Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent
The new Formula One season begins in Bahrain on Sunday with Max Verstappen bidding to win a hat-trick of championships.
Here’s a look at seven key questions heading into the 2023 campaign…
Who is the favourite to win the title?
Happy to get a lot of laps in the last two days, we learned a lot 💪
Nice work @redbullracing @HondaRacingGLB 👊 pic.twitter.com/c9OLj9Kz77
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) February 24, 2023
Max Verstappen. The Dutchman and his Red Bull team looked imperious at last week’s Bahrain test and it is of little surprise to see him as the odds-on man with the bookies to take another title – his third in as many years.
Verstappen raced to his second championship last year by winning 15 of the 22 rounds and the overwhelming consensus heading into Sunday’s opening round, also in Bahrain, is that the 25-year-old will be the man to beat again.
Can Hamilton challenge Verstappen?
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) February 26, 2023
On day one of Formula One’s only pre-season test, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff proclaimed that Mercedes have the tools to carry Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to the championship.
However, their early optimism wavered. Hamilton spoke of underlying problems with this year’s car – an evolution of last season’s machine that Hamilton was desperate to consign to history.
It seems certain that the black-liveried cars will be off Red Bull’s pace in Bahrain. But there is hope at Mercedes – perhaps misconceived – that they will make inroads.
Will Hamilton sign a new contract?
Hamilton is gearing up for his 17th season in F1 with a year to run on his current £40 million deal.
Hamilton and Mercedes insist that a new contract – one which is likely to extend the seven-time world champion’s F1 stay into his 40s – is a formality.
However, Hamilton (38) has also said he does not want to end his career by making up the numbers and if an extension is a formality, why has it not been signed?
Should Mercedes fail to deliver Hamilton a winning car, then there is a chance, albeit a slim one, that this could be his final year in the sport.
What about the other teams?
Its @Charles_Leclerc’s world and we’re just living in it ❤️ pic.twitter.com/QKlPjrnomd
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) February 26, 2023
Ferrari, with former Alfa Romeo chief Frederic Vasseur now at the helm following Mattia Binotto’s departure, will want to bounce back from a year plagued by mechanical failures and toe-curling strategic mistakes.
There were some encouraging signs in testing that Ferrari will be there or thereabouts, but whether Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will have the machine to challenge Verstappen over the course of a 23-race campaign is uncertain.
Aston Martin have underwhelmed since returning to F1, but the Silverstone squad, led by the ambitious fashion billionaire Lawrence Stroll, look ready to move up the grid.
However, McLaren could be braced for a poor campaign. Chief executive Zak Brown has already said his team has not met its performance targets and they looked sluggish in testing. Reliability could be a problem, too. They completed the fewest laps of any of the grid’s 10 teams.
Have there been any driver changes?
Fernando Alonso – a mood. 😎 pic.twitter.com/NAE8kACoKr
— Aston Martin Aramco Cognizant F1 Team (@AstonMartinF1) February 22, 2023
At the age of 41, Fernando Alonso is set to embark on another chapter of his remarkable career following his transfer from Alpine to Aston Martin. The double world champion replaces Sebastian Vettel, a winner of four titles, who headed for retirement.
Pierre Gasly takes Alonso’s place to join Esteban Ocon in an all-French line-up for the French team. Highly-rated Australian rookie Oscar Piastri teams up with Lando Norris at McLaren after the popular Daniel Ricciardo was told to clear his desk.
Elsewhere, veteran Nico Hulkenberg is back following Mick Schumacher’s Haas axe, while Dutchman Nyck de Vries and American Logan Sargeant are set for their first seasons on the grid with Alpha Tauri and Williams respectively.
What else has happened during the winter break?
Binotto’s failure to deliver the world championship for Ferrari saw him replaced by Vasseur as team principal. Andreas Seidl left McLaren to head up Alfa Romeo, which will become Audi in 2026. Andrea Stella was promoted at McLaren to fill Seidl’s shoes, while James Vowles, a key figure in Hamilton’s success with Mercedes, departed the Silver Arrows to become team principal at Williams.
Meanwhile, there are question marks over Mohammed ben Sulayem’s position as FIA president following the surprise announcement that he has relinquished day-to-day control of F1 following a string of controversies.
How does the calendar look?
Locked in 🔒
The 2023 F1 calendar will feature 23 races#F1 pic.twitter.com/p8PW8FFIO2
— Formula 1 (@F1) January 17, 2023
F1 bosses have laid down a record 23-round campaign to be completed in nine months. The Chinese Grand Prix has been cancelled and will not be replaced, while an eagerly-anticipated debut race on the Las Vegas strip is set for November. Qatar makes its second appearance on the F1 schedule.
The British Grand Prix will be on July 9th, avoiding a direct clash with the Wimbledon men’s singles final (July 16th) and the British Open Championship, which concludes on July 23rd.
Six sprint races, up from three last year, are also due – with Azerbaijan, Austria, Belgium, Qatar, Austin (USA) and Brazil selected as the venues.