Two races into the 2023 Formula 1 season, and the general consensus would have you believe it’s a two-horse race for the drivers’ championship. And that race is between two Red Bull drivers where there is a clear favorite.
But surely, surely, we can’t be ruling out all 18 on the rest of the grid when there are still 21 races to go, even with Red Bull’s early superiority?
Especially not when the closest challenger of those 18 so far is a double world champion, who has history of muscling in on title fights he really has no right to.
2012 was one of Fernando Alonso’s most impressive seasons. In fact, when it comes to maximizing race results, it was one of the most complete seasons I can recall watching. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
After a win in the second round in Malaysia — amid seven different winners in the first seven races — came a sign of Red Bull’s potential at race four in Bahrain. Sebastian Vettel won from pole, with Alonso strategically not setting a Q3 time to start ninth with a free choice of tires. Despite a great start that promoted him to fifth by Turn 1, he’d still finish over 57 seconds behind the winner in a 57-lap race.
Given the fact that was Vettel’s only victory in the first 13 races (and one of only three Red Bull had in that time), it was clearly a very different year, but amid such up-and-down performances Alonso was remarkably consistent, particularly in the final eight rounds where he retired once — in Japan when Vettel was in the middle of four consecutive wins — but finished on the podium in the other seven.
And it’s that kind of consistency that could keep him in the frame when it comes to this season.
Fast forward two years to the huge dominance enjoyed by Mercedes in 2014, and Daniel Ricciardo didn’t even score in the opening two rounds due to a disqualification and retirement. As he regularly moved into the position of best of the rest, round seven brought a first win, and either side of the summer break back-to-back victories meant he was just 35 points behind Lewis Hamilton at the time.
Mercedes’ reliability issues, along with Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fighting each, other opened the door for Ricciardo to remain loosely in touch, and that was even without anywhere near the same level of consistency that Alonso showed in 2012 or has started this year with. It was only with two rounds remaining (one of which was worth double points, admittedly) that Ricciardo was mathematically eliminated from title contention.
Given the strong start Alonso has shown, at this stage it’s not difficult to imagine him being the closest challenger to the Red Bull drivers most often. But the bit that he’s really going to have to hope for is Sergio Perez maintaining strong form in the early part of the year to take a few wins off Max Verstappen.
This could look very silly come Sunday night given Verstappen’s quality, but Perez did appear to have the ability to match his teammate in the second half of the race in Saudi Arabia, and certainly utilized the car at his disposal impressively in order to take advantage of the Dutchman’s reliability issues.
If Perez can do that on just a few more occasions in the first half of the year and ensure Verstappen is in at least a loose battle with his teammate, but also unable to extend an enormous margin over Alonso, then as the season progresses we could see another driver getting the chance to keep the defending champion on his toes.
Aston Martin does have the potential to move closer to Red Bull as the year goes on. As hinted at when analyzing Alonso’s move in pre-season, the 2023 Aston is so radically different from its predecessor that it should be unlocking more and more performance from it with each passing race, but also has a lot of room for development.
Even if we completely disregard the penalty Red Bull received for breaching the cost cap last year, the difference in aerodynamic testing time between last year’s constructors’ championship-winning team and a seventh-placed Aston is some 30%, and it’s not like Mike Krack’s team is lacking for resources to capitalize on that.
Unlike the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes — both of who are talking about having to solve weaknesses and in the latter’s case make radical changes to its car design — Aston Martin appears to be stable and happy with the car it has delivered. It still only just has an edge on the aforementioned teams but it came from so far back that it represents a major step forward and gives the team confidence in its development directions.
Red Bull will still improve its car too, but the ingredients are there at least for Alonso and Aston Martin to remain the closest threat, and chip away at that performance advantage that Verstappen and Perez currently enjoy.
I know, a lot has to come together to make that a reality, but there’s growing confidence in what Aston Martin is doing with its car and its ability to keep moving forward from this position, as it evolves into a team that is wanting for nothing compared to the established top three.
Staying ahead of Ferrari and Mercedes will obviously be crucial, because if Alonso isn’t able to limit the damage at the majority of rounds until that gap closes then it’s going to be an even more unlikely challenge to become any sort of factor in the title race.
But in these early stages, while Alonso keeps putting himself in a position to pick up the podium spot behind Verstappen and Perez, he will remain just close enough to be on Red Bull’s radar. He’s done it before, after all.
It might be premature to describe him as a title contender while everything above only remains “potential,” but it would be premature to write him off, too.