Max Verstappen's runaway Red Bull train will take some stopping

Dutch driver’s times ahead of Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix make scary reading for challengers Hamilton and Leclerc

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Can anyone stop Red Bull’s runaway locomotive charging to another world championship in 2023 as Max Verstappen continues his rampage through the record books?

After a record 15 victories in 2022, the pre-season testing time sheets (and acres of print that have emerged since) make the remarkable young Dutchman firm favourite yet again.

Paddock eyes reported a certain swagger down at the Honda-powered team after testing in Bahrain last week.

The Dutchman was so confident he only bothered to get in the car for two of the three days permitted.

Of course, pre-season’s time sheets can be fool’s gold. Some teams may be grandstanding to impress potential sponsors while others could actually be sandbagging.

But one fact appears to have cast iron credentials: Mercedes woes are set to continue. After their worst season in nine years they are struggling to understand their new car yet again.

Lead driver Lewis Hamilton and teammate George Russell both report balance issues.

The seven-time champion is in turmoil. Entering the final year of his contract without a new deal is a clear sign, some believe, of fears Mercedes will be uncompetitive yet again.

Russell described suggestions of Mercedes winning the opening race of the season in Bahrain on Sunday as “a bit of stretch”.

The team have been so desperate to save weight to improve competitiveness they are removing paint where they can. Hence the return to black carbon fibre.

Both Russell and boss Toto Wolf used the word “ultimately” when talking about the time scale for being competitive, suggesting it is somewhere over the horizon.

Some predict the Mercedes’ malaise runs so deep they may even fall out of the sport’s Big Three, overtaken by one of their own customer teams, Aston Martin.

Hamilton, Verstappen Bahrain testing - in pictures

That would be good news for double champion Fernando Alonso, who has switched to green. After a string of career moves that have gone wrong, could the talented Spaniard finally be on an upwards trajectory?

The time sheets suggest Ferrari will take on the mantle of Red Bull challengers yet again

Maranello remains the conundrum it has always been, ruled by short-termism and stuck in an unending political maelstrom of its own making.

The latest drama surrounds the dismissal of the one man who had led them back to the winner’s circle, team boss Mattia Binotto.

Taking them into championship contention after the worst seasons in 40 years was not enough to avoid being pushed out.

Having built the fastest car in the pit lane, it’s fair to say 2022 was a championship thrown away by Ferrari as much as one won by Red Bull.

It is a telling statistic that Verstappen won more races when Charles Leclerc started from pole than the Monegasque did himself.

The Maranello pit wall was guilty of apocalyptic (and repeated) strategy errors; the drivers, including Leclerc, threw away victories and technical issues played their part too.

If there is an A to Z of mistakes not to make when challenging for a championship Maranello went through it.

Twelve pole starts show Maranello clearly have the keys to a championship challenge.

But Red Bull’s fallow years have not cost Christian Horner his job. And Toto Wolff survived a bigger disaster at Mercedes in 2022.

For some reason, Ferrari chief executive Benedetto Vigna lacked the will to support Binotto as Italy’s media howled for blood.

So in January, the long-time Ferrari servant was replaced by Alfa Romeo boss Frederic Vasseur.

The Frenchman is a highly-regarded engineer who has made Nico Rosberg, Hamilton (and perhaps most significantly Ferrari’s golden boy Leclerc) champion in the junior categories.

Yet his F1 management CV is solid but unremarkable. After in five years in charge of Sauber/Alfa Romeo, his only achievement for over $400m spent was a single fastest lap.

Reputedly one of his earliest decisions – in fact made in his first week in charge – was to axe a proposed Honda engine deal (the engine that is currently dominating F1 remember).

So take as a comparison fellow F1 minnows Alpha Tauri. In the same period (2018-2022), they scored one win, four podiums, two fastest laps and 402 points. Vasseur’s operation managed just 181 when points are directly linked to prize money.

Vigna has said he will take closer personal control but only time will tell whether putting his faith in Vasseur is another Ferrari misstep or a pivotal swing towards a competitive new era.

A lot in F1 depends upon it.

Updated: March 02, 2023, 5:15 AM