The 2023 Formula 1 season is upon us, and there are countless talking points with new cars and new drivers coming together for the sport’s biggest-ever campaign.
The Sky Sports F1 pundits are ready – and they’ve had their say on some of the big topics ahead of this weekend’s Bahrain GP…
Damon Hill: “They can stop him but they are going to have to do something extraordinary. He is on a roll, Red Bull are on a roll, they came out of the blocks with the new regulations absolutely in the sweet spot.
“They had some reliability issues but got on top of those and if you look at the test, it all looked just too easy and that is a bad sign for everyone.”
Rachel Brookes: “Yes, a little thing called reliability, but I think that’s it. It looks like the gap they had over the rest of the grid last year is still there. It doesn’t look like it’s been extended – I think Ferrari are close, or closer than they were last year, but I think Red Bull will still come out on top.”
Martin Brundle: “It’s a very long season, the longest ever. Right now we can only base this one warm test at a specific racetrack that’s rear-tyre limited, but a good car is a good car. Max just seems to grow in confidence – he gets less stressed. He said after his first championship, ‘everything’s a bonus now,’ and you could see that in his second year and I can only imagine it will be another step now.
“He’s got the car where he needs it and the team where he needs them, I think he’ll be hard to beat. Will he be unbeatable? You’ve got to remember that in two of the first three races last year he didn’t score any points, and still he absolutely dominated the world championship, so he’ll take some beating.”
Karun Chandhok: “Very, very unlikely. I think they’ve got momentum on their side, Max is driving better than ever before – confidence combined with the experience of being a double world champion now, I think it’s going to be very difficult to stop them.”
MB: “The hat-trick – as we’ve seen with Seb Vettel you need the car, but the best drivers end up in the best cars anyway. You start putting markers down like that, obviously eight has got to be the target for Lewis and for Max to move it from Michael.
“Most drivers say they pay absolutely no attention to all that and of course, they do to an extent, but I do think Max is less bothered than most. I’m sure that when he’s decided he’s had enough of it all, he’ll just stop. I don’t think he’s too caught up in legacies or whatever, but any competitive human being or sportsperson would want to try to leave a new hightide mark in their chosen field.”
RB: “I think it could be enough for Max if he gets three in a row. Max has talked about his future, his life, getting away from F1 already at such a young age and it does make me wonder that if he did win three in a row whether he would carry on in the sport.
“In terms of his legacy, it’s a difficult one. At the moment, do people view him on the same terms as someone like Fernando Alonso? I think because of what happened in 2021, he’s almost suffering from a similar fate to Sebastian Vettel, about whom people said, ‘he had the best car!’ So they didn’t look at his four titles as dominating and as a strong a performance as they should have done. So I think it would cement Max as one of the greats definitely and I also think it would somewhat help people get past what happened in 2021.”
KC: “I think it’s just more of the same. I don’t think he’s thinking about legacy now at all. He’s only 25, he’s still very young, he’ll think about legacy a decade from now. It’s scary to think that as a 25-year-old he could be a triple world champion, and he’s probably got another 10 years in the sport if he wants it, so this isn’t the time for legacy really.”
DH: “Well, you are immediately into that bracket of greats. Your three-time world champions are typically the big names of the sport and beyond that, you have got the fours and the fives and the sevens.
“Looking too far into the future is perhaps unwise and you have just got to deal with what you have got and enjoy it. Clearly, Max enjoys some aspects of the sport, most notably driving cars very fast, and he doesn’t want to deal with all the other stuff which he seems to feel is exhausting and not where he wants to be.
“He is happy in the cockpit, that is my opinion. If you said to him, do you want to come back one more go and win another championship, I am sure he will be back.
RB: “You can have the best strategy in the world but if the car’s not fast enough, it’s not fast enough. So yes the changes could help, but it may be more a psychological thing than something that translates on track, because if a team isn’t performing as well as it should be, someone coming in and making changes should hopefully psychologically make people think that things will be different this year. I really hope it does help the team, but I also think they have a much faster car – so they should have learnt from last year and have information to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
KC: “I don’t think just swapping them around is necessarily the fix, it’s about what else has been put in place, in terms of their mental approach, his (Vasseur’s) attitude towards decision-making and risk, their process in making those strategy decisions.
“There were races like Budapest last year when they put the hard tyre on Leclerc’s car – it’s just bizarre. I’d spent all morning wandering up and down the paddock with everyone telling me the hard tyre was going to be utterly useless, and yet they put it on the car – it’s those sorts of decisions that need to be rethought.
“Ravin (Jain) is not new, he’s been around in the strategy department for a long time, so swapping him and Inaki (Rueda) – one was trackside, one was factory and they’ve just swapped them round, but I think he was taking a lot of the decisions anyway.”
DH: “A big weak point for them last year was how they performed at the track and I think they sacked the wrong guy. I think Fred Vasseur is going to be really good for the race team side of Ferrari and maybe also banging team bosses in the Constructors’ meetings. But I think Mattia (Binotto) has to be credited with a lot of the set-up work that was done and a loyal Ferrari man like that, it is sad to see him go.
“I don’t think it is impossible that they win the title. We are talking after a three-day test at a track that is a bit of an outlier. There are times where I think the Ferrari could be a lot stronger and could be better suited than the Red Bull.”
MB: “I’m surprised Ferrari did that at this moment, in terms of management change, because it left their ship without a captain for a few critical weeks, one on an exit route and then Fred Vasseur incoming.
“I’m surprised they didn’t try to find a way to keep them both there with different job responsibilities, because obviously Binotto knows the team inside out and can communicate with everybody, while Vasseur has got to get up and running.
“You think back to the glory days with Michael Schumacher when it was (Luca) di Montezemolo, (Jean) Todt, (Ross) Brawn, (Rory) Byrne, Stefano Domenicali – they had such a depth of management that you seem to need. So it’s a tall order for any person, it just seems odd that they would put that at risk.”
KC: “Based on testing, it’s hard to see them being a consistent challenge for Red Bull in the early part of the year. What Mercedes have got to see is how their development plan happens. They’ve got a huge amount more wind-tunnel time than Red Bull, and I think especially in the second half of the year. I think we’ll see those effects as the development starts, the concept of the (Red Bull) car was already put in place before the penalty kicked in.
“It’s a big year for the technical and aero department at Mercedes. They’ve got a concept that they’ve chosen to stick with and do an evolution of rather than revolution for this year – if it doesn’t work this year, then what? How soon do they turn to 2024? How soon do they commit to a completely new concept? Because that will have a knock-on effect long-term.
“The first six months is going to be pretty stressful for everyone at Mercedes, to see if they can develop themselves out of the situation they’re in.”
DH: “I thought they looked shaky and not utterly confident. They appeared a team that had not answered all of its questions satisfactorily.
“They are maybe hiding their light under a bushel. They are maybe conceding a bit of optimism and not showing the best they can do at the test.
“I would say they are an outside bet for the championship. I think long-shot is too harsh. They have got a chance, it is still possible, but they have got to do something really extraordinary based on what we saw in the last three days of testing.”
MB: “We talk about evolution of the cars this year, and it looks like an evolution of the championship as well. It’s sort of Ferrari gamely chasing Red Bull with Mercedes there or thereabouts but scratching their heads a little bit, is how it looks. It’s only been one test but it looks like a bit of an action replay of last year to me. Then the midfield is very close.
“I wouldn’t rule Mercedes out of title contention, but you have to think, they had all of last year and the winter to sort this car and concept, if they’re not contenders in the first three or four races, then you’d think what are they going to do during the season that’s going to be any different. I hope they’re right there in Bahrain.”
RB: “I don’t think they’re out of title contention. I think day three of testing showed that they are finding answers to problems, and if they carry on in that vein, they could be up there battling with Red Bull and Ferrari. At the moment, their biggest competitor seems to be Aston Martin, at least on race pace. If you look at the first race, you would say they’re out of contention, but come race five or six they could be back in it, and it’s a very long season, so I wouldn’t count them out yet.”
DH: “George’s challenge is, if he is going to be a future champion contender on a regular basis, he is going to have to start consistently outperforming Lewis – that is a tall order.
“It was a great debut season, he is definitely a very solid, together performer and person, great for the team and most teams would be delighted to have him as number one but then he is compared against Lewis.
“If George outperforms Lewis Hamilton on a regular basis, they know they have got someone who can back them up and has more years ahead of him than Lewis.”
MB: “I think the happy families will stay in place unless the car’s got a chance of winning the world championship, then it will get a bit personal. I think George has been very smart in how he’s shown due respect to Lewis. Lewis is an elder statesman on the grid and has probably appreciated what George is bringing to the team and how George has played his hand. It will be fine until they’re disputing a victory that could well lead to a championship.”
KC: “I think they’ve got quite a healthy dynamic and I don’t see any reason why that will change. They’re respectful of each other, they seem to get on – I don’t see why that should change.”
RB: “If the car’s not performing it will still be happy families because they’ve got to work together to try to make it improve. If the car’s quick and they’re battling it out for poles and race wins, then who knows what will happen. I think George still feels like he has a point to prove to people, that he can match Lewis on track, and I think we’ll see a great season between those two if the car is quick.”
MB: “The Ferrari situation, I would say definitely on that. They come at it slightly differently, or they should do. Leclerc’s speed is just incredible, it’s outstanding, he probably drives a little bit too close to it sometimes and makes mistakes. I think Carlos, to an extent, needs to stop worrying about Charles’ speed, he plays the long game better, he’s always there towards the end of a race. I think he’s got that sort of staying power and raw determination, I don’t know if he’s got Charles’ raw speed, probably not.”
RB: “I’m looking forward to seeing the battle at Alpine. I think Pierre Gasly got performance out of the AlphaTauri that wasn’t necessarily there on quite a few occasions. Esteban Ocon had a team-mate in Fernando Alonso who everybody expected to beat him, so when he did do well against him, he made sure we knew about it. He wants people to think that he’s in charge of that team, but I think he’s got a different kind of competitor in Pierre, and they’ve obviously got their history. We don’t know the pace of that car yet, it’s been hidden somewhat during testing and if it’s quick, there could be fireworks.”
DH: “The two Ferrari guys, the Fred Vasseur-Leclerc relationship. Some suggest the change was as much to do with how Mattia Binotto didn’t give Charles what he wanted and this new team that have come in are more Leclerc-biased.
“Carlos is going to have to establish himself firmly as a contender otherwise he is there to support Charles for Ferrari. They see Charles as their future so that is a slight dynamic.”
KC: “I think the Alpine one is going to be interesting to see. Gasly coming in as the new guy, from what I understand in testing he was already quicker than Ocon, which will be interesting to see because he’s obviously completely new to the team whereas Ocon’s been there a while.”
RB: “I see them in contention for podiums but I don’t necessarily see them in contention for race wins, unless reliability hits Ferrari and Red Bull because I still think all four drivers from Ferrari and Red Bull will beat Aston on any given any day. But if there are any opportunities to get a win, Fernando will pounce.”
KC: “I don’t expect them to compete for wins but I expect them to compete for more than one podium.”
DH: “I think it is not out of the question for them to be a podium contender on a regular basis based on what we have at the start of the season. They looked good, sounded good, good noises coming out of the team.
“There may be some egg in faces with them beating some Mercedes cars this season but perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves there.”
MB: “It’s so difficult to know with Aston, I saw all the hype. It depends if they can keep developing the car. They’ve certainly got someone in Fernando who will drive the wheels off it, and they’re in the honeymoon phase with him anyway.
“I think if there’s a race to be stolen somewhere they’ll steal it, like Ocon for Alpine, Gasly at AlphaTauri, Ricciardo for McLaren at Monza. Do I think they’ll be regular contenders for race victories? That would be some kind of turnaround.”
KC: “Fernando is capable of doing much more than 90 per cent of the grid. I still say that your top three A-plus stars are Lewis, Fernando and Max – they’re the ones that week in, week out you can expect them to deliver an extremely high level at every apex of every lap during a Grand Prix. So yes, if the car is capable, Fernando can deliver.
“I was one of the few people, who even before testing, thought that Aston would be the best of the midfield. I really think they’ve got a lot of good ingredients there, and Fernando’s value doesn’t just come from within the car.
“Fernando is one of the most intelligent drivers ever to race in F1 and his value comes from outside the car as much as possible. He gives a team direction, he gives a team guidance. He pushes the team to think harder and work harder than before and I think that’s what Alpine will miss about him. What he does in the car is brilliant but it’s all this other stuff that he does, and I think he will add a lot of value to Aston.”
RB: “I wouldn’t dare bet against him. At the moment he seems to be in a very happy and confident place, he likes that car, it seems to be performing well and if he can help them improve the car, I think he could end up in contention for a third world title.”
DH: “He has got a competitive car and I have not seen any reason to believe he is distracted. He doesn’t seem to be bothered about other things – he wants to race, he wants to win. He is a bit like Max in that department.
“I felt I was still quite fit and able aged 42. When I stopped at 39, I knew I couldn’t get to the heights I could when I was 35, 36. I think the peak of a driver’s potency is probably 29-33. More in the 30s but certainly less than 35. I think the problem with it is you start comparing yourself to your younger self. But I don’t see that with Fernando, I think he has got more years in him.”
MB: “I think he can. Drivers don’t get smashed up these days, they’re not carrying loads of broken bits or massive head injuries, like a (Mika) Hakkinen. You look back at Mansell, Prost, Lauda – those sort of people that were around quite late relatively speaking, I do think if he can smell the victories, he’ll do it. It’s really interesting because the last two standing are Lewis and Fernando really, and it’s them versus the kids and it’s fascinating. Only those two seem to have the sheer, raw determination to hang on in there.”
DH: “Lando is a very, very talented driver and it would be bad for his career if he was struggling on at the back. George (Russell) did with Williams but that is where he started, whereas it seems to be Lando has gone in, it seems good, it is on the up, and now it is starting to sink. You do not want to be a guy of that ability, you can’t hold him back.
“Lando should be in a front-row car otherwise he is going to slip by and he will be yesterday’s man before you know it. There may be a performance-related clause in the contract. But I don’t know I haven’t seen the contract.
“I think Red Bull would be an interesting one but as long as Max is there I wouldn’t advise it. There may be movement in Ferrari at some point. Could you imagine Lando and Leclerc as a pairing? That would be great, it would look very strong.”
KC: “I think the question is where would he go? It’s all well and good people saying he’s stuck, but where’s going to go?
“Does he want to be number two to Max? Probably not. I don’t think he’d want to because I think if you go to Red Bull alongside Max, you have to accept you’re going to be number two, which Checo, at the stage of life and career he’s at, is happy to do so.
“I don’t think that’s where Lando’s at. He’s young, ambitious and still believes he should be a number one, so I think he’s probably holding out for when Lewis goes.”
MB: “I think McLaren don’t think they’ll be quite that bad but they’re obviously struggling and they’ll be desperate for an upgrade that makes a big difference and show they’ve understood what’s wrong with the car and how to fix it.
“Lando will be becoming increasingly frustrated, especially if George and gang start winning more races and looking like championship contenders, he’s going to start to think he’s in the wrong place.
“You’re only going to leave McLaren to go to one of the top three, which I assume will still be the top three in the timeframe we’re talking about for Lando. If Lewis retires, or Ferrari make a change – that sort of thing. I think he’d be happy to go up against Max. I would say either to replace Lewis or if Leclerc went to Mercedes or something like that.”
RB: “I definitely can see him pushing his way out of the contract but the trouble is, where would he go? A seat has got to open up at a better option. The only seat that potentially could open up would be Red Bull if Sergio wasn’t performing, and I know Christian Horner is a fan of Lando Norris, so if that opened up I think he would definitely move.
“If Lewis left, would he go to Mercedes? Possibly, they’d probably look at him as well. He is a good driver and he deserves a good car. If you were Lando, you’d definitely be looking at it. But let’s see how he fares against Oscar first, because he’s got a very good rookie that he needs to outshine this year, so I think he’s got a busy, tough 12 months on his hands.”
DH: “It has got to be Vegas hasn’t it. What is going to go down there? It could be a title decider.
“Last time we were there, it was in a car park and Clive James made a fantastic film of F1 in Vegas. That is a measure of how the sport has grabbed the attention in the States.”
RB: “I’m looking forward to going back to Miami this year. I had a great time there last year. I know the racing wasn’t the best, but they’ve made changes to the track, they’ve resurfaced it. They’re ploughing a lot of money in, they’re moving the paddock inside the stadium. It’s going to be a sensational atmosphere again and it’s a great event. Seeing America embrace F1 the way it has, has been fantastic to be a part of and let’s hope for some better racing there this year.”
KC: “I always enjoy the British Grand Prix. For us at Sky it’s obviously a great weekend, there’s lots going on, lots to do from the Thursday, always a good crowd. Last year’s race was brilliant with a new winner, so I always enjoy that.”
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