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Scott Mitchell: Ny säsong och nytt hopp om en riktig F1-titelfight

Så här dagen innan säsongens första Grand Prix-helg ger Scott Mitchell sin syn på det hela och vilka förhoppningar han har... en viss ”farhåga” gör sig också påmind.

Scott Mitchell-Malm

It’s been a long winter for Formula 1, extended by how Max Verstappen and Red Bull dominated the end of the 2022 season.
But hope springs eternal and a new season brings new possibilities, even though signs from testing have prompted some concerns 2023 may just be more of the same.

Domination is nothing new in F1 and one-time champions have been a rarity for over a decade. We had the Sebastian Vettel era, the Lewis Hamilton era (punctuated by one Nico Rosberg title) and now we seem to be in the Verstappen era.
Red Bull and Verstappen start 2023 as the undisputed favourites. They ended 2022 as the best combination on the grid and even a forced reduction in aerodynamic testing – their punishment for breaking F1’s budget cap in 2021 – is unlikely to slow the charge.

At least, not for the start of the season. The RB19 handled sweetly across three days of testing and Verstappen could not hide his delight with its performance and reliability. If there is to be any impact on Red Bull’s aero testing penalty it may only be seen later in the year, if it struggles to develop as well as its rivals.

If testing proves an accurate precursor, Verstappen might not need to worry about that. He could repeat his 2022 trick and build such a grand lead by the summer break that the rest of the season takes care of itself and Red Bull can switch focus to the 2024 car early, mitigating the problem it has trying to manage in-season upgrades and 2024 work with less windtunnel time and CFD work than its rivals.

Let’s not be too pessimistic, though. There are two challengers looking on the bright side. Ferrari and Mercedes are the big Red Bull threats, although each has weaknesses to improve from 2022.
For Ferrari, new team boss Fred Vasseur represents the big change. Out has gone Mattia Binotto, who it seems walked away before he was sacked. A rift developed between Binotto and the Ferrari hierarchy, not helped by Binotto overseeing a wasteful 2022 season. Had Binotto shown more urgency to address Ferrari’s strategic shortcomings it may have been a different story.
But in comes Vasseur, who has already started reshuffling how Ferrari’s team operates trackside to try to eliminate the strategy errors that vexed Charles Leclerc so often in 2022.
What Vasseur cannot control, at least not yet, is whether Ferrari has done a good enough job improving car performance and reliability to take it to Red Bull. There were promising signs in testing but also a hint that Ferrari may yet again be suffering more tyre degradation. If that proves a desert mirage, though, expect Leclerc and Carlos Sainz to be causing Verstappen problems from the outset in Bahrain.

And what of Mercedes, the fallen giant, the championship eight seasons in a row from 2014 to 2021, reduced to just a one-time race winner at the start of a new set of rules it got so much more wrong than its rivals?
Faith has been put in the Mercedes concept even if there is a slight relenting on the ‘size zero’ sidepods but the W14 remains a unique looking machine. Unfortunately for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, it also proved a little confusing in testing – day one decent, day two bad, day three better.  
Mercedes has been managing expectations since it launched its new car. It starts the season on the back foot so the original version of the W14 is obviously not quite where it needs to be. Mercedes has confidence it can get there but how quickly that's the case will determine whether Hamilton or Russell become real factors in the season.

The dream scenario is that Ferrari and Mercedes are on Red Bull's level long enough for a real title fight. Imagine Verstappen, Leclerc and Hamilton in a true championship battle, with Carlos Sainz, Russell or even Sergio Perez trying to have their say too? 

Behind the biggest teams, there are plenty of interesting threads to follow. Is Aston Martin really a lead midfielder – or even a threat to the big three? Will Alpine’s quiet test actually translate into a big leap forward come race day (and can it really deliver on closing the gap to the front, as it has targeted)?

Where’s McLaren going to be at the start of the season, and will its much vaunted upgrade – slated to arrive three or four races into the year – transform its prospects?
And can any of the lower-midfield teams – Haas, Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Williams – step up from inconsistent and in some ways wasteful 2022 seasons, or are they destined to fill out the Q1 elimination slots and continue fighting sporadically for low points.

A new F1 season brings all these questions and many more. Which is why it is too defeatist to focus on the prospect of more Verstappen domination. There’s a lot to find out, both good and bad. This weekend we make the first discoveries.

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