“Red Bull have got this championship sewn up. I don’t think anyone will be fighting with them this year. They should win every single race this year, is my bet, with the performance they’ve got.”
Those were George Russell’s words on Sunday night after the Bahrain Grand Prix, and they were not exactly music to the ears of anybody hoping for a competitive 2023 season.
I understand where Russell is coming from, in the sense that Red Bull had an advantage of nearly a second per lap in race pace in the season-opener, and had looked ominously strong during testing.
But I also think George might need a little bit of a history lesson from his own team, given the levels of dominance that Mercedes enjoyed over the rest of the field from the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014.
In that first season, the true performance advantage was enormous. In Bahrain, when a late Safety Car set-up a 10-lap shootout between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the pair put 24 seconds into the rest of the field in that short run to the flag – an average of nearly 2.5 seconds per lap.
And Mercedes didn’t win every race that season. In fact, it was beaten twice – in Canada and Belgium.
I can already hear you saying that the engines were far more unreliable then (not so much for Mercedes, I would counter, giving it a further advantage) and the team had two drivers that were allowed to race each other hard, with Rosberg pushing Hamilton close during that season. At Red Bull, it so far doesn’t look like Sergio Perez is able to do the same to Max Verstappen.
But Russell is wrong. Red Bull should not win every single race. And Red Bull will not win every single race.
It’s the longest season in F1 history, and there are still 22 races to run this year. Races that will test Red Bull in different ways, that will bring huge variations in conditions and incidents that could catch drivers out. And the Bahrain performance level is not guaranteed to be replicated everywhere else.
Think back to Belgium last year, and Red Bull was in a completely different league to the rest of the field. Everything clicked and nobody could even get near Perez – who finished second – let alone Verstappen. On a very different track in Brazil seven rounds later, it was Mercedes that got it right and Russell took his maiden victory, leading home Hamilton in a one-two.
What it feels like Russell is doing is trying to talk Red Bull up so much that anything other than complete and utter dominance will be seen as a failure. But there’s plenty to pin hopes on when it comes to those wanting a fight at the front.
If we look at Aston Martin as Red Bull’s nearest challenger in Bahrain, then that would already be an intriguing battle waiting to unfold. The Aston is described by the team as being 95% new, meaning there is still plenty to learn about how to get the best out of it and the potential for more performance from that car alone. Red Bull, by contrast, has been far more evolutionary and is likely closer to the limit of the current car.
That doesn’t mean Red Bull won’t improve through the season as it is so often strong when it comes to development, but the combination of having less aerodynamic testing time due to winning the championship last season, and the cost cap breach penalty that further reduces that testing, means it is limited in what it can do.
Compared to the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, those limitations might be extremely small, but compared to Aston Martin – the team that finished seventh overall last year and therefore has a significantly larger amount of wind tunnel and CFD time available to it – there’s a clear difference.
Plus, Aston Martin had a car last year that it felt had a low development ceiling and struggling in the opening rounds. Despite completely resetting for this year, it upgraded the AMR22 in such an impressive way that 30 of its 55 points came in the final six rounds of last season.
While Russell’s comments are an approach straight out of the old Fernando Alonso handbook – talking others up to reduce the pressure on yourself and then try to exceed expectations – even Alonso himself is not predicting a Red Bull clean sweep. The Spaniard secured the 99th podium of his career in Bahrain and duly admitted he thinks he has a good chance of picking up a win during the season given how strongly Aston Martin has started.
“I would say yes, because when you are P3 on race one, there are 22 opportunities this season,” Alonso said. “Even last year, I remember in Canada, wet qualifying, we were first row of the grid. Anything can happen in 22 races with different conditions.”
F1 has seen dominant teams throughout its history, and we were spoiled by the epic title fight in 2021 that left everyone wanting more of the same. It’s the Holy Grail for the sport, to have teams all developing their own incredible machines but end up with cars that deliver almost identical performance.
This year does appear a step forward in that regard when you look at the overall field in Q1 in Bahrain, as 0.65s covered all 10 cars and forced everyone to use soft tires to ensure they progressed. But the biggest margin was to be found between first and second once overall race pace was displayed.
Even so, the advantage is not to the level F1 has seen at times in the past, and no team has ever been able to achieve a 100% win record.
Red Bull is clearly the class of the field and the heavy favorite to win both titles given its form last year and starting point this, but there’s so much racing to be done that there’s just no realistic way of expecting it to win it all.
And if this column comes back to bite me, it would represent something truly outrageous.