F1 GP: An imperious start | Pirelli

F1 GP: An imperious start

The first three races of the season offered an unequivocal verdict, with reigning champions Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen continuing to dominate the scene, as they did for much of last season, almost as if this 2023 was a continuation of it. The Dutch driver scored 69 points out of 78 (88.4%), the team managed by Christian Horner did even a little better, taking home 89.1% of the spoils available (123 points out of 138), thanks to the contribution of Sergio Perez (55).

So, have the titles already been secured? Be careful, because the very comparison with the first three races last year induces caution. In 2022, Red Bull had collected less than half (55) of this year's points, with Verstappen even stopping at 25. Leading the way were Charles Leclerc and Ferrari, with 71 (so better than Verstappen '23) and 104 points respectively, with the Dutchman even sixth in the Drivers' standings.  A year ago many gave Maranello as favourites after the first three races and then we saw how that turned out. So many times in this sport we have seen how the balance of power can change quickly: after all, if we then go back two years, we discover that even then whoever was in the lead after three races - in this case Lewis Hamilton, who had the same points as Max has today - failed to become world champion. 

If we then add that the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix has created a four-week gap in the calendar the likes of which has not been seen for decades and without any limitation in terms of time available - of economic resources, yes... - here is growing curiosity to find out what the balance of power will be in Baku. From then on there will be five races in six weeks: at the end of that cycle we will certainly know more.

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The other side of the coin

If in Milton-Keynes they look back with great satisfaction on the balance of the first three races of 2023, the other side of the coin lies 1500 kilometres south-east, in Maranello. After three years of steady growth, Ferrari has started 2023 on the wrong foot: only 26 points to its credit, exactly a quarter of those collected last year. And if Carlos Sainz has limited the damage, losing 13 points from one year to the next, for Charles Leclerc the comparison is pitiless, with a points haul that has gone from 71 to 6. 

However, the same discourse on the speed with which the balance of power changes that was made for Red Bull also applies to the Italian team. Beware of giving up on a team that has all the elements to return to the top and that can therefore make the most of the break to try to get out of a complicated situation. Last year the Ferraristi arrived at Imola on the wings of enthusiasm and from then on the situation became more and more entangled; who knows, maybe the opposite will happen this year. Too late to fight for the championship? No, not yet, although time is running out and the trend must be reversed somehow.

The big surprise

Hands up who, on the eve of testing in Bahrain, would have bet on an Aston Martin in second place in the Constructors' standings and on a Fernando Alonso three times in a row on the podium. Instead, here we are, rightly celebrating a team that in three Grands Prix has won ten more points than all those taken home in 23 races in 2022 and a driver who at 41 years of age has surpassed one hundred podiums in Formula 1 (the first was 20 years ago...). Not since 2006 has Fernando had such a good start to the season: back then, in the Renault days, the Spaniard won in Bahrain and Australia and finished second in Malaysia, launching a ride that ended with his second world title. It is difficult for the fairytale to be repeated but dreaming, even at his age, costs nothing!

In Aston Martin's excellent start to the season, we should also not forget the contribution of Lance Stroll, a driver who is often underestimated but who, in three races, was able to first achieve a good sixth place in Bahrain just a few days after a serious injury that had prevented him from taking part in the only test available and then, after retiring due to a technical problem in Saudi Arabia, in Melbourne he finished a brilliant fourth place at the end of a solid and error-free race. In Baku in 2021, Aston Martin achieved the first podium and the best result in its history with Vettel (2nd): for sure at Silverstone they are thinking about how to do poker.

In Melbourne the first record of the year

Formula 1 is experiencing an extraordinary public boom, both on the track and in front of the screens, and 2023 started immediately with a record. In fact, 444,631 spectators were recorded in Melbourne over the four days of entertainment on offer, slightly bettering the 440,000 total attendance recorded in Austin last year. With an offer of five series - in addition to F1, F2 and F3 there was the Porsche Carrera Cup and the Supercars Championship - and many other activities in Albert Park, the organisers of the Australian Grand Prix put together an entertainment programme of the highest level, capable of attracting spectators not only from all over Australia but also from abroad. 

The absolute record attendance - at least since they have been measured with uniformity and reliability, i.e. from 2017 onwards - is confirmation of how a Grand Prix should be seen not just as a simple - albeit important - sporting event, but as a unique entertainment opportunity for an ever-growing audience not necessarily interested only in the competition on the track. In a world where the offer of entertainment is ever wider, be it physical or digital, it becomes crucial to be able to offer something attractive and spectacular every day. It is for this reason that the efforts that F1, together with the FIA and the teams, are making to experiment with new ideas - see, for example, the Sprint races and the associated modifications in preparation for the Baku round - are going in a direction that is not only right but necessary, on pain of becoming a niche sport. When people talk about Formula One DNA being defended, they forget that genetics teaches us that DNA is not immutable but evolves, either spontaneously or through the action of external agents: this is true for every living species and, by transitive property, also for human activities.

First signs

One of the main objectives of the budget cap was to ensure that the differences between the various teams were more limited and, consequently, Grands Prix could be more closely contested: but is this really the case? At the beginning of the third year since the FIA Financial Regulations came into force, extended this season also to the power unit, it is possible to try and give an initial answer. One possible objective indicator are the qualifying results, when all teams and drivers are theoretically in the same condition. 

If you compare the times of the first three Grands Prix this year with those of 2022, you can see how the difference between the fastest and slowest has narrowed. In Bahrain in Q1 between the time of the fastest, Carlos Sainz, and the slowest, Pierre Gasly, there is 1.188s: a year earlier, on the same track, the difference had been 2.163s. On the Jeddah city track, the balance of power apparently remained unchanged (1.686s in 2023, 1.688s in 2022), but only thanks to the exploit of Verstappen, who shaved almost half a second off his team-mate Sergio Perez. Between the runner-up in the first phase of qualifying and the twentieth, Lando Norris, there was in fact a gap of 1.203s. And here we come to Melbourne: in 2022 between Verstappen and Latifi there was 3.152s while this year between the same Dutchman and Valtteri Bottas (19th and last to achieve a significant time) there was 1.330s.

Even in a Q3 analysis, when all calculations fail, there is more balance. In the first three qualifying sessions this year these were the differences between the pole man and the last to get a time in the final ten minutes: 1.276s in Sakhir, 1.092s in Jeddah, 1.003s in Melbourne. In 2022 it had started from 1.780s in Bahrain to 1.540s in Australia via 1.388s in Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps three races are still not enough and the parameters are no guarantee to draw definitive conclusions, but some signs are beginning to be seen.