Even at this early stage of the long 2023 Formula 1 season, Red Bull are odds-on to clinch themselves a second successive championship double such is the advantage of their RB19 over the rest of the field. The only major question is can Sergio Perez put in the season of his life to take the fight to Max Verstappen, who is favourite to seal his third World Championship on the trot. But behind the Bulls, a fascinating battle is unfolding between the chasing pack to be ‘best of the rest’, aka second place. Aston Martin are currently the second best team, as Mercedes and Ferrari are a little behind with car and reliability concerns to overcome, but could even Alpine or McLaren wiggle their way into the fight? Development war With the cost cap in place, long gone are the days of the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari spending whatever it takes to reel Aston back in and begin to focus on reducing the chasm to Red Bull. Wind tunnel and CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) time has also been reduced, with teams needing to develop and find performance gains within the $135 million budget cap. But here, Red Bull face their potential stumbling block: their penalty for breaking the cost cap in 2021. The squad were given a monetary fine, but also docked crucial development time. The team were also set for the least amount of time in 2023 by dint of winning the 2022 Constructors’ Championship, with P1 getting the smallest allocation on the sliding scale for their title defence. This is why the RB19 has started the season so strongly, despite the penalty being in place. The launch spec of the car and perhaps its first upgrade package was likely designed before the cost cap penalty was slapped on the team, seeing as the 2022 titles were all but wrapped up by the summer break, allowing Milton Keynes to focus on 2023. Over the course of this season, the penalty will begin to bite, potentially impacting the outfit into the start of 2024. Time will tell. Aston have taken a giant leap forward from 2022, the type that all teams fantasise about but which is very rarely achieved. Their new factory at Silverstone is set to open by the summer, with the focus on trying to keep ahead of those behind. The AMR23 is a very solid car with few problems, unlike the Mercedes or Ferrari offerings which are either changing concepts or realising that their current one is limited and has reached its potential ceiling. Both Mercedes and Ferrari will fancy their chances of overhauling Aston, with the fight for second ideal for Red Bull as no clear challenger will merge from the pack to take the battle to them. The European season traditionally heralds the bringing of massive upgrade packages up and down the field. This will give an indication of whether Aston can develop and maintain their early season form, as well as showing just what sort of state Mercedes and Ferrari will be in during the tour around Europe. Every point important Last year Ferrari already set the example of how a team can blunder rock hard at the strategic level. Mistake after mistake was made by the team, both at the pit wall and by the drivers themselves. In the battle for third place, a few points can make a big difference. We are already seeing this in the midfield as well, where a few tenths more or less in qualifying is an important lead-up to a points finish or a place at the very back. The field is getting closer together and this is no different between P2 and P5. A mistake here and there could be costly. A number of driver duos make relatively few errors and are evenly matched; take the Mercedes pairing of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell. The drivers are reliable and fast and get the most out of the car, something that is not quite the case at Aston Martin with Lance Stroll. Stroll is by no means performing badly, but he is not yet at the level of Fernando Alonso, who seems to be defying old Father Time. The Canadian is a driver with over 100 starts, but aside from the second half of 2020, has rarely been in a position to challenge for regular podiums or perhaps even a win. Is he leaving valuable points on the table? In 2022, Ferrari threw away a countless number of points through strategy faux pas or main title challenger Charles Leclerc launching the car into a barrier. With a fight as close as 2023 is shaping up to be, behind Red Bull at least, a repeat simply can’t be on the table for any team wanting to finish second. The season already has flashes of 2013 when Lotus, Ferrari and Mercedes all took turns throughout the campaign to be Red Bull’s nearest challengers but none could usurp the then-dominant force. Reliability Reliability will scupper the best laid plans of every team, and none of the big four has been bullet-proof in 2023. Ferrari took an engine penalty with Leclerc in just round two after burning his two allowed Control Electronics in Bahrain, while Red Bull suffered a driveshaft failure with Verstappen in Saudi Arabia qualifying. Both Aston and Mercedes have had a retirement each, with Russell’s PU causing a fiery exit in Melbourne. As ever, who can keep the failures to a minimum will benefit the most – although Aston will be depending on Mercedes here as they are supplied with HPP units from Brixworth. A stable team Red Bull are the perfect example of why a stable team is important. In recent years, apart from a few departures, little has changed at the top of the Austrian squad: Christian Horner at the helm, Adrian Newey as car designer and Verstappen and Perez as drivers. Ferrari have a familiar line-up with its drivers, but more upheaval at the management level has seen Frederic Vasseur come in as boss, with Mattia Binotto shown the door after the 2022 failure. Mercedes have had their own troubles, with Technical Director Mike Elliott swapping jobs with his predecessor James Allison (below). Elliott was inextricably linked to the zero sidepod design which ultimately failed, but felt he was not best suited to the TD demands, and so swapped with Allison whose last full car was the mighty W11 from 2020. Meanwhile, at Aston, the key players, Alonso aside, were in place last year, and oversaw a big leap in performance from the doldrums of the start of the season. As the team beds in even further, stability will breed success, just as Red Bull have shown. Concept of the car Car concept has become something of the buzzword in 2023, as Red Bull are cemented with theirs, Aston Martin are heading down that path, while Mercedes and Ferrari find themselves in technical cul-de-sacs. Mercedes say their Imola upgrade package will be different, with the car changing, having acknowledged the zero sidepods idea was wrong. Toto Wolff has said he would have no shame in copying Red Bull as long as it is fast, but they’d be 18 months behind in understanding the concept, and 12 behind Aston, who began to edge towards that idea last year. As for Ferrari, boss Vasseur says it would be “difficult” for anyone to change concept mid-season given the cost cap , as the Scuderia will continue with the current idea for this season at least.
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