Formula 1 in 2023: The Rundown


Image by Nicholas Regli for The UCSD Guardian

Emer Nolan

It’s back. With high speeds and high drama, the 2023 season of Formula 1 kicked off last week in Bahrain, featuring new and familiar faces all gunning for the championship. The UCSD Guardian would like to present a rundown of the updates made to the sport since last season, some predictions of what we might see over the next nine months, and a quick analysis of the first race to wholeheartedly welcome F1 back to our screens and into our hearts. 

Just as in most sports, the beginning of a new F1 season naturally includes some personnel changes. One such change that made the most headlines last year was Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo’s dramatic exit from McLaren and reunion with former team Red Bull as their 2023 reserve driver, the first time Ricciardo has not started on the grid in 11 years. The controversy that ensued last season when McLaren terminated his contract early in order to sign promising young talent and fellow countryman Oscar Piastri, who makes his debut this season, set the rumor mill going with headlines continuing to emerge over six months later. Other new faces include Dutchman Nyck De Vries, who makes the jump from Formula E; German Nico Hülkenberg, who reclaims a starting grid position with Haas after his season as Aston Martin’s reserve driver last year; and the French Pierre Gasly at his new position with Alpine, having previously driven for three years under AlphaTauri. There will, of course, be a gaping hole in the grid left by widely accomplished, celebrated, and respected German driver Sebastian Vettel after his retirement at the end of the 2022 season.

The 2023 race schedule has seen some alterations, namely additions and removals of certain circuits ultimately resulting in a 23-race season, one more than last year. Besides the return of the Qatari Losail International Circuit and removal of the French Circuit Paul Ricard, the addition that will draw the most attention and fanfare is the much-anticipated debut of the Las Vegas Grand Prix in November, the penultimate race of the season. Vegas will be the third F1 circuit in the U.S., alongside Austin’s Circuit of the Americas and the Miami International Autodrome, a construction that was undoubtedly inspired in part by the skyrocketing American interest in the sport after the debut and huge success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive

There have been a few changes in the sport’s rules since 2022. Changes to the regulations regarding the construction of the car itself have been added, including a stronger roll hoop (a protruding piece on top of the car that sits behind the seat in order to protect the driver’s head in the event of a rollover); the necessity of such an update was made clear when Alfa Romeo driver Zhou Guanyu was involved in a dangerous crash during last year’s British Grand Prix in which his car skidded and flipped (Zhou was, thankfully, unharmed). Other rule changes concern the way races are facilitated. After its introduction in 2021 and successful implementation last year, there will now be six sprint races this year (Azerbaijan, Austria, Belgium, Qatar, Austin and Brazil), up from three. The sprint is a 100 km flat-out race between all of the drivers, sort of a miniature Grand Prix before the event in which the top eight racers achieve a descending number of points; the finishing order of the sprint also determines the starting grid positions for the race on Sunday. 

Away from all of that mechanical lingo, the meat of the season – the stuff that will write the headlines – is results. The big questions: Will Max Verstappen and Red Bull defend their respective championships they won in 2022? Or will Ferrari or Mercedes, the two other heaviest hitters in the sport, resolve their myriad of engineering and strategy issues to topple the reigning champions and reclaim their former glory? 

Max Verstappen has shown clearly and consistently that he has the makings of a legend since his F1 debut in 2015. He’s young, hungry, and supremely talented, and these qualities, alongside the very strong and reliable car he drives, seem poised to deliver him his third successive Drivers’ Championship. He claimed the trophy very, very comfortably last year (his 454 points were followed up most closely with Charles Leclerc’s 308), putting up truly dominant performances throughout the season with few exceptions. Anyone putting money down would be smart to bet on Verstappen to hoist the trophy in November again; although Red Bull has suffered from the repercussions of exceeding their spending cap in 2021 they and their headlining driver are still poised for another commanding season – they have the car, the talent and the burning desire for more glory. And beyond Verstappen’s quest for the Drivers’ Championship, his team is seeking a trophy of their own. Red Bull was the winner of last year’s Constructors’ Championship and in doing so, they dislodged Mercedes’ eight-year hold on the prize. They will be gunning for a repeat this year, and if not for the silverware and glory, then to fan the flames of one of the sport’s biggest contemporary rivalries, between team principals Christian Horner (Red Bull) and Toto Wolff (Mercedes). 

One of the most speculated-about topics heading into the season is whether this year will see Lewis Hamilton’s comeback. After dominating F1 for years, and in the process collecting a record-tying 7 world championships, last season saw Hamilton struggle badly with an underperforming and problematic car, ultimately finishing in seventh place (and over 200 points lower than Verstappen). It was a season to forget, and Mercedes fans (even casual and neutral viewers, whose introduction to the sport was likely through this driver), will be hoping this season shows a drastic turnaround. 2022 Mercedes was plagued with engineering troubles, especially in the beginning as everyone tried to adjust to the new rules put into place. Red Bull’s success in that regard absolutely was a factor in the success of their season. Mercedes faces a big challenge this season in trying to get their car to perform consistently in a way that gets results, that is, by fighting off both their opponents and the construction challenges internally. Further, while Hamilton is still competing with vigor and intensity, he’s no spring chicken – he will certainly be driving this year with the question of how many seasons he has left in the back of his mind.

The other team that is expected to put up a fight is Ferrari. The most iconic team in F1, one of the most iconic automobile brands in the world, Ferrari has experienced an unfortunate downward spiral over the last several years but is pinning its hopes on drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. (though Leclerc is clearly who they are primarily looking to for results). Ferrari has made some promising improvements to their engines in the offseason after struggling last year with a combination of engineering and strategy problems, and besides Hamilton, Leclerc is considered to be the primary rival to Verstappen’s crown. If the team has managed to correct the construction errors in their car, that, combined with Leclerc’s skill, could have the Italian giants knocking on Verstappen’s door.  

And of course, there needs to be a wild card. It’s all well and good to make season predictions based on the Top Three (Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull), but everyone loves an underdog, and it’s more interesting if there was some kind of ruckus being stirred from the bottom or middle of the pack. This year, veteran Spanish driver Fernando Alonso will be looking to have a good season with new team Aston Martin. The 41-year-old has won two championships and has just entered his 20th season and has no intention of slowing down. He’s a talented and experienced driver who has just joined a very ambitious team in Aston Martin, so perhaps we could expect some upsets this season coming from that direction.

With those hopes and speculations put down on paper, the first insights into whether or not they’re correct were gleaned from last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the 2023 season opener. It was not a tight race for first, but surprisingly, Formula 1 is not exactly always all about who crosses the finish line before everyone else, although that must sound odd. Rather, the most entertaining is not always experienced watching the race leader. Bahrain saw a very comfortable victory for Verstappen and Red Bull – whose other driver, Sergio Perez, came in second, giving the team a strong 1-2 finish to kick off the season and making those Verstappen bets look all the more promising – but the real drama and excitement was at the middle of the pack. Fernando Alonso, the potential underdog of 2023, was voted Driver of the Day by fans, and deservedly so. Alonso started the race at P5 (fifth from the front), which was not too shabby, but fought his way to a third-place podium finish. There was buzz before the season started as to Aston Martin’s hopes of challenging the Big Three dominance, and this performance could suggest that it might come sooner than anyone anticipated. 

On a more sour note, it was not a good race weekend for the likes of Ferrari or McLaren. After a good starting position for Charles Leclerc (P3), the Monégasque suffered a DNF (‘Did Not Finish’) when his engine failed halfway through the race. His teammate Carlos Sainz finished fourth, but the team will be hugely disappointed by yet another mechanical issue with their car. For McLaren, it was a nightmare start to the season. Drive Lando Norris started at P11, and his race was marked by five pit stops (most teams usually average two per race) as a result of an issue with the power unit that needed regular surveillance; Norris finished in 17th, which was last place. In a further blow, teammate Oscar Piastri suffered a DNF for another electrical issue in his debut race, leaving McLaren at zero points after the first race weekend. 

Bahrain was certainly an interesting start to the season. It leaves Red Bull in the top two spots in the drivers’ standings, and Aston Martin’s drivers are looking good as well. On the other end of the spectrum, however, McLaren is not looking too hot, with their drivers occupying 17th and 20th place. Mercedes and Ferrari both are not looking too bad, but definitely are not where they want to be, and will be frustrated with the results of the weekend.The drivers will all be looking forward to the next race on the calendar, the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix (Mar. 17-19). The Jeddah circuit has been dubbed the ‘fastest street track’ on the schedule, and its several straightaways will provide the drivers with opportunities to show off their cars’ raw speed. This is the circuit’s third year being included, with the previous two winners being Lewis Hamilton (2021) and Max Verstappen (2022); the odds will be heavily in the latter’s favor but hopefully, the race for first will be tighter than in Bahrain.  

Although Bahrain might show hints as to how the season might play out (even if Red Bull dominance looks very, very likely), it’s too early to make any kind assumptions as to what will happen over the next nine months – the only thing to do then is to patiently wait for the next race.

Art by Nicholas Regli for The UCSD Guardian