Formula One racing, the sport millions of us knew nothing about three years ago but whose entire history and culture we’ve internalized perfectly in that short time, returned on Sunday. Two-time defending world champion and clear-cut top dog Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing won the Bahrain Grand Prix, starting off a 23-race calendar that stops three times in the United States (up from just one as recently as 2021) and runs until Thanksgiving time. Insofar as Verstappen and teammate Sergio “Checo” Perez qualified on pole and in second position, respectively, and then cruised to those places in the race, the grand prix was not surprising. But Sunday’s events offered a few decent twists elsewhere, with the most interesting results right beneath Red Bull.
First-race F1 results aren’t always indicative of the shape of the season—last year’s certainly weren’t—but after months of rumors and a few days of preseason tests, we finally have an idea of how the 10-team, 20-driver field shakes out for 2023. Let us check in with the athletes we used to watch on Netflix before (if you are like me) we got bored with that and needed actual racing to satisfy ourselves.
Red Bull is F1’s big bad. Coming off a year in which Verstappen dominated the race for the Drivers’ Championship and Red Bull cruised in tandem with him to the Constructors’ Championship, team principal Christian Horner is the undisputed favorite in both title hunts. Red Bull is an easy villain. Horner, in addition to being entertaining as hell, is a standoffish dick. Verstappen is an on-track killer and has the exact amount of chill you’d expect for someone with his achievements in this field: none. The team’s more likable driver, Perez, is repeatedly made to play second fiddle to Verstappen. Last year’s team violated F1’s cost cap, which is more or less cheating, and Horner complained that the extremely light punishment Red Bull got from the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile was “draconian.” If you cheer for this team, I will squint at you in an interrogative manner.
And then you will be able to laugh at me about it. Red Bull is the best team in the sport right now by such a wide margin that it’s hard to fathom that the team (and Verstappen individually) will not cruise to a title without meaningful opposition. Verstappen led from the moment the lights went out and finished 12 seconds ahead of Perez, who in turn finished 39 seconds ahead of anyone else across 57 laps. If you seek drama at the top of a sport—a reasonable thing to seek!—you probably will not get it in F1 this year.
Mercedes comes into the year as a clear nonfavorite for the first time in the better part of a decade, but the team of all-time driver Lewis Hamilton and billionaire team principal Toto Wolff had seemed chipper leading up to this first race. Hamilton usually enters the year talking down the state of Mercedes’ car, something he did in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021—each year revealing him to be sandbagging once he and Mercedes went on to be dominant. But Hamilton’s pessimism in 2022 turned out to forebode the real thing, so the team’s optimism entering this year was notable. That optimism is now dust. Hamilton and George Russell finished fifth and seventh in Bahrain and looked noncompetitive. Wolff says the team will junk its car plans for the season and that this was one of his worst days in racing. Russell says Red Bull should win every race, and it might indeed get pretty close. And keep in mind that Mercedes’ 5-7 finish would’ve been worse if a team in front of them hadn’t biffed something.
Speaking of which: Ferrari has endured months of drama. Last season’s pretty red car was very fast—fast enough, if Ferrari had limited its mistakes, for the Italian racing icons to compete with Red Bull in the championship. Ferrari did not limit its mistakes. Its car kept breaking down at the worst moments. Its math genius strategists made baffling calls about pit stop timing and tire compounds. Its drivers made a few big errors on their own. Ferrari was historic for its inability to parlay speed into points. Entering this season, the team installed a new strategy head in an effort to stop hitting itself over the head with a tailpipe.
Naturally, Sunday brought more pain. The team looked to be in line for a podium finish, until its top driver, Charles Leclerc, lost power on the 41st lap and had to leave the race on a scooter. Ferrari continues to be Ferrari. Teammate Carlos Sainz finished fourth, suggesting that the biggest difference between last year and this year may be that another team has become a threat to Ferrari near the top of the field.
The belle of the ball these days is the Aston Martin team. This team has finished seventh in the Constructors’ Championship in each of its two years with its current name. But things seem a bit different now. Aston poached Fernando Alonso, the most experienced F1 driver in history and a double world champion, from Alpine (the French team that drives for automaker Renault) before the season. The team has also made substantial improvements to its car. Alonso put up some blazing laps in preseason testing in late February and carried them into this race. Alonso finished third, grabbing the last podium spot, despite teammate Lance Stroll barreling into him from behind on the first lap of the race. Somehow, neither car sustained significant damage, and Stroll finished sixth behind Alonso’s P3. A tussle between Alonso and Hamilton on the 37th and 38th aps was one of the race’s most exciting moments.
It’s a cool story for a scrappy little father-son business, which Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll bought a few years ago before installing his son, Lance, as a driver. In partnership with a similarly hungry young firm like its title sponsor, Aramco, the Aston squad looks poised to disrupt F1’s conventional order. Last season, an FIA investigation cleared Aston Martin of illegally copying Red Bull’s car design, and the best evidence in Aston Martin’s favor was that their car sucked too much for anyone to seriously confuse it with Red Bull’s. Maybe Aston Martin can be good enough this year to spawn a new probe.
Alpine, Alonso’s old team, decided to get fully in touch with its heritage and be as French as possible. The team first attempted to replace Alonso with Australian upstart Oscar Piastri, going so far as to announce his commitment to Alpine before actually having it, setting up a messy exit saga that concluded with Piastri defecting to McLaren instead. Alpine already had one French driver, Esteban Ocon, and decided to make it a double by signing away AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. Teammate tension is inherent in F1, but the Ocon-Gasly pair has promised from the start to at some point turn explosive.
Ocon had a comical race that included three rules violations worth 20 seconds in time penalties. He started with a five-second penalty for being slightly out of his grid position when the race started, then got a 10-seconder because his crew started working on his car a split-second before he’d served the full five seconds on his initial penalty. As Ocon left the pits, he went 0.1 kilometers per hour too fast and got another five-second docking for breaking safety regulations. Alpine decided to simply have Ocon quit after 41 laps. Gasly finished ninth, getting a couple of points but not doing much to suggest that Alpine will be a threat.
Haas, AlphaTauri, and Alfa Romeo are three more lower-midfield teams that you probably will not hear a great deal from this year. Their car liveries all look annoyingly similar, with mixes of black and white and red that blend together (at least to my eye) at high speeds and from distance. Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas, finishing eighth, was the only driver from this chunk of teams to get into the points.
McLaren gets its own paragraph because it’s the only orange car in the field, but the iconic motorsport brand looks to be in a similar state of disarray to the one it inhabited in 2022. Things were bad enough last year that McLaren chased off popular but underachieving veteran Aussie driver Daniel Ricciardo and replaced him with his countryman, the 21-year-old Piastri. Making his F1 debut, Piastri started in 18th position and was the first car to retire from the race, due to an electrical issue. The team’s lead driver, Lando Norris, continued to have a hard time overcoming a slow car and finished 11th, first out of the points.
Williams, the normally slow blue car, is last in this outline because when I sketched it out before the race weekend, I felt certain that the once-iconic F1 outfit would continue to be slothlike and near the bottom of the grid. But Williams showed good stuff this weekend, with drivers Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant qualifying in 15th and 16th positions respectively and then moving on up, to 10th for Albon (getting a standings point!) and 12th for Sargeant. Williams has apparently improved a great deal. Sargeant, a first-year driver, is the first American to get an F1 race seat since 2015. Maybe we really are improving our national lot in this sport.