Feature F1 Unlocked
HINCH'S HEROES: Our IndyCar star picks out the 5 drivers who have impressed him most so far in 2023
This season, IndyCar winner James Hinchcliffe has been taking stock after every Grand Prix and presenting his ‘heroes’ from the weekend, exclusively for F1.com. And as the season pauses for the new traditional summer break, we asked him to pick out the five drivers he’s been most impressed with in the first half of 2023…
When you really look at everything that Tsunoda has done this year, it really is impressive. Coming out of the gates strong with two 11th and two 10th place finishes in the first four races gave everyone the opinion that the AlphaTauri was a reasonably strong package.
The gaps to highly-rated team mate Nick de Vries were put down to the Dutch rookie’s inexperience, but assumptions were that he would soon catch up and start also challenging for points.
The fact that De Vries never got there, and the fact that it became apparent the AlphaTauri was not, in fact, as sporty as it first seemed, highlighted how strong Tsunoda’s points (and almost points) paying finishes truly were.
Then came the shock news that De Vries was being replaced by Daniel Ricciardo. This would be a huge test for any driver’s mental fortitude, and while it looked like Hungary was the beginning of Ricciardo mopping the floor with his new team mate, the impressive bounce back in form at Spa was the final exclamation point that Tsunoda is figuring this Formula 1 thing out.
To be placed under that kind of pressure, and bounce back to strong form after a rough first outing in the new arrangement, is a sign that third time (season!) might be a charm for Tsunoda.
When Haas were faced with the tough decision at the end of last year to either give Mick Schumacher another year to improve or bring Hulkenberg back after a lengthy hiatus, you would be forgiven for initially thinking they made the wrong move.
It’s so hard to judge a driver’s motivation and ability after that long a spell away from the sport. That said, Kevin Magnussen seemed to relish in his second stint in F1 after one year away, and Fernando Alonso came back after two years without missing a beat – but how long is too long away? Evidently, it is longer than three years.
Hulkenberg came back to the grid alongside Magnussen, who was riding high after a strong return season in 2022. The German immediately showed he had lost no pace by making Q3 first time out, and out qualifying Magnussen at every race until Miami.
At the summer break it is 9-3 in Hulkenberg’s favour in qualifying, and even though they are even at six apiece in race finishes, he’s seven points ahead of Magnussen in the championship, and that could’ve been a whole lot more had the end of the Australian GP shaken out a little differently.
The way he has re-acclimated to life on the F1 grid has been mighty impressive, and if Haas can develop the car to improve its race pace, his Saturday form could help him regularly fight for points.
Aston Martin’s jump from seventh in the 2022 constructors battle to be Red Bull’s main challenger in the opening rounds gave teams up and down pit lane hope that the new regulations could also provide them the opportunity to make meaningful leaps in performance.
Likewise, Alonso’s streak of podiums – and genuine level of performance – has likely given a host of drivers hope that they too can still be fighting for podiums and wins in their early 40s.
Having lost none of the blinding speed, relentless work ethic and, quite frankly, ruthless race craft that has won him two world titles and 32 races, Alonso is a specimen of the ultimate racing driver.
His performance in the first part of the season has been quintessential Alonso – he has been reaching the maximum potential of whatever package he is given in every single race. Even though the Aston has lost a bit of its relative competitiveness, Alonso has lost nothing, and it’s truly a pleasure to witness an athlete of his tenure perform at such a high level.
The jump up from F2 to F1 is a monumental one, and it’s easy to get consumed by the chasm between the two – we’ve seen it happen to multiple drivers in the last decade. The good news for Piastri is that he had the support of Grand Prix winner Mark Webber to help him navigate some of the challenges.
On top of all of standard hurdles of moving up to the top tier, Piastri was saddled with a severely uncompetitive car early on as well. Rather than trying to overcompensate for the McLaren’s lack of pace and making the typical rookie errors, Piastri kept his composure and made very few unforced errors in the first 10 rounds of the season.
Trying to learn the sport, racing an underperforming car – and all while in the shadow of one of F1’s rising stars in Lando Norris – combined to create a high pressure situation that didn’t faze the young Australian.
When, in Hungary, McLaren brought upgrades that immediately made the car competitive, Piastri duly delivered by running very close to Norris all weekend, and had a podium in his hands before an untimely VSC.
The following round at Spa, the car was once again competitive, and this time he had the measure of his team mate the entire weekend. He may have only been grabbing headline-making results in the last few rounds, but the proof of his potential has been there since Bahrain. The second half of the season should be exciting to watch.
There’s not really much more that can be said about Verstappen and the level he is currently performing at – yet, somehow, I feel as though we are still in store for some more devastatingly impressive runs in the second half of the year.
The car is phenomenal – of that there is no doubt – but his killer instinct at all times, in all scenarios, shows you where his head is at when he is behind the wheel.
Sergio Perez is no slouch, but just as Nico Rosberg learned when teamed with Lewis Hamilton – or Webber with Sebastian Vettel, or Rubens Barrichello with Michael Schumacher – every once in a while a single driver is operating at such an incredible level that all rivals can’t help but accept their fate: they are racing for second place.
He has already broken records this year and will no doubt add to those tallies as the season plays out. While I hope that other cars reach a level of competitiveness that allows us to witness Verstappen’s wheel-to-wheel race craft on a more regular basis, watching the more subtle – but no less impressive – feats during his period of domination is still something to behold.