The 2023 Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir, but the lights are already on at Bahrain's International Circuit.
Over the weekend, 10 F1 teams raced on the Bahrain course to test the limits of their 2023 machines.
While preseason testing is notoriously difficult to judge -- each team runs unique fuel loads, tires, engine modes and testing strategies -- this year's session provided the world with a few clear takeaways.
As the start of the F1 season nears, here are the top stories to follow:
Lap times are down significantly from last season. The top time in 2023's session, set by Red Bull's Sergio Perez, was 1.4 seconds faster than its equivalent in 2022. But it wasn't just the top times improving in Sahkir -- the slowest hot lap of the session, by Alpine's Esteban Ocon, was a full second faster than 2022's slowest effort, too.
The midfield is getting more competitive. Nearly all the midfield teams made huge advances in the offseason, with Alfa Romeo, Williams, AlphaTauri and Haas improving upon their 2022 cars. But no one made up more ground than Aston Martin, which delivered speed and reliability on the track in Sakhir. The British outfit looks primed to top the midfield after finishing last season in a disappointing seventh place.
Poor McLaren. Their 2023 car appears more difficult and less reliable than its notoriously cranky predecessor. With the rest of the field getting better, McLaren may find itself sinking to the bottom of F1. CEO Zak Brown has that McLaren missed its development targets, and Racing365 that driver Lando Norris was allegedly caught punching a garage wall in frustration after his first spin in McLaren's vehicle.
The top three teams are still charting their own design courses. Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes went in wildly different design directions after 2022's technical rule shakeup. 2023 sees all three doubling down on those directions instead of merging toward a middle ground. The team-specific features we've come to know -- Red Bull's sleek body undercuts, Ferrari's scalloped side pods and Mercedes's low-slung floor -- remain present and correct on their updated vehicles.
Verstappen and Red Bull are out for blood. Red Bull wants to achieve big things this season. "It's been very good, the car is working really well," defending champion Max Verstappen after his testing session. "Very positive days for me and just in general enjoying driving the car. Overall, it's definitely an improvement from last year."
Considering last year was a near-perfect season for Verstappen and Red Bull, that sentiment should leave the rest of the field quaking.
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