F1 bigger than ever as Verstappen chases his triple

The 25-year-old Dutch driver is favourite for the opener in Bahrain on March 5

By Reuters

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Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands arrives at the paddock during a Formula One pre season test at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on Saturday. — AP
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands arrives at the paddock during a Formula One pre season test at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on Saturday. — AP

Published: Mon 27 Feb 2023, 4:19 PM

Formula One is going bigger, brighter and brasher this season with the Las Vegas Strip set to light up a record 23 race calendar and Red Bull's Max Verstappen chasing a third championship in a row.

The 25-year-old Dutch driver is favourite for the opener in Bahrain on March 5, with the sport hoping he has a harder time than last year when he won 15 of 22 races and took the title with four rounds to spare.

Testing last week at Sakhir suggested Red Bull remain on pole but with Ferrari's 2022 runner-up Charles Leclerc and team mate Carlos Sainz the closest challengers in what will be an intense development battle.

If Ferrari, now under the management of French boss Fred Vasseur, get their act together and the car working to maximum effect then a first title since 2008 could yet be on the cards.

Mercedes have plenty to do if Lewis Hamilton's hopes of becoming Formula One's first eight times world champion are not to evaporate again.

"Ferrari look like they’re quick. Mercedes' form is difficult to read at the moment. Are they holding something back? We’ll see this time next week," said Red Bull boss Christian Horner at the weekend.

On the plus side, Mercedes have banished the 'porpoising' that tormented them last year but still need more speed.

With the retirement of four-times champion Sebastian Vettel at the end of last season, Hamilton now has more wins than the rest put together but adding a record-extending 104th will be something special.

No driver has ever won after reaching 300 starts and Hamilton, 38, is preparing for his 311th after the career first of failing to win anything last year.

He said Mercedes still had a mountain to climb.

"We have some things we need to work on, it's still not perfect and we're still not able to match the Red Bulls, or the Ferraris, currently," he added.

EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION

Double world champion Fernando Alonso, who at 41 is about to become the first driver to race in 20 different seasons, may even be faster than Hamilton with the new Aston Martin making a big impression.

In midfield, the battle could be closer with the 2023 cars very much an evolution after last year's rules revolution.

McLaren had a poor test, completing fewest laps, while tail-enders Williams showed surprising speed. Renault-owned Alpine aim to defend fourth overall with Pierre Gasly joining Esteban Ocon in an all-French lineup.

German veteran Nico Hulkenberg is back for his first full season since 2019, now at Haas.

Six of the 10 teams have changed driver lineups, although the top three remain the same, and three rookies enter the fray.

Verstappen's Dutch compatriot Nyck de Vries joins AlphaTauri after racing at Monza last year as a stand-in for Williams' Alex Albon, but Australian Oscar Piastri at McLaren and Logan Sargeant at Williams will be debuting.

Piastri replaces experienced compatriot Daniel Ricciardo, now Red Bull's third driver.

Sargeant can become the first U.S. driver to complete a full season since Scott Speed at Red Bull-owned Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) in 2006.

With U.S. interest surging thanks to the Netflix docu-series 'Drive to Survive", he will have three home races -- Miami in May, Austin in October and Las Vegas as penultimate round on a Saturday night in November.

Las Vegas is already hyped to the hilt, with prices to match, for racing on the Strip for the first time.

There will be six sprint race weekends, double last year, and consequently more points to be won.

Rule changes will be hard to spot -- raised floor edges to stop cars bouncing, stronger roll hoops after Guanyu Zhou's huge crash at Silverstone last year and bigger mirrors.

Four teams have new bosses - Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, McLaren and Williams with the latter bringing in Mercedes strategist James Vowles as principal.

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