balance in lower-speed corners. This year’s FW45 marked a step in the right direction, but not a giant leap. This left Alex Albon to predict: “From the initial look at testing, we are the 10th fastest team… In terms of pure pace, there are a lot of teams out there making big strides. [Compared to] our direct competitors, probably AlphaTauri and McLaren, I still think we’re a bit behind.”
However, when it came to crunch time in the reliable Williams, the Thai Briton achieved something in Bahrain, no McLaren or AlphaTauri driver. He chalked up a point in 10th as rookie stablemate Logan Sargeant was only just behind in 12th. In addition, Albon reckoned he would have had even more points had he not qualified ‘out of position’ in 15th as a consequence of front wing damage meaning he could not complete a lap in Q2 to potentially upset the top 10.
The long-term data also suggests that Williams is far from an embarrassment. Taking an average of their 10 best laps in the race, Sargeant was seventh fastest and Albon 15th. This corresponds to Friday’s race simulations on soft tyres, when Williams were eighth out of 10 outfits. Unsurprisingly, given the slippery nature of the car, the Grove duo did much of their heavy lifting at the end of the straights, swapping positions at the top of the speed traps.
Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45
That drag efficiency should also be revealed with Williams hitting uphill in Saudi Arabia ahead of a potential reality check for the more downforce-dependent trip Down Under. But, for now at least, few metrics point to Williams walking away without the wooden spoon.
A direct comparison with the other “slow” suspects is difficult to achieve. Despite the fact that Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri are plagued by the unreliability and penalties that plagued Esteban Ocon, neither McLaren nor Alpine are leading the way towards the end of the season. That leaves Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Haas to feature alongside Williams. During the Bahrain GP, however, there is no point where all eight drivers are running on similar tyres. But there are two windows with significant overlap.
Both Williams, Alfas and Alphas opted to start the race on a brand new set of soft tyres, while Haas did theirs. Once the skirmishes in the opening laps began, the DRS activated and the erratic lap times put to one side, there was a six-lap crossover period before the first of those six drivers went out and hit the pits. At this stage, everything was running with comparable fuel and rubber functions, at least.
To account for the inexperience of rookies Sargeant and Nyck de Vries as they adjust to the wheel-to-wheel battle, only the fastest driver from each team is considered for the purposes of this comparison. This leaves Albon to deal with the Williams attack and he set an average lap of 1m40.607s. That’s just over 0.2s slower than what Valtteri Bottas could manage in the hyper-agile Alfa, which sets the standard at low speed compared to its direct rivals.
As such, Yuki Tsunoda (who qualified in a respectable 14th) began his third season in the top division by bringing up the rear of AlphaTauri. The Japanese driver is 0.3s quicker than de Vries, but is limited to the AT04 to an average lap of 1m40.796s. That initially puts the Faenza team over 0.2 seconds behind Williams for the most part.
Some comfort for sister team Red Bull could be drawn from Tsunoda’s 10 fastest laps since the grand prix, which ranked a fine seventh overall. However, this flattered to deceive. For that measure, he helped him by running a used set of softies to the flag. Therefore, it was equipped with the fastest joint when the car was running on fumes, so light and fast.
More typical is the window between the 17th and 24th rounds out of 57 in total. This fell right in the middle of the second stint of the three-stop contest. By this time, Williams had drifted away, but the Haas, Alfas and Alphas cars had all battled for a set of new hard tires that were four laps old apart. For the first time, there is a clear instrument for where Haas fits in the lineup.
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT04
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
The good news for Gunther Steiner is that his crew did well. Kevin Magnussen went toe-to-toe with the returning Nico Hulkenberg, so the Dane represents the team when it comes to the average time set over the eight laps in question. He ran a 1m38.807s with the whitewall Pirellis. That’s not far from 0.3s ahead of Alfa Pacesetter Bottas, with the VF-23 proving particularly quick on the main straight as it pushes 198mph.
And so, bringing up the rear for this particular window is AlphaTauri once again. Tsunoda is at bat for the second time as he had the speed over Formula E and FIA F2 champion de Vries. However, his average lap was recorded at 1m39.267s – putting AlphaTauri back by 0.183s. Apparently, despite 2023 marking its second attempt, the team has yet to adapt to using the larger scale Red Bull wind tunnel.
To doubly underline the situation, this uninspiring pace lived up to the race simulations during FP2, which were also lacking. In more race-like conditions, the AlphaTauri was the slowest in a single lap and brought up the rear during the soft tire pace evaluation as part of a longer 13-lap program. In isolation, this performance on Friday may not have been a disaster as the team could have been running on a much heavier fuel load. But it’s harder to find an excuse during a full Grand Prix.
The top brass acknowledges the arduous initiation. Team principal Franz Tost said: “Technically, we have a lot to work on as the car is not at the level I expect. We know where the car’s shortcomings are and we need to work to increase performance with new upgrades, which I hope will be effective when they arrive.”
Essentially, Tsunoda and de Vries report a lack of grip, much of which comes from another aircraft philosophy. While Bahrain’s tarmac is particularly abrasive, cooking the tires certainly didn’t help matters. High-speed performance is also a weak point, suggesting that a visit to the flowing Jeddah street circuit in Saudi Arabia won’t take the AlphaTauri too far. In fact, compared to the Williams, Alfa and Haas, the AT04 only excels in low-speed acceleration, and that’s thanks to the Honda engine.
Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, Esteban Ocon, Alpine A523, Alex Albon, Williams FW45, Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT04, the rest of the field at the start
Photo: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images