Ahead of the first free practice session for the Bahrain Grand Prix, we were eagerly awaiting to see what we could understand about F1 2023’s early pecking order. Paddock consensus was that Red Bull are ahead – perhaps with as much as a 0.5s advantage over the field at this track – although Scuderia Ferrari, who didn’t show much of a hand at all at testing, believe they are closer than that.
Mercedes and pre-season darlings Aston Martin are then expected to fight it out for third fastest, although don’t be surprised if Mercedes, who say they have a much better baseline with this year’s car and have valuable learnings from testing, are ahead despite all the chatter.
Under these assumptions, the first free practice session of the 2023 Formula 1 championship got under way at the Bahrain International Circuit. Green light and the cars were making their way out onto the track for the first time this year! First out was the two Williams’ and the season was now officially under way. The medium tyres were the choice of the majority of the drivers who had already made their way onto the track. Unlike the rest, Logan Sargeant opted for the hard tyre, while Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz went for the softs.
We had a busy track, but after the first ten minutes we were yet to see Max Verstappen, Lance Stroll, Lewis Hamilton or George Russell.
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We did not have too much action at this stage, but two of the got a lap time under their belt: Oscar Piastri was situated in seventh, 2.289s off the pace of Fernando Alonso at the top, with Nyck de Vries 2.791s behind in 10th. But after getting that lap time in, Oscar Piastri had a bit of a hairy moment as he had a snap of oversteer. The team checked in with him and it seemed all was OK with the car.
It took 12 minutes, but we had the Red Bull of Max Verstappen and the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton out on track: Hamilton went up to fourth and was just over a second off the pace, with Verstappen just ahead of him in third. 41 minutes to go and every driver had a laptime under their belt except for Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll: it was touch and go whether Stroll would take part in this session due to a wrist injury suffered whilst riding his bike and after missing testing, he was hoping he could get some big minutes this weekend.
We couldn’t read too much into these times at this stage, but the Haas team was happy with Kevin Magnussen so far: he sat in fourth on the timesheet, just 1.077s off the pace of Sergio Perez at the top. Fernando Alonso was second, with Lewis Hamilton third. There were more troubles for McLaren and Lando Norris: the Briton was sat in the pitlane getting his mirrors fixed – a sight we’ve seen throughout testing.
We were halfway through first practice and, in truth, we still hadn’t seen any team reveal their true pace just yet. It was like an extension to testing! Sergio Perez led but a 1:34.343 was slow, even compared to last week. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were second and third, while the two Ferrari SF-23 cars of Charles Leclerc (who was using the new single-pylon rear wing) and Carlos Sainz were the best part of two seconds off the pace.
Ferrari were trying out a single pillar rear wing and were seeing it wobble quite a bit. In testing, the Maranello team tried various rear wings but it seems they have actually settled on the double pillar rear wing, taking off that rear wing which we assume was the low downforce one.
A few moments later, there was a moment from Carlos Sainz as he went for a big spin on his medium tyres. It looked like it was a result of running the car too low and going over the kerb.
We had just under 15 minutes left of this session, and on his latest lap, Charles Leclerc could only manage to get to fourth and sat 1.499s off Sergio Perez. However, he was on the medium compound. The Monegasque driver was followed closely by the Alfa Romeos of Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas who sat in fifth and sixth. Fernando Alonso then put in a great lap and he usurped Max Verstappen to take the second spot. He was 0.438s off the pace and that was another good sign for Aston-Martin.
It had been a quiet session so far for Mercedes, but they were one of the only teams who have opted to stick to the medium tyres. Lewis Hamilton was ninth with ten minutes until the end of FP1 and was 2.159s off the pace, with George Russell then behind in 12th, 2.292s off Sergio Perez’s speed.
Chequered Flag and that was quite the dominant session for Sergio Perez! He has sat at the top of the timesheet for the majority of the session and finished with a 1:32.758. Fernando Alonso split the Red Bull cars to finish in second, 0.438s off the pace, with Max Verstappen then in third. Charles Leclerc was fifth, +1.499 from the best lap time set by the Mexican, while Carlos finished in P20. The SF-23 car seemed a bit difficult to drive, with plenty of understeer. Still a lot of work to do for the Maranello team to recover the gap.