Defending champ Verstappen still the man to beat in 2023

For the second season in a row there’s only question worth asking in Formula 1: can anyone catch Max Verstappen?

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

There are no championship points on offer during the preseason, but Max Verstappen looked as though he’d taken the title lead as he walked away from testing one day early.

“The evolution of the car compared to last year seems to work very nicely, so everyone back at the factory did a very good job,” he summed up, cool as you like, before leaving the final day’s work to teammate Sergio Perez.

It was a supreme show of confidence from the reigning world champion. The final day of testing is when teams put all the lessons of the previous two days into practice to gauge their true pace. Verstappen clearly didn’t feel a need to find out. He’d learnt all he needed from the first 1.5 days in the car before handing over the wheel.

From the very first minutes of testing it was clear Red Bull Racing’s RB19 was quick. It was poised through the corners, fast down the straights and easy on its tyres. While other teams were busy ironing out the kinks of their new designs, Verstappen was already completing race simulations. He topped the time sheet on the first day without even trying.

“Once we put it out on track it was working well,” he said, a superb understatement. “We had a good balance, so that also shows that throughout the winter all the preparation we were doing on the simulator was very accurate.”

Even Sergio Perez, who looked less comfortable in a car undoubtedly designed to best suit his title-winning teammate, described the car as “tremendous”.

Diving the results from preseason requires a notoriously inexact analysis of the on-track times and a feel for the mood in each garage. No team shows its hand entirely, but the vibe can tell you plenty.

Ferrari put in a workmanlike test, completing many laps but never attempting a true qualifying run. It’s improved straight-line speed this year, but in doing so it has a car that’s less predictable to set up.

But the team, under new boss Frédéric Vasseur, was optimistic by the end of the test that it could renew its title challenge.

“When we are able to put everything together, the pace is there. And when we are not, the pace is not there,” Vasseur said. There’s a sense that if the team can nail down the car’s sweet spot, it will be back in the game.

Mercedes enjoyed a decent preseason but is no closer to knowing how big a gap is left to the leaders. The infernal bouncing that undermined its pace last year and threatened to injure drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell is gone, but the revised car remains unbalanced.

Still, the team is cautiously optimistic that it can aggressively develop its way forward, even if it won’t say whether it thinks it can join the title fight.

But how well Mercedes is bouncing back really depends on who you ask. Some in the paddock believe the team would do better to keep its eyes on the rear-view mirror at an unexpected challenge from engine customer Aston Martin.

The green team wheeled out a car that looked immediately quick with new recruit Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion, at the helm. Canadian billionaire owner Lawrence Stroll has been spending big to drag the team up the grid, and early indications are that it might have launched from seventh in last season’s standings to fourth — or maybe better.

Its main competition for head of the midfield looks likely to be French team Alpine, which has kept its cards close to its chest throughout testing but revealed it will bring a significant update to the car for the first race in Bahrain this weekend.

But its 2022 sparring partner McLaren seems unlikely to join the fight. For the second year running the historic team showed up badly underprepared to preseason testing with a car that kept falling apart. It completed the fewest laps of any team, frustrating talisman Lando Norris and downgrading expectations for superstar rookie Oscar Piastri’s first season.

McLaren’s work to recover will be made more difficult by a midfield that looks closer together than last year. Points and even Q2 qualification will be no given in 2022.

It’s shaping up to be a fascinating season, but once the permutations have been run and the speculating is done, the core question remains: do any of them have what it takes to beat Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing?

They’ll have 23 rounds to prove it, starting with this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.