We are now less than a month away from the Formula One circus heading to Bahrain for the season opener and just a couple of weeks from the pre-season testing at the same circuit. So let’s get into what has changed from last year, who the new faces are and can Max Verstappen really emulate greats like Lauda, Piquet and Senna and claim his third World Driver’s Championship title?
Driver and Team Changes
Four-time World Champion, Sebastian Vettel’s, decision to retire at the end of the 2022 season prompted the biggest roundabout of moves during last season’s silly season, and indeed provided the most drama as Fernando Alonso seemingly out of nowhere swapped the Enstone-based Alpine outfit for the Silverstone-based Aston Martin team. A swap that sees him joining a team that finished three places below Alpine with less than a third of their total points. Only time will tell if this is a gamble that will pay off.
Alonso’s decision to switch didn’t only take us all by surprise, but Alpine as well, with team boss Otmar Szafnauer admitting that the first confirmation he had was Aston’s press release. Alpine rushed to release a statement stating that the reigning F2 champion, Oscar Piastri, would be joining the team for 2023 but this was denied publicly by Piastri. The case threatened to go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport before Alpine relinquished and instead announced former AlphaTauri race winner, Pierre Gasly. An all-French lineup in a French team sees Gasly partner his former karting adversary Esteban Ocon.
Having lost Gasly, the AlphaTauri team recruited Dutch Formula E and Formula 2 champion, Nyck de Vries. De Vries has had a season of testing under his belt filling in at Mercedes, Williams, and Aston Martin in practice sessions in 2022 and even an impressive debut race for Williams where at incredibly short notice he replaced Alex Albon and finished in a respectable 9th place whilst outqualifying and finishing ahead of teammate Nicholas Latifi.
Four of the ten teams remain unchanged going into the 2023 season: Red Bull continue with Verstappen and Perez; Ferrari with Leclerc and Sainz; Mercedes with Hamilton and Russell and Alfa Romeo with Bottas and Zhou.
McLaren took the decision to terminate Daniel Ricciardo’s contract for 2023, opting instead for the aforementioned Piastri. Piastri will partner Lando Norris in the McLaren whilst Ricciardo will take up a reserve and test role with Red Bull.
At Haas, Mick Schumacher found himself ejected after just two seasons within the team and replaced with nearly-man Nico Hülkenberg, who currently holds the record for most experienced driver never to have finished on a Formula 1 podium. He’ll partner Kevin Magnussen, making the Haas outfit one of the most experienced on the grid, with a combined 322 race starts between their drivers.
Nicholas Latifi is out at Williams after three seasons and 61 starts with the team, scoring just 9 points in that time. He is to be replaced by American Logan Sargeant who becomes the first American to start a season in Formula One since the aptly named Scott Speed did for Toro Rosso in 2006.
2023 Car Launches
As of the time of writing (10th of February) we have seen four car launches. Both the Haas and Williams outfits unveiled only their new liveries painted onto an old car.
Red Bull revealed their challenger, the RB19, on the 3rd of February in New York and the reaction on the technical side was underwhelming. It looks very similar to the RB18 of last year and most of the changes are “under the surface”, aerodynamically concerning the floor and its relation to the ground effects we saw introduced last season.
It should be noted that in previous seasons, Red Bull haven’t shown their cards this early and the actual RB19 could look very different by the time we hit the track in Bahrain.
The Alfa Romeo team went a lot more aggressive with their changes showcased in Zurich on Tuesday. A completely reprofiled set of double sidepods are new as well as an interesting set of teeth added to their floor.
The remaining six teams have all announced their intention to reveal their cars between Saturday the 11th of February and Thursday the 16th of February. Only AlphaTauri have announced it as a “livery launch”.
New Grand Prix and other 2023 Calendar Changes
Plans for a massive expansion to the calendar this year were set back somewhat, with the Chinese Grand Prix being cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns for the fourth consecutive year and the Russian Grand Prix having their contract cancelled.
Even so, this will be the longest season in Formula One history with the sport visiting 23 racetracks in 20 countries over a nine-month span. As has become somewhat of a tradition in recent years, we start the season in Bahrain at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on the 5th of March and run all the way until the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on the 26th of November.
Other than China and Russia, we also see the French Grand Prix drop off the calendar. Circuit Paul Ricard at Le Castellet hosted four more races since its return in 2018 (missing out in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic) and its exclusion from this year’s calendar won’t come as a surprise to many.
We do, however, see a return of the Qatar Grand Prix at the Lusail International Circuit. The 2021 iteration of the race was a last-minute replacement from the COVID-stricken Australian Grand Prix and was a reasonable spectacle, mostly remembered for numerous tyre failures on the front lefts. Tyre degradation was high, but this was exacerbated by high kerbs in the run-off areas which will no doubt have been reduced by the time we visit in October.
November will also see a brand-new circuit take its place on the calendar: a Street Circuit in Las Vegas. This isn’t a first for Formula One, with the sport visiting a specially built circuit in the car park of Caesars Palace in 1981 and 1982, but the 2023 iteration looks to be much more ambitious. The circuit will make use of the famous Las Vegas strip passing famous landmarks such as the Bellagio fountains and the half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas casino hotel. The circuit layout still needs to be finalised, but if any location on earth could come close to the glitz and glamour of Monte Carlo, surely Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada would be a prime contender.
2023 Regulation Changes
If you could categorise the 2022 Formula One season by any one word, that word would be “porpoising”. Technically different to bouncing, porpoising was caused by last season’s re-introduction of ground effects, which was intended to create downforce by creating a low-pressure area underneath the car. The cars were so close to the floor the air would stall and force the car up on its suspension, only to drop back down once the airflow had resumed. This would then stall again and force the car up, ad infinitum.
To combat this, the FIA have introduced changes to raise the floor edges by 15mm, and by raising a section of the diffuser by a yet-to-be-determined amount. Hopefully, these changes will ensure that the benefits of ground effects (namely better overtaking by allowing cars to follow closer) will be retained, whilst the comfort and safety of the drivers will also be increased.
Wind tunnel time is likely to be an issue for the Red Bull team. As reigning champions, Red Bull would usually only be allowed 70% of the baseline wind tunnel time, but the problem is more severe than that. The Milton Keynes-based team has had a further 10% of this time reduced (down to 63%) as a punishment for cost cap breaches.
In real terms this means they will be allowed 202 wind tunnel runs on their 2023 car, whilst closest rivals Ferrari and Mercedes will be allowed 240 and 256 respectively. In a sport where teams will spend millions of dollars to find hundredths of a second, this could have a massive impact on their season as a whole.
Adrian Newey, the Chief Technical Officer at Red Bull Racing, was quoted as saying in December of 2022 that this will not “make much difference” if they approach it correctly. Considering that in his illustrious career, his designs have delivered 11 Drivers’ Championships and 12 Constructors’ Championships, you’d be foolish to write Max Verstappen’s team off based on this information alone.
So can Max Verstappen really become a three-time Formula One World Champion?
Without sounding too much like a fence sitter, the jury is still out. Whilst the 2023 cars are a huge continuation of the design philosophies introduced in 2022, a lot can change in three months and a lot of highly intelligent people have been working hard to squeeze every ounce of performance from their cars.
As mentioned, the wind tunnel time will no doubt have some effect on Red Bull, despite Newey’s protests. They can try less of his ideas and have to be more selective about what components are put in the wind tunnel and considering the changes to ground effects that have been mandated for this season, this could prove vital.
That being said, over the course of 2022, the Max Verstappen x RB18 combination proved to be one of the most dominant ever seen in the sport. He set the record for most wins in a single season, winning 15 of the 22 at a strike rate of 68%. A strike rate that Schumacher only beat once in his dominant years, Sebastian Vettel only matched once in his and Lewis Hamilton has yet to beat. Whilst the chasing pack of Ferrari and Mercedes are more than capable of playing catch up, Red Bull have left them a lot to catch up to.
Rumours surfacing from unnamed sources within the Ferrari team seem wholly positive and they are quietly optimistic about the SF-23’s performance so far. The car is reportedly between two and three kilograms lighter than last season, the engine is rumoured to be providing an extra 30bhp and the overall package is reported to be over a second faster.
New team boss Frédéric Vasseur has organised a massive “cabinet reshuffle” that they are hoping will see results compared to some of the own goals the team scored whilst under Mattia Binotto’s stewardship. He has also had the pit stop team practising over a thousand pitstops in the offseason so they’ll be ready to hit the ground with quick and consistent stops in Sakhir.
In my view, considering we haven’t seen any cars on track yet, this makes Charles Leclerc an interesting prospect and a value bet for this year’s World Championship. However, for the real value look no further than the “Drivers & Constructors Championship Double” market where Charles Leclerc & Ferrari is priced at 10/1.
Make no doubt about it: Charles Leclerc is a generational talent in this sport and is perfectly capable of winning a championship with the right car underneath him. Carlos Sainz is a quick and reliable second driver and will no doubt rack up the points as well. Only twice since the turn of the century has the constructor’s champion not also fielded the driver’s champion as part of their lineup. Grabbing the extra value on Leclerc in this way could make all the difference come November.