Interviewing Max Verstappen is a wonderful challenge. The Red Bull driver doesn’t usually give anything away for free. But as success has come, the two-time champion’s confidence in backing himself publicly has grown. 

    That has never been as evident as after Day 1 of pre-season testing for the 2023 F1 season. Verstappen bounded out of the back of the garage to chat to me for F1 TV with a beaming smile, having completed a monstrous 157 laps.

    READ MORE: ‘I felt comfortable and could push instantly’ – Verstappen fires warning shot to Red Bull's rivals after impressive testing run

    His body language gave his happiness away. His words only served to confirm that observation. He knew, without doubt, that Red Bull had built a car that will give him the chance to fight for a third successive world championship. 

    A Verstappen as confident as this, as early in the season as this, is a formidable thing – but while he and his Red Bull team look like they hold such a commanding advantage over the rest of the field, the feeling among senior figures I spoke to across the paddock is that this championship is not a forgone conclusion. 

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing looks
    Verstappen seems confident that Red Bull have built a car to win the championship for a third time in a row

    Red Bull will have the least wind tunnel and CFD research and development testing of all teams, courtesy of them winning the constructors’ championship last year. That will be further reduced courtesy of a penalty for exceeding the cost cap. Together, that will inevitably have an impact on their in-season development. 

    And while Red Bull top both the one-lap and race pace data metrics, based on running in Bahrain, we must remember this is only testing – and we don’t know the exact programmes each team were running, from fuel loads to aero programmes. 

    READ MORE: The 5 key questions from 2023 pre-season testing in Bahrain

    And most importantly, Ferrari look like they were in the fight. After the first 1.5 days of running, sources say the Scuderia reckon they were behind Red Bull by around half a second a lap. By the end of testing, they believed that deficit had halved. 

    It is believed Ferrari have plenty left in the tank and did not show everything at testing – though it’s likely Red Bull have plenty in reserve, too. Intriguingly, the tone at Ferrari changed after the final afternoon, from one that was cautious to one that was cautiously optimistic.

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 25: Sparks fly behind Carlos Sainz of Spain driving (55) the Ferrari
    It's believed that Ferrari did not show their full hand at testing, and they are cautiously optimistic that they can fight with Red Bull

    Ferrari head into this weekend’s race knowing that the Bahrain International Circuit is a Charles Leclerc-spec track. He won there in F2. He took pole there in F1 last year – and converted it into victory.

    It’s also a power-sensitive circuit that rewards good traction. Ferrari should excel here given they have made reliability fixes to the power unit that sources say could be worth up to 0.3s per lap, while the car is inherently strong accelerating out of corners. 

    READ MORE: 'The mood in the team is perfect' says Ferrari boss Vasseur after encouraging pre-season test

    So, when new boss Fred Vasseur left the circuit on Saturday night, not long after running was completed to catch a flight back to Italy so he could get back in the office at Maranello, he could do so with a bounce in his step. 

    Emotionally, the test was difficult for Mercedes. The relief was palpable after Day 1 when it became clear the technical team had eradicated the bouncing that had caused such abject misery last year. The car looked decent on track, too. 

    But then they looked all at sea on Day 2, piling the weight of the world back onto their shoulders after only the briefest of respites. The final day was more encouraging, but the unpredictability of the test means they go into the first race with a fair bit of anxiety and uncertainty as to where they actually stand.

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 25: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG
    It was a challenging three days for Mercedes, who go into the first race not quite knowing where they stand

    The beauty of testing is that no one really knows where they stack up. They don’t really know what headline lap times really mean. They don’t know what programmes other teams are running. They also don’t know how much the launch/test spec will change for the first race weekend. 

    The next best thing is educated guessing based on their internal calculations and bank of data. And that led many to publicly declare Aston Martin had caught their attention in a big way. The green Mercedes-powered AMR23 looks very different to its predecessor, the influence of its intake of senior staff from the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull clear. 

    TECH INSIGHT: The AMR23 is inspired and innovative – but is Aston Martin's pace real?

    On track, it behaved differently, too – in a positive way. Fernando Alonso looked quick every time he headed out for a spin. Despite having spent little time at his new team and in his new office, the double world champion looked at home early doors and very quickly was able to start searching for the limits of the car. 

    When Alonso is frustrated, he doesn’t keep quiet about it publicly. Equally, he doesn’t tend to shout about it when things are looking good. His cautious response to Aston’s supreme pre-season, then, is notable. There is every chance Aston could challenge Mercedes – and maybe even push further up – come this weekend. 

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 25: Mike Krack, Team Principal of the Aston Martin F1 Team and Fernando
    Can Alonso and Aston Martin spring a surprise?

    It's not all rosy, though, because of Lance Stroll’s absence after he sustained a wrist injury in a cycling accident earlier this month. Even if he makes it back for the first race of the season, he’ll do so on the backfoot given he hasn’t had any testing – and that means Aston likely won’t be able to maximise the exciting package they seem to have. 

    Alpine are causing some head-scratching, because while they looked uninspiring out on track and on the timesheets, those who I spoke to privately inside the team are oozing confidence and are in little doubt that they should be in a position to meet their target of closing the performance gap to the top three.

    READ MORE: Ocon says Alpine in a 'much better place' compared to last year as he praises new team mate Gasly

    In-season development was Alpine’s key strength last year – and they are going even more aggressive with their approach this year, starting with a sizeable upgrade package for the first race. If they can continue the trend of new parts performing as expected based on the wind tunnel and CFD testing, they could be a real factor. 

    Sauber-run Alfa Romeo look like a very tidy package, too. Sauber’s new CEO and former McLaren boss Andreas Seidl was in town to catch his first glimpse of how his new squad operates – though you’ll hear very little from him this year as he focuses on the long-term project that will see Audi make the team its works outfit from 2026.

    BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 24: Esteban Ocon of France driving the (31) Alpine F1 A523 Renault on
    Alpine are expected to bring a sizeable upgrade package to the first race of the season

    Haas have had their best-ever pre-season, and will be led by their most experienced driver line-up ever in Kevin Magnussen and Nico Hulkenberg, while Williams made the biggest jump of all in terms of lap time gained compared to last year’s test. They’ll still be towards the back of the midfield, but the pack feels like it’s even tighter. That means get a weekend perfect and you’re in contention for points. 

    McLaren had the worst time of it. They had already braced the world for a difficult start of the season when they admitted at the launch that the car wasn’t quite where they wanted it to be, before admitting at testing that a change in development direction led to an undercooked launch-spec car. However, McLaren are also renowned for strong in-season development – and have a big package coming for Baku. So while the first few races might be painful, they aren’t letting it get them down. 

    READ MORE: F1 team bosses reveal pecking order predictions as McLaren admit they’ve missed ‘projected targets’

    All this means as we left the paddock on Saturday night, with four days until we were back again for the first race of the season, there was an overwhelming feeling of excitement and anticipation. Yes, Red Bull were the ones to beat – but they had one, maybe two teams hanging firmly onto their coattails, with a chasing midfield pack that look to have tightened, as well as inched closer. 

    I can’t wait to get back to track and get our first real glimpse into the 2023 pecking order when qualifying gets under way.  

    To read on, sign up to F1 Unlocked for free

    You'll unlock this article and get access to:

    Free Wall_Article.png