Bahrain GP: Verstappen and Perez in control, Alonso third!

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 leads at the start of the race. 05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.
© XPB 

Red Bull's 2023 campaign got off to the best possible start, with Max Verstappen claiming victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix and team mate Sergio Perez joining him on the podium in second place.

Charles Leclerc had looked set to finish in third until a sudden power loss on the Ferrari forced him to park the car on lap 40, exactly the result the Monegasque didn't want from the first race of the season.

That allowed Fernando Alonso to race his way to third place after thrilling battles with Carlos Sainz and Lewis Hamilton, despite clashing with his Aston Martin team mate Lance Stroll on the first lap.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 leads at the start of the race.
05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.

The spotlights were beaming out of the twilight sky in readiness for the curtain raiser to the 2023 F1 world championship season, with everything looking very promising indeed for Red Bull as Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez lined up on the front row for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Behind them were a brace of Ferraris with Charles Leclerc in third alongside team mate Carlos Sainz. But then there was the first surprise of the weekend, with Fernando Alonso looking like a real prospect to spring a surprise for Aston Martin at the start as he lined up ahead of Mercedes pair George Russell and Lewis Hamilton. Everyone (bar Kevin Magnussen starting in P17 on the hard compound) was starting on soft tyres for the first stint.

The five red race lights went on, one-by-one, and when they went out en masse it was finally time to get the season officially underway. Verstappen got a decent start but Perez struggled by comparison and came under immediate pressure from the Ferraris, with Leclerc emerging from the scrap in second. Behind them, Alonso and Hamilton went side-by-side and the spoils went to Hamilton as Lance Stroll ran hot into turn 4 and hit his team mate, allowing Russell to claim sixth. Alonso escaped significant damage from the collision, but was not best pleased as he slotted back into seventh ahead of Alfa Romeo's Valtteri Bottas.

Four laps into the race, Verstappen had already pulled out a three second lead over Leclerc who was pushing hard and locking up. Perez was in third ahead of Sainz, Hamilton and Russell with Alonso close behind followed by Bottas and Stroll, with Alpine's Esteban Ocon rounding out the top ten ahead of Williams' duo Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant followed by McLaren's Lando Norris.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Aston Martin F1 Team AMR23 and George Russell (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W14 battle for position.
05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.

Stroll made up for his earlier misdemeanour with a nice move on Bottas into turn 1 on lap 5 for eighth place, while further back Norris succeeded in picking off Sargeant for 12th. But at the front, the gaps were opening up with Verstappen's lead now 5.5s by lap 9 without even seeming to push too hard despite complaining about the downshifts on the RB19, while Perez was falling away from the back of Leclerc. Meanwhile Russell was complaining that he was being held up by Hamilton as he felt Alonso nipping at his heels.

Now the question of tyre degradation was coming into focus, and who would have to pit first? Pierre Gasly was first to come in, with Norris and Yuki Tsunoda reacting immediately next time by. However the McLaren suffering a slow stop as the team tended to a pneumatic pressure issue on the MCL60.

By now it was Russell who was suffering, his tyres shot leaving him unable to fend off Alonso any longer despite a robust side-by-side defence from the Briton on lap 13. Meanwhile Hamilton had made his own pit stop and moved from the soft tyres to the hard, as had Bottas, Zhou Guanyu, Nico Hulkenberg and Nyck de Vries. Ferrari double-stacked their drivers next time by with Alonso also in, and then Russell finally rolled up for a rather slow service. With Stroll in next time by, Perez was now the only driver yet to make his stop. Everyone had swapped soft tyres for the hard compound, with the exception of Verstappen and Albon who had stayed on the softs for a second stint. Alas, Oscar Piastri's pit stop ended in retirement after he reported gearbox problems that McLaren initially blamed on the the steering wheel but which was later described as an electrical issue.

Oscar Piastri (AUS) McLaren MCL60 makes a pit stop.
05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.

Perez finally pitted on lap 18 and like Verstappen and Albon he opted to stay on the softs. That restored the lead of the race to Verstappen and Leclerc, with Perez returning in third place ahead of Sainz, Hamilton, Bottas, Alonso and Russell. The Alfa quickly fell prey to the Aston and the Mercedes leaving Bottas bumped down to eighth ahead of Stroll, who also quickly found his way past the Finn. Albon was still tenth followed by Tsunoda, Gasly, Sargeant, de Vries, Zhou and Hulkenberg, with Magnussen in 17th ahead of Ocon (who had been penalised for being out of position on the grid) and the still-ailing Norris.

Another lock-up by Leclerc meant that Verstappen's lead was now over ten seconds. The Ferrari was beginning to be pestered by Perez who was creeping back into DRS range. Perez finally nipped down the inside of turn 1 to claim the position on lap 26; while Leclerc tried to parry the move into turns 2 and 3, the Red Bull was simply too fast on corner exit and away he sailed, quickly pulling out an emphatic lead on Leclerc before there was any chance of a counterattack.

Alonso had been speculating that the Mercedes cars around him were suffering with more degradation than the AMR23, but the general verdict on pit lane was that the tyres were lasting better than expected; the Mercedes pit wall even told Hamilton that he didn't have to worry about managing the tyres anymore and that he had some of the "best deg in the field" and was good to put his foot down.

Lap 28 saw Gasly, Tsunoda and Albon make their second stops. Ocon was also in, serving a penalty for not serving his initial penalty when he should have done, and incurring a third penalty for speeding on pit lane on the way. Some days it's just not your day. Things were barely better for Norris who needed another pneumatics top up when he stopped again for the third time in the race. Meanwhile Verstappen reported that his 14-lap-old soft front tyres were beginning to give up on him.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Aston Martin F1 Team AMR23.
05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.

After Stroll, Bottas and Magnussen stopped again, Hamilton pitted on lap 31 for a new set of hard tyres after being warned about an "undercut threat" from Alonso. Then it was Sainz and Russell's turn for service next time around, and Stroll did indeed pull off the undercut on Russell that Mercedes had worried about Alonso performing on Hamilton.

Leclerc was in from third on lap 34, followed by second-place man Perez and then Alonso, who emerged in sixth still just behind Hamilton. Verstappen finally came in on lap 37, joining his team mate in a switch to the hard tyres for the final stint. It left the top four in grid order - Verstappen, Perez, Leclerc, Sainz - with Hamilton now forced to fight hard to hold off Alonso. The Aston dived ahead down the inside of turn 4 but then lost grip on exit allowing Hamilton to get the better exit and reclaim the position into turn 5.

Undeterred, Alonso kept up the pressure, and on the next lap he pulled off a superb surprise switchback into turn 10 to finally settle the matter. Unfortunately their battle had allowed Sainz to steal away into the night ahead of them in the meantime. Behind them Stroll was looking secure in seventh ahead of Russell followed by Bottas, Albon, Gasly, Tsunoda, Sargeant, de Vries, Zhou and Magnussen who had got ahead of Haas team mate Hulkenberg, with Ocon and Norris now a lap off the lead with their respective recurring penalty and pneumatic issues respectively.

Charles Leclerc (MON) Ferrari retired from the race.
05.03.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 1, Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir, Bahrain, Race Day.

Last year's Bahrain GP had looked to be on course for a possible Red Bull victory until fuel system issues for both cars in the final laps of the race had handed victory to Leclerc. But what goes around comes around, and this year it was Leclerc's turn to suffer a technical failure: "No power, no power, no power," he yelled over the team radio as the car came to a halt on lap 40, triggering a brief Virtual Safety Car for the SF-23 to be retrieved. With the team having already replaced two power unit components on Leclerc's car before the race, this was an ominous start for Ferrari in terms of reliability.

Williams and Haas used the VSC opportunity for a cheeky free pit stop for their drivers, while Tsunoda was able to pass his team mate de Vries as the rookie was distracted trying to find his way past Zhou. Gasly also seized the opportunity to snatch back ninth position from Albon, while Ocon became the third retirement of the race with the suspension presumably unable to cope with the weight of all the penalties he had picked up during the evening.

Verstappen and Perez were now running away with the race, but Sainz was under intense pressure from Alonso. He locked up into turn 8 allowing Alonso to make a move into turn 10, and the two made minor as Alonso forced the issue and came away with the spoils out of turn 11 on lap 46, quickly dropping Sainz who was already being lined up by Hamilton who had the Ferrari in DRS range. The Spaniard was complaining about his car bouncing, but he was still just about able to stay ahead of Hamilton who was on slightly older tyres.

At the chequered flag, Verstappen led Perez by over ten seconds for an emphatic Red Bull 1-2, with Alonso content to cruise his way to third a long way ahead of Sainz, Hamilton, Stroll, Russell, Bottas, Gasly and Albon. Finishing outside the points tonight were Tsunoda, Sargeant, Magnussen, de Vries and Hulkenberg (who had been penalised for multiple track limit violations) and Zhou. Norris had been running last after yet another visit to pit lane for further pneumatic top-ups when he headed for pit lane to join Ocon, Leclerc and Piastri in retirement before the chequered flag.

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