Why it isn’t just Red Bull’s lap times that have worried rivals

A cursory glance at the timesheets already pointed in that direction, with Sergio Perez having set the benchmark overall in the late flurry of lower fuel runs on the final evening as teams finally unlocked some potential.

In fact, it was only Guanyu Zhou’s glory run late on Friday to go top that prevented a clean sweep of Red Bull’s dominance over the three days.

Even away from the headline times, and instead digging deep in the long-run form – which is what really matters and what teams pay most attention to – it was clear that Red Bull seemed to have everything under control too.

The car’s reliability, apart from a minor niggle on day two, seemed spot on, and there was nothing to suggest that any of Perez and Max Verstappen’s rivals had looked a threat in terms of lap times over race simulation runs.

Red Bull’s motorsport advisor Helmut Marko told Sky Germany after the test: “Times, as we know in testing, are relative. We don’t know what the competition was like on fuel, so if they were heavier than us, then our time is relative. But it has been shown that we are reliable, that we are fast, at the front.

“Above all that, what makes us very optimistic is that both of Perez’s and Max’s long runs were clearly at least faster than those of the competition.”

Being the team to beat in testing does not, of course, guarantee anything when it comes to producing results on the weekend.

As Ferrari team principal Fred Vasseur said on the final day: “I don’t remember who did the fastest lap time last year in Bahrain, but he was not on pole position for the race. And that was the same two years ago.”

However, analysing deeper how Red Bull’s test panned out, there are a few other aspects that have set alarm bells ringing for other teams in their hopes of leapfrogging F1’s world champion squad.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Effortless pace

Sometimes, the fastest F1 cars can be very tricky to drive at the limit, with only the very best drivers able to extract the most from them.

But from the very first moment that the RB19 hit the track in Bahrain, it appears to have been relatively straightforward for Verstappen and Perez to take it to the edge.

Early on, with other teams battling to find a good balance for their cars, Verstappen boasted about facing no dramas of his own.

“Every time I jumped in the car, I felt comfortable and could push instantly,” he said.

That seemed to be borne on day one of the test where, after a couple of installation laps, Verstappen spent the rest of the day blasting through swift 5/6/7 laps run – all at the same strikingly consistent pace and only interrupted by coming into the pits for setup changes.

The consistency throughout all those runs suggested that both he and the car were in a super happy place, and everything was both under control and fast. For a new car test, it was mightily impressive.

Reflecting on it himself, Verstappen said that hitting that sweet spot so early has given Red Bull a massive head start in understanding the car.

“I do think that the whole testing days have been very positive for us,” he said.

“The balance of the car was immediately good and, as a result of that, you can try a lot of things with the set-up – go extremely towards the left and extremely to the right, so to speak. That’s good, because this is how you learn a lot about the car.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

New tyres giving Verstappen what he wants

Verstappen’s form throughout the 2022 car fluctuated a bit as the characteristics of the RB18 began far away and then came towards his preferences.

The early season excess bulk that Red Bull started the 2022 campaign with meant the car was too lazy at turn-in, and that understeer characteristic is something that Verstappen is known to not like.

He famously said over the winter that he has never known there to be a quick racing car that had understeer.

As Red Bull began its weight reduction programme from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, so too did things turn around for Verstappen.

He got back a car that mostly turned in how he liked it, and that helped trigger the kind of dominance we saw in the latter stages of the year.

When it emerged that F1 tyre supplier Pirelli was tweaking its products for 2023, to deliver a stronger front end, that immediately pointed towards things edging even more towards what Verstappen likes.

Reflecting at the end of the three days running about his impressions of the tyres, Verstappen reckoned things had happily gone as he liked.

“They give less understeer, but that’s more because the rear tyres are not as good now as they were last year,” he said. “The front tyres are just the same. But overall, I do think this year’s car is a bit better balanced.”

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Reliability and weight no longer a problem

While Red Bull’s RB18 proved to be by far the best 2022 race car, the team had not started the year in the best shape.

Its early season fortunes were hampered a lot by reliability, as the problems that wrecked its Bahrain and Australian Grands Prix fortunes even made it look like the title was slipping away at that point.

Those early season niggles proved to be nothing major as Red Bull quickly got on top of matters. That subsequent strong reliability was carried over into the 2023 car, which ran almost trouble-free for the duration of the three days of testing in Bahrain.

The other area where Red Bull was on the backfoot last year has also been eradicated, with the squad having now hit its weight targets for the RB19.

That means it is no longer forced into a corner with set-up, and will have much greater tools at its disposal to chase lap time.

For Verstappen, the mindset is already that the 2023 campaign is getting underway with a much-improved baseline than he had 12 months ago.

“Compared to last year, because that was kind of the same car, it’s a step forward,” he said. “But that’s normal because last year our car was way too heavy.

“It was the first year with a whole new car and a new set of technical regulations as well, so you learn a lot throughout that first year. Because of that, I think this year starts a bit easier.

“But then you still have to make a good step forward of course, and I think we’ve done that.”

Few watching trackside in Bahrain last week could disagree.

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