As the sun set and the floodlights flickered on at the Bahrain International Circuit, the scene was set for the first representative practice session of 2023 – and it delivered a flurry of surprises that whet the appetite for the campaign ahead. Aston Martin were surprise timesheet leaders with Fernando Alonso – but a dig into the data suggests another team are favourites…

    Aston Martin deliver on testing promise

    Aston Martin’s pace during pre-season testing caught everyone’s attention, double world champion Alonso effortlessly settling into his new surroundings and quickly stretching the legs of an AMR23 that looked every bit a disrupter to the status quo.

    The Spaniard delivered a beautiful lap on the soft tyres during the qualifying simulations to end the session top of the pile, 0.16s clear of the chasing Red Bull’s but he was not getting carried away by the lofty position. When asked if he’d be disappointed if he doesn’t take pole position on Saturday, he replied: “No, no, no – not at all. I’m not thinking that high.”

    READ MORE: Alonso not targeting Bahrain GP pole position despite table-topping FP2 performance

    Perez Bahrain F1
    Perez topped FP1 in Bahrain before Alonso set the fastest time in FP2, having also split the Red Bulls in the first session

    Our data suggests Aston Martin are third overall in qualifying trim (below), as it is believed they were running lower fuel than their rivals. When corrected, they slot in third – around 0.42s off the pace, which is still a significant step forward on their 2022 turn of pace.

    Their race runs looked decent, too, but like Ferrari, the AMR23 looks to have higher degradation compared to Red Bull – and that leaves them fourth.

    A top four start and podium shot, then, looks tricky based on this data, but we’ve seen time and time again that Alonso can extract more out of a car than most. Give him a sniff of a big result and rarely does he disappoint.

    WATCH: Ride onboard as Alonso sets the fastest lap in Friday practice in Bahrain

    Qualifying pace post FP2 Bahrain 2023

    Red Bull still the ones to beat

    Red Bull’s start to 2023 hit its first bumps of the year on Friday, with both Max Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez taking time to get up to speed.

    Whereas the car responded to changes with aplomb no matter how warm or cool the conditions were last week in testing, this was not the case in practice as the team chased a good balance.

    But come the end of the session, Verstappen said he had a good final run, the Red Bull driver having more confidence as the “car felt a bit more connected”.

    READ MORE: Verstappen concedes Aston Martin look 'very competitive' as he and Perez reflect on 'tricky' start to Bahrain weekend

    The data has Red Bull on top in both short and long run simulations, the reigning world champions holding a 0.34s advantage in qualifying and 0.46s in race trim. They are also quickest of all in the lower speed turns.

    If the team continue to make progress with the set-up and balance and Verstappen can “feel happy in the car again” and “push like I want to push with the car on one lap, then we are very fast”.

    Race pace analysis Bahrain post FP2 2023

    Ferrari very much in the mix

    While the second practice timesheets didn’t look too pretty for Ferrari, with one Aston Martin and both Red Bulls ahead of them, the mood in the camp, combined with the data our team have crunched is certainly more encouraging.

    Leclerc said the feeling inside the car is “better than testing” and while he conceded practice proved Red Bull seem “quite a bit ahead” with Aston “very strong, too”, he feels Ferrari have made a step and are in the fight.

    READ MORE: Leclerc admits Ferrari ‘don’t have the performance for pole’ in Bahrain as Sainz explains wild practice spin

    While he thinks they won’t “have the performance maybe for pole,” he reckons the “can be in the mix and our data supports that with Ferrari second in the pecking order. Add in the fact Leclerc is very strong around Bahrain and it’s no wonder he’s not pessimistic.

    Race runs (above) look a little more challenging, Leclerc admitting that’s the area where the red team “have most work to do”. Tyre degradation looks like it’s still a challenge, and that could make it difficult for them to take the fight to Red Bull. But they remain second in the pecking order in this metric – to assert themselves as Red Bull’s main rival.

    Car performance FP2

    Mercedes lacking cutting edge

    Lewis Hamilton cut a disconsolate figure after Friday practice, the seven-time world champion conceding the Silver Arrows are “a long way off”.

    In qualifying trim, that’s a fair reflection according to the data, with Mercedes fourth overall, 0.57s off the pace behind Red Bull, Ferrari and Aston Martin.

    READ MORE: 'We are a long way off' – Mercedes drivers left frustrated after first practice sessions in Bahrain

    But in race trim, Hamilton reckons Mercedes are “quite close to Ferrari” but behind Aston Martin. However, our data suggests there’s reason for optimism for the Briton in this metric as the Mercedes’ degradation seems better than Ferrari and Aston Martin.

    They are third in race trim simulations, 0.57s behind Red Bull, and around a tenth slower than Ferrari, which means that while qualifying might be difficult – this is a track where you can overtake and that means a podium is possible.

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