Verstappen leads 1-2 in Bahrain season opener as Leclerc retires and Alonso takes final podium place in style
Red Bull enjoyed a perfect start to the season in the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix as Max Verstappen cruised to victory over team mate Sergio Perez – while Fernando Alonso finished third as Charles Leclerc retired from the race.
Everyone bar hard-shod Kevin Magnussen (P15) began the race on soft tyres and Verstappen had a solid getaway, but team mate Perez fell back and lost second place to Leclerc – while Carlos Sainz couldn’t quite pry P3 off the Red Bull. The reigning champion stretched his legs in the lead and eventually won by more than 10 seconds. Perez completed the one-two with both Red Bull drivers on similar soft-soft-hard strategies.
Aston Martin’s hopes of crashing the podium fight seemed to have come crashing down on Lap 1 when Lance Stroll made a lunge on team mate Alonso into Turn 4 and hit the rear-right of his car, allowing both Mercedes ahead.
Ferrari’s hopes of the podium did however come crashing down on Lap 41, when Leclerc retired with an engine issue. That was just after Alonso produced an absolutely brilliant move to take P5 off Lewis Hamilton, down the inside of Turn 10. Alonso went on the warpath and on Lap 45 he passed Sainz after a stunning battle through Sector 2, to seal his first podium since Qatar 2021.
Sainz therefore settled for fourth, fending off a brief attack from Hamilton, who ended up fifth on the board. As for Stroll, he was perhaps relieved not to get a penalty for hitting his team mate on Lap 1, and perhaps more relieved to see Alonso finish on the podium. The Canadian made an admirable recovery from his wrist injury, however, and finished sixth between the Mercedes – as George Russell was undercut by the Aston Martin in the second pit stops and finished seventh.
Valtteri Bottas capitalised on poor starts for his rivals and finished a solid eighth for Alfa Romeo, while Pierre Gasly recovered from P20 for Alpine, pitting three times, to finish ninth. Alex Albon finished 10th for Williams after a great start, while Yuki Tsunoda narrowly missed out on the final point in his AlphaTauri.
Rookie Logan Sargeant battled with Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu to take 12th on debut, while Zhou pitted on the penultimate lap of the race to promote Kevin Magnussen – whose hard-hard-soft gambit didn’t yield points – to P13.
Nyck de Vries took P14 on his AlphaTauri debut, leaving Nico Hulkenberg 15th with a five-second penalty. Zhou was classified 16th for Alfa Romeo, and Lando Norris endured a tough race, a slow pit stop seeing him barrel down the order. A last-lap pit stop for softs saw the McLaren driver round out the standings.
Esteban Ocon had a calamitous start to the season for Alpine, copping a five-second penalty for lining up on his grid slot incorrectly, a further 10-second penalty for serving that penalty incorrectly, and another five seconds for speeding in the pit lane. Alpine decided to retire him late on.
Leclerc was incredulous when he retired on Lap 41, and Oscar Piastri’s debut ended after just 13 laps when he pulled into the McLaren pits with an electrical issue.
Alonso, meanwhile, was jubilant to take his first podium in over a year.
And it was a perfect start to 2023 for Red Bull – but things can change. Just last year, both Red Bulls retired from the opening race of the season…
AS IT HAPPENED
Bahrain has become a mainstay on the F1 calendar and this year’s duel in the desert came laden with plenty of intrigue: Red Bull locked out the front row, but Aston Martin turned up threatening to spoil the party, leaving Ferrari and Mercedes with another thorn in their sides.
Two-time champion Max Verstappen stormed to a brilliant pole on Saturday, backed up by team mate Sergio Perez, while Charles Leclerc was pleasantly surprised to take third on the grid. The Ferrari driver however needed a new energy store and control electronics before this race. Teams are allocated just two of each of those parts per season – any more and grid penalties apply. Carlos Sainz backed up his team mate with P4 in qualifying.
Aston Martin turned heads throughout testing and this weekend as Fernando Alonso topped two practice sessions before qualifying fifth – his team mate Lance Stroll qualifying eighth despite nursing a wrist injury. As for Mercedes, they were downbeat after George Russell qualified sixth and Lewis Hamilton seventh. Everyone bar 17th-placed starter Kevin Magnussen (on hards) would begin on softs.
Formation laps were smooth for everyone but Stroll, who locked up and ran wide at Turn 10.
The noise – anticipation and anxiety – seemed to cease as soon as the grid lined up, those five lights went out, and the reassuring roar of 20 cars filled the air. Verstappen led away but Perez had a slow getaway, losing out to Leclerc while Sainz was right on his tail.
Aston Martin had a calamitous start as, while battling Russell, Stroll hit the right-rear of Alonso going into Turn 4. That allowed Hamilton and Russell ahead of the two-time champion and yellow flags briefly flew in Sector 2 for debris.
Williams drivers Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant enjoyed great starts, each picking up three places apiece; Zhou Guanyu and Nico Hulkenberg meanwhile lost four places each, the Haas driver having made contact with Esteban Ocon on the opening lap. That allowed 12th-place starter Valtteri Bottas into P9.
Verstappen’s lead grew rapidly – he was 3.5 seconds ahead of Leclerc by the start of Lap 5 – while Perez was still hounding Leclerc for P2.
As for Mercedes, Russell – who lost out to Hamilton on Lap 1 – found himself asking whether the seven-time champion was managing his tyres, or just struggling for pace. On Lap 10, Alonso was in DRS range of the Silver Arrows; Verstappen was seven seconds in the lead.
Pierre Gasly, who started 20th having had a qualifying lap time deleted, pitted for hard tyres on Lap 10, opening the pit window a bit earlier than expected. Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda responded with the same switch on the following lap – the McLaren driver losing out to the Alpine.
Alonso was right on Russell’s Mercedes on Lap 11, super close to the black car through the winding final sector. “Tyres are gone,” said the Briton as he clamoured for a pit stop. The battle would continue and come to a head on Lap 13 when Alonso made a lunge on Russell into Turn 1, taking the place down the inside of Turn 4 with DRS soon after – but Russell fought hard going side-by-side down the hill through Turn 5 before conceding to the Aston Martin.
Hamilton pitted earliest out of the top five, with a swap for hard tyres on Lap 13. Ferrari responded by double-stacking a lap later, joined by Russell. Russell’s stop was a fraction too slow, and after Alonso pitted on Lap 15, he emerged ahead of Russell. Bottas meanwhile had made it as high as sixth, having taken new tyres earliest out of that group – but Alonso made light work of him on Lap 17 at Turn 4, and Russell mirrored that move on Lap 18.
Verstappen and Perez stopped on Laps 15 and 18 respectively, but they chose soft tyres while the Ferraris, Astons and Mercedes opted for hards on their second stints. Williams and McLaren’s Lando Norris chose the same strategy as Red Bull. However, there was trouble for McLaren with Oscar Piastri retiring from his debut after just 13 laps.
There was trouble for McLaren’s rivals Alpine, too, as Ocon was given a five-second penalty for lining up in his grid slot incorrectly. Ocon was given a further 10-second penalty for serving that penalty incorrectly.
At the very back, Norris caught up to the beleaguered Ocon and with a tyre advantage he made light work for P18.
Things were unravelling a bit more gradually up at the front, with soft-shod Perez reeling in the hard-shod Ferrari of Leclerc. With DRS on Lap 25, he stalked the Monegasque patiently – and actually made the move for P2 into Turn 1 on Lap 26. Sainz was in no man’s land; he was 13 seconds away from that battle in a lonely P4, while Hamilton was another four seconds back in fifth.
As for Verstappen, his lead had grown to almost 14 seconds by Lap 30.
The misfortune compounded for Ocon and Norris, as Ocon was penalised five more seconds for speeding in the pit lane and Norris’s Lap 29 stop for a set of medium tyres was glacial.
Valtteri Bottas went for another set of hards on Lap 30, with Mercedes’ Hamilton reluctantly following suit one lap later, as did Aston Martin’s Stroll. Russell pitted for hards on Lap 31 and emerged behind Hamilton. Stroll, whose tyres were warmer, cruised past Russell for P7.
Sainz also pitted in that previous sequence but Leclerc stayed out until Lap 34, promoting a yet-to-stop Alonso into P3. Perez and Alonso responded on Lap 35, emerging second and sixth respectively, while Verstappen continued out in front. Enjoying a 37-second lead, the Dutchman finally pitted from softs to hards on Lap 37. Just 2.3 seconds later, he duly emerged from his box before carrying on in the lead.
Alonso, meanwhile, was clocking up purple sectors and catching up to Hamilton. He made the move for P5 with ease, or so it seemed, into Turn 4 on Lap 37. But the Spaniard suffered a snap of oversteer on the exit and lost the place. One lap later, Hamilton closed Alonso off at Turn 5 and they battled downhill into the hairpin, where Alonso enjoyed a better exit.
The two-time champion attacked and pulled off a pass for the ages down the inside of Turn 10 – the trickiest corner on the circuit.
Leclerc's luck ran out on Lap 41. He came to a stop at the penultimate corner to bring out a Virtual Safety Car, which ended too briefly to allow anyone to capitalise.
With 15 laps remaining, Sainz found himself up in the podium places but with Alonso bearing down on him.
Meanwhile, there was also a battle for P9, with Gasly going around the outside of Turn 1 to leave Albon 10th – both on soft tyres. On new softs, Tsunoda also made a stunning double-pass on Zhou and De Vries for P11, while De Vries found himself 13th as Zhou passed him soon afterwards. Sargeant joined the party, passing De Vries for P13 on Lap 44.
Lap 44 saw Alonso get within DRS range of Sainz. On Lap 45, the two-time champion almost ran into the back of the Ferrari exiting Turn 4 – making very slight contact as he was thrown off by how much Sainz was struggling for traction – and was right next to him going down the hill into the hairpin.
A superior exit out of Turn 10, plus DRS, saw Alonso sweep by the Ferrari for the final podium place – another stunning effort from the veteran, and this time one that would surely deliver him a first podium since Qatar 2021.
Sainz seemed to be struggling for pace even more now. Perhaps he’d picked up damage from that tap from Alonso, or perhaps his tyres were too hot after that battle.
Alonso was heard saying say over the radio: “This is a lovely car to drive.” And he would take the car to the final podium place – and be voted Driver of the Day in the process.
As for Verstappen, he started his season in perfect fashion by winning the race with a lead of 11.987 seconds. Perez made sure Red Bull also had a perfect start as he took second place, almost 26 seconds ahead of Alonso.
Sainz ended up finishing fourth, ultimately unthreatened by Hamilton, who at least held off Stroll for P5. Stroll meanwhile split the Mercedes for P6, leaving Russell seventh. For Bottas. it was also a great start to the season as he made it to P8 for Alfa Romeo.
Alpine’s Gasly was the biggest riser, making up 11 places from last to ninth thanks to a three-stop strategy, something that Albon pulled off to finish 10th over Tsunoda – just a second ahead of the 11th-placed AlphaTauri.
Rookie Sargeant made it to 11th on his Williams debut, gaining four places with a three-stop strategy, while Magnussen’s two-stopper didn’t quite pay off as he was a lonely 13th. De Vries ended up 14th on his AlphaTauri debut with Nico Hulkenberg 15th thanks to a five-second penalty for track limits.
Zhou took the fastest lap for Alfa Romeo, pitting on the penultimate lap for soft tyres on which he rounded the track in 1m 33.996s.
A late gamble for soft tyres and the fastest lap didn’t pay off for Norris, who ended the race 17th – pitting six times – in a miserable day for McLaren, who of course suffered a retirement for debutant Piastri.
Ocon’s day was downright calamitous. After accruing 20 seconds of penalties, Alpine decided to retire him 16 laps from the end – just two laps after Leclerc pulled to the side with a suspected engine issue.
Red Bull have started the season with a one-two, but Alonso made the headlines with a stunning race to the podium.
We have two weeks to catch our breath after this stunning start to the campaign, as the field returns for the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
“It was a very good first stint where I basically made by gap, and from there onwards, it was all about just looking after my tyres, because you never know what is going to happen later in the race. So, we just wanted to make sure that we had the right tyres and in good condition as well. Of course, very happy to get my first win here also in Bahrain.
“A big thank you to the team over the winter and what they have done again to give us such a quick race car again” – Max Verstappen, Red Bull
Red Bull hold the cards and scored maximum points, bar the bonus for fastest lap, in Bahrain. The 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix weekend takes place on March 17-19. Head to the RACE HUB for more information on the second round of the season.
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Photo's: Max Verstappen social / formula1.com / Red Bull Racing