Max Verstappen kicks off title defence in perfect style

Sakhir (Bahrain) (AFP) - Max Verstappen demonstrated that he and Red Bull have the pace to win another world title double when he and Sergio Perez claimed a one-two at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But the Dutchman was upstaged for dramatic impact on Sunday by Fernando Alonso’s storming podium finish for Aston Martin, confirming that the Silverstone-based team have the potential to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes at the front.

AFP Sport looks at three lessons from the first of a record 23-race championship under floodlights at the Bahrain International Circuit:

- Red Bull show speed -

Despite an ordinary showing in practice after a winter during which their wind tunnel time was trimmed severely, Red Bull dominated qualifying and the race to render any contest, in Sakhir at least, to a procession.

Having chosen to focus on race performance through most of all three practice sessions, and then outpacing the field in qualifying, the Red Bulls were in a class of their own.

Double world champion Verstappen led from lights to flag and was in cruise control as he sealed his first season-opening win and first in Bahrain, at the 10th attempt.

Rival George Russell of Mercedes declared afterwards that Red Bull had both championships “sewn up” already as his team, and Ferrari, failed to show any improvement on last year and were outpaced by Aston Martin.

Typically, the Dutchman warned against any kind of early complacency and called for continuous development of the car with special attention paid to the team’s slow start to the weekend’s work.

After coming home almost 12 seconds clear of Perez, Verstappen made clear he did not expect it to be easy in the upcoming races in Jeddah and Melbourne.

“We have to make sure we keep developing,” he said. “And we must investigate what went a bit wrong at the beginning of the weekend. Then I’m sure we will be even stronger.

“It’s obviously a top start for us, but as you saw last year, things can turn around very quickly.”

- Alonso, Aston Martin confirm pace -

Fernando Alonso celebrates his 99th podium

At the age of 41, Fernando Alonso showed he remains one of the fastest and most daring drivers as he confirmed Aston Martin have a car with the pure pace and performance to challenge the leaders.

The two-time champion Spaniard slipped back to seventh at the start before charging though to beat the Mercedes and Ferraris and finish a storming third.

It was his 99th podium in a record career of 356 races.

As Alonso beamed with joy, team boss Mike Krack tried to keep him and the team grounded, warning them not to expect wins in the near future in a beautifully-balanced car revised for 2023 by technical director Dan Fallows, formerly of Red Bull, and his design team.

“The gap is still substantial to the front and we don’t know how much management Red Bull had to do or did in the race. It was comfortable for them.

“We knew after testing that we were not bad and had strong race. Pace, but so many things can go wrong and after two laps I wasn’t dreaming of a podium.

“But now we have one good result and we fought with teams that are used to being at the front and in the high intensity development contest. So, let’s be respectful and humble and see.”

Alonso heaped praise on his team-mate Lance Stroll who, two weeks after a pre-season cycling accident left him with two cracked wrists and a broken toe, finished sixth.

- Ferrari reliability suspect -

Charles Leclerc and Ferrari start season with an unwelcome 'DNF'

A change of management at the top, where former Alfa Romeo chief Fred Vasseur took over from Matteo Binotti, has not brought an end to Ferrari’s reliability problems.

Charles Leclerc, who had to switch his battery before the race, was running a comfortable third when he experienced a loss of power on lap 47 and retired, leaving Carlos Sainz to come home fourth after being passed by Alonso.

“It’s never good to start with a DNF,” said Vasseur. “But the championship is not decided in Bahrain. The most important thing now is for us to gain a clearer picture of the situation and to know where we are failing.

“On the positive side, we matched Red Bull’s qualifying pace. We are there, but we have to be realistic. To win races, we have to have a ‘clean sheet’ weekend.”

Mercedes also bemoaned problems after finishing fifth and seventh with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and Russell, team boss Toto Wolff joining the drivers’ in accepting a need to create a car that is closer to their customer team Aston Martin’s design.