At the sharp end of the Formula 1 grid, it is crystal clear that Red Bull has stolen an early march at the start of the new season. Delivering on the immense promise shown by the RB19 in testing, Max Verstappen opened the campaign in Bahrain with pole position and an utterly controlled victory. Thanks to stablemate Sergio Perez banking second at both times of asking, the team was just short of a point for fastest lap for a perfect score to kick off the campaign.
Fernando Alonso stunned in wheel-to-wheel battle to complete the podium, while Lance Stroll battling through injury to clock sixth proves the Aston Martin AMR23 is a rapid and confidence-inspiring creation. Although there are still questions concerning Ferrari’s tyre degradation and lingering unreliability, plus the Mercedes camp is crestfallen now that its car concept has been brutally exposed, neither are propping up the times.
But which team has been slowest out of the blocks?
Certainly, Williams was the nailed-on backmarker in 2022 as its first crack at a new-era ground-effects car wanted for downforce and lower-speed cornering balance. This year’s FW45 marked a step in the right direction, but not a giant leap. That left Alex Albon to predict: “From the initial look at testing, we are the 10th quickest team… In terms of pure pace, there’s a lot of teams out there that make big steps. [Compared to] our direct rivals, possibly AlphaTauri and McLaren, I still think we’re a little bit behind.”
Yet when crunch time came in the reliable Williams, the Thai-Brit achieved something in Bahrain no McLaren or AlphaTauri driver did. He chalked a point in 10th as rookie stablemate Logan Sargeant was only a little adrift in 12th. What’s more, Albon reckoned even more had been up for grabs had he not qualified “out of position” in 15th as a consequence of front wing damage meaning he couldn’t complete a lap in Q2 to potentially bother the top 10.
The long run data also suggests Williams is far from a disgrace. Taking an average from their 10 best laps in the race, Sargeant was seventh fastest and Albon 15th. That tallies with their Friday soft-tyre race simulations when Williams was eighth of the 10 outfits. Unsurprisingly, given the slippery nature of the car, the Grove duo were doing much of their heavy lifting at the end of the straights, trading places at the very top of the speed traps.
Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45
Photo by: Williams
That drag efficiency should also reveal itself with Williams punching upwards in Saudi Arabia before a potential reality check for the more downforce-dependent trip Down Under. But, for now at least, few metrics have Williams walking away without the wooden spoon.
A direct comparison with the other ‘slow’ suspects is hard to come by. Despite Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri being plagued by unreliability and the smorgasbord of penalties that hobbled Esteban Ocon, neither McLaren nor Alpine star towards the very bottom of the times. That leaves Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Haas to feature alongside Williams. For the duration of the Bahrain GP, however, there is no point where all eight drivers are running with comparable tyres. But there are two windows of considerable overlap.
Both Williams, Alfas and Alphas opted to start the race on a brand-spanking new set of soft tyres, while Haas did its own thing. Once the skirmishes of the opening laps were out the way, DRS activated and anomalous lap times put to one side, there was a six-lap crossover period before the first of these six drivers ducked out and hit the pits. At this stage, they were all running with comparable fuel modes and rubber, at least.
To excuse the inexperience of rookies Sargeant and Nyck de Vries as they adjusted to wheel-to-wheel combat, the fastest driver only from each team is under consideration for the purpose of this comparison. That leaves Albon to front the Williams attack, and he delivered an average lap of 1m40.607s. That’s a little over 0.2s slower than what Valtteri Bottas could manage aboard the super-agile Alfa, which sets the standard at low speed compared to its immediate rivals.
As such, Yuki Tsunoda (who qualified a respectable 14th) commenced his third season in the topflight by bringing up the rear aboard the AlphaTauri. The Japanese driver is a fine 0.3s quicker than de Vries but limited in the AT04 to an average lap of 1m40.796s. That initially places the Faenza squad the better part of 0.2s worse off than Williams.
Some comfort for the sister Red Bull squad could be taken from Tsunoda’s 10 fastest laps from the grand prix, which ranked a fine seventh overall. However, this flattered to deceive. For this measure, he was helped by running a used set of softs to the flag. He was therefore shod with the quickest compound when the car was running on fumes, so light and rapid.
More telling is the window between lap 17 and 24 out of the 57 total. This fell right in the middle of the second stint of the three-stop contest. By this time, Williams had diverged but the Haas, Alfas and Alphas cars had all pitted for a set of new hard tyres that were within four laps old of one another. For the first time, there’s a clear gauge of where Haas fits in the pecking order.
Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT04
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
The good news for Gunther Steiner is that his crew fared well. Kevin Magnussen had the legs on 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 to a 1m38.807s on the white-walled Pirellis. That’s not far short of 0.3s ahead of Alfa pacesetter Bottas, with the VF-23 proving especially rapid down the main straight as it nudges 198mph.
And so, bringing up the rear for this particular window is AlphaTauri once again. Tsunoda is in to bat for the second time, as he had the speed over Formula E and FIA F2 champion de Vries. Nevertheless, his average lap was recorded at 1m39.267s — putting AlphaTauri at the back by 0.183s. Seemingly, despite 2023 marking its second attempt, the team has still not adapted to using the larger-scale Red Bull wind tunnel.
To double underline the plight, this uninspiring pace tallied fully with the race stint simulations during FP2, which were also lacking. In conditions most similar to the race, AlphaTauri was the slowest over a single lap and bringing up the rear when evaluating the pace of the soft tyre as part of a longer 13-lap programme. Taken in isolation, that Friday performance might not have been a disaster, since the team could have been running with a much heavier fuel load. But it’s harder to find an excuse over the duration of a full grand prix.
The top brass recognises the laboured start. Team principal Franz Tost said: “From a technical point of view, we have a lot to work on as the car isn’t on the level I expect. We know where the deficiencies of the car are, and we have to work to increase the performance with new upgrades, which I hope will be effective when they arrive.”
Fundamentally, Tsunoda and de Vries are reported a lack of grip, much of which stems from another underbaked aero concept. While the Bahrain asphalt is particularly abrasive, cooking the tyres certainly didn’t help matters. High-speed performance is also a weak spot, which suggests a visit to the flowing Jeddah street circuit in Saudi won’t lift AlphaTauri too much higher. In fact, compared to the Williams, Alfa and Haas, it’s only really under low-speed acceleration where the AT04 comes up trumps, 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 remainder of the field at the start
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images