Charles Leclerc will start on pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix for the third season in a row after an impressive qualifying run on Friday.

Ferrari's Leclerc surprisingly outpaced the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, who will start second and third respectively in Baku.

The Monegasque driver kept up with Verstappen before putting in a time of one minute and 40.203 seconds to beat his opponent by 0.188s.

"I like city tracks in general," Leclerc told Sky Sports. "It's not only here but Singapore, Monaco, here, a track that I really enjoy. You can really play with the limits, more than on a normal track.

"The limit is a hard limit as it's the wall! You cannot overstep it, so it's about building up to be very close to the wall without ever touching it."

Friday's qualifying session determined the race order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with another, standalone shorter qualifying session to take place on Saturday ahead of a 17-lap sprint event – the first of six this season.

However, Leclerc is in no doubt where his priorities lie, even though he admitted his Ferrari is unlikely to be able to compete across Sunday's 51 laps of the six-kilometre Baku City Circuit.

"It went well in the last three years, but we have another qualifying tomorrow, so it could be four poles in a row," Leclerc said. "But we have the race on Sunday, which is more important, but I believe we will struggle a bit more as I think Red Bull is still a step ahead."

Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz will start in fourth on Sunday, with Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in fifth and Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin sixth.

Hamilton's team-mate George Russell will start 11th after a surprise elimination in Q2 on Friday, while there were early crashes from Nyck de Vries (AlphaTauri) and Pierre Gasly (Alpine) as a hectic start to qualifying began with red flags, both hitting the barrier on turn three.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 1:40.203
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.188
3. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.292
4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.813
5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.974
6. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +1.050
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.078
8. Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1.378
9. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.408
10. Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +1.408

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc put a brake on Red Bull’s dominant streak by securing a surprise pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Formula One bosses have tinkered with the format in Baku by introducing two qualifying sessions.

Friday’s result decides the order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, while a second shorter qualifying session on Saturday determines the grid for a 17-lap dash – the first of six sprint events this season – later in the day.

The sport’s chiefs hope the revamp will enliven the weekend, and Leclerc’s qualifying triumph for Sunday’s main event marks the first non-Red Bull pole of the season.

Max Verstappen, who has won two of the opening three rounds to establish a 15-point championship lead, will line up alongside Leclerc, with Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez – the only other man to stand on the top step of the podium in 2023 – third.

Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth, a second back from Leclerc. Mercedes team-mate George Russell was eliminated in Q2 and will start 11th on Sunday.

By his own admission, Leclerc’s start to the season has been a “disaster”. He broke down in Bahrain, and then finished only seventh in Saudi Arabia following an engine penalty. Last time out in Australia he failed to complete a single lap after a collision with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.

He then arrived on the Caspian Sea amid a report in Italy that he is already plotting his Ferrari exit with a move to Mercedes as Hamilton’s replacement.

But after claiming his third pole in a row on Baku’s streets, the 25-year-old deliberately pointed to the Prancing Horse on his Ferrari overalls.

“The whole team needed this result,” he said. “It is part of our job, for any team in Formula One, to deal with rumours and pressure.

“But it is obviously sometimes a bit more difficult to perform under those circumstances.

“I did not expect it. We came into the weekend thinking it would be a great result if we are in front of the Aston Martins and the Mercedes, and we find ourself on pole.

“We know we are behind on race pace but our job is to maximise the points for later in the season if we are then strong enough to go and get the wins.”

Over at Mercedes, Hamilton might have finished second in Melbourne, but the seven-time world champion was off the pace here.

Hamilton snuck through to Q3, finishing just 0.004 sec ahead of the knocked-out Russell, and then never threatened to challenge the Ferraris and Red Bulls.

“We are trying as hard as we can,” said the 38-year-old. “It’s just getting into a rhythm is not easy on this track.

“We can’t make changes to the car overnight. This is the pace we have. It’s not the position we want as a team. We exist to win. But everyone has that winning mindset.

“We haven’t had an upgrade this weekend but we’re working towards one which will hopefully put us a bit closer to the battle.”

Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz will start fourth, two spots ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, with Lando Norris seventh for McLaren.

Q1 was delayed by 28 minutes after Nyck de Vries and Pierre Gasly both crashed out.

De Vries went in too hot on his brakes at the third corner, missing the apex and slamming into the wall. Out came the red flag, and a 17-minute barrier repair job followed as De Vries’ written-off AlphaTauri was winched away.

The running had restarted for less than two minutes before the red flags were deployed for a second time. Turn 3 claimed another victim as Gasly thudded into the wall and came to a halt.

“I couldn’t stop the car,” said the Frenchman, who missed the majority of practice when his Alpine caught fire. The two men will start Sunday’s 51-lap Grand Prix from the back of the pack.

Max Verstappen edged out Charles Leclerc to finish fastest in the sole practice session at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Formula One bosses have changed the weekend format in Baku, with the introduction of two qualifying sessions – one to decide the order for Sunday’s grand prix, and the other determining the starting grid for Saturday’s sprint race, the first of six sprint events this season.

Practice has been slashed from three hours to just one, ahead of qualifying for Sunday’s main event at 5pm local time (2pm UK) on Friday.

The reduction in practice is designed to create greater jeopardy with the teams unable to gather as much data as they would like.

And the one-hour running on Friday was suspended for 13 minutes after Pierre Gasly’s Alpine caught fire with the Frenchman leaping out of his smoky machine at Turn 12.

In an incident-packed session, Yuki Tsunoda limped back to the pits on three wheels after he banged the wall, while Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz also brushed the armco at the tight and twisty street circuit on the Caspian Sea.

Double world champion Verstappen has won two of the opening three rounds to establish a 15-point lead over Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

On Friday, the Dutch driver pipped Leclerc to top spot by just 0.037 seconds. Perez finished third, a tenth down on his Red Bull team-mate, while Sainz recovered from his brush with the barrier to take fourth.

Lando Norris provided some encouragement for McLaren to finish fifth, eight tenths down on Verstappen.

But Lewis Hamilton could manage only 11th for Mercedes, 1.5 sec back off the pace with team-mate George Russell also struggling, taking the chequered flag 17th of the 20 runners.

Elsewhere, Nyck de Vries finished sixth in his AlphaTauri ahead of the Aston Martin duo of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso.

Charles Leclerc has brushed off reports suggesting he will replace Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, reaffirming his commitment to Ferrari.

The Monegasque driver is in his fifth season with the Italian constructor and is looking for a first podium of the 2023 season after a muted start.

But amid lingering speculation over the future of seven-time world champion Hamilton at Mercedes, Leclerc has been linked with replacing the Briton.

Ahead of this weekend's Azerbaijan Grand Prix, however, Leclerc denied reports he is set to swap teams, though he did not explicitly rule out a future move.

"No, not yet," he said. "Not for the moment. For now, I am fully focused on the project I am in today, which is Ferrari and I fully trust and am confident for the future.

"Then we will see, but I am fully confident for the project of Ferrari. I'm fully committed to Ferrari and I love Ferrari.

"It has always been a dream for me to be in this team and my main priority is to win a world championship with this team. So it's not something in my mind."

Hamilton, who picked up a first podium of the year at the Australian Grand Prix, sees his contract expire with Mercedes at the end of the current season.

Speculation over Leclerc succeeding him has had no impact on his own negotiations though, with Hamilton stressing his own commitment to the Silver Arrows.

"I think maybe some of the drivers all have different relationships with different bosses and stuff," Hamilton said. "I like where I am.

"I love my team, and I'm grateful for the journey we've been on and what we're working on moving forwards."

Ralf Schumacher has told Max Verstappen to either leave Formula 1 or accept the new Sprint Race weekend format, which will debut at the upcoming Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The 'Sprint Shootout' gets introduced this weekend and will set the grid for Saturday's Sprint Race, which means the grid for Sunday's Grand Prix is now determined by Friday's qualifying. 

It leaves just one free practice session in Baku with FP2 and 3 being replaced, and is the first of six Sprint Race weekends in 2023 after only hosting three in 2021 and 2022.

This comes after Verstappen issued a 'quit threat' if F1 continues to make race weekend changes, but Schumacher believes the championship will thrive either way. 

"The past, the present and the future have shown or will show that Formula 1 is much bigger than any individual," he told Sky Sports Germany.

"Bernie Ecclestone is also gone, and without him Formula 1 wouldn't exist - and now it’s more successful than ever.

"So Verstappen should either pack his things and leave, or just accept it as it is. I understand his attitude because there are a lot of risks.

"But still, he gets paid to do it. If he wants to go, then he has to go. Formula 1 will not perish, as much I love him."

Guenther Steiner has hailed the changes saying it is what fans want, and believes F1 could eventually keep adding the format to more race weekends. 

"I don't know if we will do it every race weekend," the Haas team principal told Reuters. "Maybe do a few more or maybe do half of the calendar - the F1 promoter will know what to do.

"At the moment, there is more demand for races [than slots available] so how can you get more races in, more competition, more racing if we cannot do more than 24 events? So just make the event double count."

Will Baku finally have a repeat winner?

In six previous races at Baku, there has been a different winner each time. Nico Rosberg won its inaugural Grand Prix in 2016, before Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Perez and defending winner Verstappen all stood on the top step.

With two of that six no longer in F1 and Bottas now in an Alfa Romeo, chances are only three of them are in with a shot of victory. However, given Red Bull have dominated the opening three races to this season, they will be odds-on favourite to win again on Sunday.

To many, the battle will be between Perez and Verstappen with the double world champion currently 15 points ahead of his team-mate in the standings. If Red Bull wins again, then that will extend Hamilton’s winless run to 27 - his worst in F1 - after Mercedes have struggled since the start of 2022.

However, Fernando Alonso has stood on the podium in each race this season. Therefore, should Red Bull encounter any problems then maybe the Aston Martin driver will extend Baku's record. 

Charles Leclerc faces worst ever start to F1 season

Charles Leclerc's retirement in Australia means he is the first Ferrari driver since Felipe Massa in 2009 to have two DNFs in the opening three races of a season. For the other round, Saudi Arabia, he only finished seventh which leaves Leclerc 10th in the championship on six points.

It is a stark contrast to this time 12 months ago, where the Ferrari driver was leading the championship by 34 points after winning two of the opening three races. Should he fail to score a point in Baku then that will make it Leclerc's worst start to an F1 season, despite driving for Alfa Romeo in his debut year.

Championship Standings

Drivers

Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 69Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 54Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) 45Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 38Carlos Sainz Jr (Ferrari) 20

Constructors 

Red Bull 123Aston Martin 65Mercedes 56Ferrari 26McLaren 12 

Charles Leclerc has asked supporters to respect his privacy and stop turning up at his house.

The Ferrari driver, who had his watch stolen in Italy last year, is unsure how details of his home address in Monaco became public.

While more than willing to greet supporters elsewhere, Leclerc draws a line at them appearing on his property.

"For the past few months, my home address has somehow become public, leading to people gathering beneath my apartment, ringing my bell, and asking for pictures and autographs," Leclerc wrote on Instagram.

"While I'm always happy to be there for you and I truly appreciate your support, please respect my privacy and refrain from coming to my house.

"I'll make sure to stop for everyone when you see me on the streets or at the track, but I won't be coming downstairs if you visit my home.

"Your support, both in person and on social media, means the world to me, but there is a boundary that should not be crossed."

Leclerc has suffered two DNFs in the first three races of the 2023 season and has just six points to his name.

Speaking after last week's Australian Grand Prix, Leclerc said: "[It is] just extremely frustrating. I mean, it's the worst start to the season ever, really. It is really frustrating."

Charles Leclerc rued "the worst start to the season ever" as his Ferrari posted a second retirement of 2023 at the Australian Grand Prix.

The Monegasque spun off on three turns in at Albert Park after a collision with Aston Martin's Lance Stroll, ending his race inside the opening lap.

Following a 39th-lap retirement in Bahrain with engine trouble and a seventh-place finish in Saudi Arabia, it continues a rough campaign for Leclerc.

Speaking afterwards, the 25-year-old refused to place the blame at Stroll's feet, but acknowledged his first three races are a nadir in his Formula 1 career.

"[It is] just extremely frustrating," he said. "I mean, it's the worst start to the season ever, really. It is really frustrating.

"I'm not pointing the finger at Lance because I think he had no choice once Fernando [Alonso] slowed down the car the second time.

"For me, it was just impossible to see whether Lance was staying behind Fernando or if he was just in between. I obviously didn't think he was there."

It marked a pointless day for Ferrari, with Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz demoted from fourth to 12th with a controversial five-second time penalty.

The Spaniard was handed the punishment for running into Alonso amid the race's restart in the wake of its second red flag, with just two laps to go.

After a rolling restart the third time around ensured he could not build an advantage to keep him in the points, Sainz was left fuming afterwards.

"I think it's the most unfair penalty I've seen in my life," he told media. "I [would] prefer to go back to the stewards, have a conversation with them.

"Maybe I can come back and talk [then]. I honestly cannot do it [now]. It's too unfair, and I don't feel well to speak."

Sergio Perez has taken new power unit components ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The Red Bull driver has taken a new energy store (ES) and control electronics (CE) for the second race of the 2023 Formula One season.

No penalty will be issued for the Mexican driver, though he finds himself in a tricky situation for the remainder of the campaign as only two ES changes are allowed over the course of the season, while three CE's are permitted.

Perez is now in a similar situation to that of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who was forced into an ES change ahead of the season opener in Bahrain and has taken another unit for this weekend – resulting in a 10-place grid penalty.

Leclerc, alongside team-mate Carlos Sainz and McLaren's Lando Norris, has also taken a second internal combustion engine (ICE) for Saudi Arabia, with three permitted during a season, while both Leclerc and Norris have taken an additional MGU-H.

Norris has seen further changes in the form of a new turbocharger, MGU-K and exhaust system for the weekend in Saudi Arabia.

Max Verstappen leads the championship standings ahead of team-mate Perez after a Red Bull one-two in Bahrain, with Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso third.

Charles Leclerc will receive a 10-place grid penalty at this weekend's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after Ferrari fitted a third electronics control unit. 

At the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Ferrari needed to use a second ECU before Leclerc retired from the race after suffering another problem with the component.

Across a season, drivers are restricted to using just two ECUs and going over the permitted amount results in a grid penalty.

Ferrari team principal Frederic Vasseur said: "On Sunday, we had two different issues. The first one was on the Sunday morning, when we did the fire up, and the second one was in the race.

"Unfortunately, it was two times the control electronics box and it’s something that we never experienced in the past.

"I hope now it’s under control. We have a deep analysis on this.

"Unfortunately, we’ll have to take the penalty in Jeddah because we have only a pool of two control units for the season."

Leclerc was a dejected figure in Bahrain, where championship favourites Red Bull claimed a dominant one-two with winner Max Verstappen coming in a huge 39 seconds ahead of third-placed Fernando Alonso.

The Ferrari driver, who was third at time of his retirement, described Red Bull as being "on another planet" but Vasseur has no worries about Leclerc's mindset or his team's chances this season. 

"It’s obvious Charles is motivated," added Vasseur, who is in his debut year as Ferrari boss.

"We have done one race of 23. He’s full push with the team, trying to get the best for everyone.

"The penalty is not good news, but it’s not the end of the season. Let’s see what happens in Jeddah, and what could be the outcome, even with the penalty.

"But don't imagine for even half a second he could be demotivated.

"He's fully convinced, he's working with us, pushing the team, pushing everybody in a positive way and nothing else."

If Ferrari need to replace any further parts of Leclerc's car in Saudi Arabia, the grid penalty will increase further than 10 grid spots.

Charles Leclerc believes Red Bull are on "another planet" to their Formula One rivals after they dominated the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen's title defence got off to a comfortable start with a victory on Sunday, with his team-mate Sergio Perez second and Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso in third.

Leclerc looked on course for a podium finish for Ferrari, but an engine failure led to his retirement.

The issue came despite Ferrari changing a component ahead of the race, one of only two permitted alterations allowed over the course of the season, which could lead to further pain for the Scuderia in future races.

While the cause of the problem was unknown to Leclerc, he made it clear the team must secure as many points as possible to keep Red Bull in sight.

"I have no idea what happened to the car when I lost the power, the only thing I know is that I did, I don't know for what reason," he told Sky Sports F1.

"I don't know if it is related to the change we had this morning, so I don't want to comment on that, but it is a shame.

"We expected to be on the back foot this weekend, especially in the race to Red Bull. That team is on another planet right now.

"But that's what exactly why most weekends we need to make sure we bring maximum points possible home and we didn't manage to do so."

Max Verstappen started the defence of his Formula One title with a comfortable victory at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

The two-time world champion was in front from the start and never truly came under threat, leading a Red Bull one-two ahead of Sergio Perez to secure his team's first opening-weekend victory since 2011.

With Charles Leclerc forced into a retirement due to an engine issue, Red Bull's closest challenger was Fernando Alonso, who worked his way through the field for a podium finish.

But a rejuvenated Aston Martin were no match for a dominant Verstappen and Red Bull in what proved to be a comfortable race for the defending champions.

Leclerc, who had a power unit change before the start, leapfrogged Perez to take second place at the start but could not stay ahead of the Mexican, who regained his grid position after the first round of pit stops on lap 26.

Mercedes' fight with Aston Martin was the battle to watch, Lewis Hamilton completing an undercut on Alonso before a stellar move on lap 38 saw the Spaniard move ahead again.

Engine problems for Leclerc led to his retirement three laps later, opening the door for Alonso to battle Carlos Sainz for a podium spot after the virtual safety car was deployed.

Alonso was able to catch his compatriot on lap 46 to clinch third spot in his first race for Aston Martin, though there was no challenge for Red Bull as they eased to only their second ever win in the first race of the year.

Ferrari frustration

Having had to retire from the lead twice in the 2022 season due to engine issues, Leclerc would have hoped those problems were a thing of the past heading into Ferrari's 2023 campaign.

Never appearing to have the pace to put the Red Bull duo under threat, calamity struck with another forced retirement in a nightmare start to the season.

Ocon's Alpine agony

Esteban Ocon's season did not get off to a good start, with the Frenchman given three time penalties over the course of the race.

An initial five-second penalty came for incorrect grid position, with a 10-second penalty following for failing to serve that correctly and another five-second penalty issued for speeding in the pit lane before the Alpine was eventually retired.

 

IN THE POINTS

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)

2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +11.987

3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +36.637

4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +48.052

5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +50.977

6. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +54.502

7. George Russell (Mercedes) +55.873

8. Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +1:12.647

9. Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +1:13.753

10. Alexander Albon (Williams) +1:20.870

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 25

2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 18

3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) 15

4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) 12

5. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 10

Constructors

1. Red Bull 43

2. Aston Martin 23

3. Mercedes 16

4. Ferrari 12

5. Alfa Romeo 4

Charles Leclerc has taken a new power unit component ahead of the Formula One season opener in Bahrain.

The Ferrari driver, who starts third on the grid behind the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, has a new energy store (ES) on his car.

No penalty will be issued for the Bahrain Grand Prix, though it leaves Ferrari in a challenging position for the remainder of the season as only two such changes are allowed over the course of the campaign.

The F1 season in 2023 will see a record-breaking 23 races on the calendar, Las Vegas having been added to the schedule.

Leclerc looked to be Verstappen's strongest rival last season, winning two of the opening three races, but reliability issues and strategy errors derailed his charge as he finished 146 points behind the Dutchman.

Changes were made at Ferrari ahead of the new season, Frederic Vasseur replacing Mattias Binotto as team principal.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen surprised himself by claiming pole position in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Verstappen, on the hunt for a third straight world title, will start at the front of the grid in Sunday's season-opening race after recording a quickest lap of 1:29:708 on Saturday.

Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez qualified in second to complete the front row, with the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz behind them on the second row.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton had to settle for seventh behind Mercedes team-mate George Russell, with Fernando Alonso wedged in fifth.

Ferrari had topped the opening two qualifying sessions but with Verstappen coming good in Q3, they elected against heading out again, instead choosing to conserve their tyres.

"It has been a bit of a tough start to the weekend yesterday and today not really finding my rhythm, but luckily in qualifying we managed to put the best pieces together," Verstappen said.

"I am very happy to be on pole. For the whole team coming off last year and again having such a strong car with Checo up there as well. It is amazing and I am looking forward to tomorrow. 

"The changes slowed down the car a bit but we are still going faster, which is great to see. Throughout the year, you will see everyone increasing their performance again a lot and that is the beautiful thing about Formula One.

"I was actually positively surprised to be on pole after the struggles I had in practice. Normally our race car is better, so let's see."

Despite having plenty of work to do to compete for a podium finish, Hamilton was in a buoyant mood.

"We went in with a really open mind," he told Sky Sports. "I woke up thinking we were going to be a lot further behind, and so the fact we're even getting into Q3 was great.

"We made a step forward today and the car was feeling much more alive this morning, and all of a sudden we were in a different place to where we were the day before. But then we got to qualifying and for me the car just didn't feel alive, it felt kind of average.

"It's not an impossible mountain to climb, so that's a positive, and I know everyone back at the factory has been working so hard. We can definitely close the gap, we've just got really focus and push like never before."

Leclerc, meanwhile, was happy with Ferrari's strategy despite believing he had the chance to fight for pole.

"There wasn't any issue. I think we were in the fight for pole, which was a good surprise to be honest because I did not expect that after testing and after free practices that were a little bit difficult," Leclerc said.

"We managed to find that pace for the qualifying pace, which was great. However, we need to keep in our mind that on the race runs, we seemed to be a little bit on the back foot compared to Red Bull.

"I think that we're in a better place starting third with new tyres than starting first with older. I don't know if I would have been in pole or not but it would have been close."

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
3. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
4. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
5. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
6. George Russell (Mercedes)
7. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
8. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)

A new Formula One season is upon us and the 2023 campaign will be the longest in the history of the elite motorsport class.

The number of races is rising to 23, with Las Vegas joining the show, though drama will not be limited to the track.

Two seasons ago, the controversial conclusion to the campaign in Abu Dhabi was a dominant story, while last year saw Red Bull's budget cap breach and an Oscar Piastri fight between Alpine and McLaren, as well as frustrations with governing body the FIA, notably over the drivers' freedom of expression.

Get set for sporting theatre to unfold over the course of the season ahead, though the biggest talking point centres around whether anyone can dethrone Red Bull.

Red Bull gives you wins

Max Verstappen finished at the front in 15 of 22 races last season, setting a record for the most triumphs in a single campaign, and he has won over half of the events in the past two years (25 wins from 44 races).

While pre-season testing never offers a full indication of what lies ahead, Red Bull's strength was still evident and the consensus is that the defending champions will begin the campaign with an advantage over their rivals.

 

If that gap cannot be reduced, the biggest threat to a third consecutive crown for Verstappen may come from team-mate Carlos Perez. Should that happen, tempers may flare as they did in Sao Paulo in November when Verstappen refused a team order to allow the Mexican through.

One aspect that may provide hope to Red Bull's rivals is the punishment issued for the budget cap breach, which included a 10 per cent reduction in aerodynamic testing allowance for 12 months. While it came too late to have a major implication on the overall develop of this year's car, it could restrict the team's ability to fix any issues that arise.

Ferrari's fight to the front

A season that offered so much promise for Ferrari last term ultimately fell away through mistakes in race strategy and engine failures, the latter of which resulted in the team having to run in a low-power mode to avoid further woes.

Charles Leclerc certainly has the ability to go head to head with perennial rival Verstappen, who he has raced since his junior days, while Carlos Sainz got his long-awaited maiden F1 win at Silverstone last year.

The appointment of Fred Vasseur as team principal, replacing Mattia Binotto, hands the Scuderia an experienced head on the pit wall and may result in fewer questionable calls in race strategy.

Ferrari are confident they can mount a challenge this season and, even though Leclerc has conceded Red Bull may start with an advantage, he believes the Prancing Horse can respond.

"The target is still [to win the title]. Even if we are starting a bit of the back foot compared to them in terms of performance, I'm sure we can come back," Leclerc told Sky Sports.

Mercedes on a mission

Any hopes of a Mercedes revival in 2023 appear to have stalled already, with testing performances suggesting the team may have to look over their shoulders at those chasing from behind rather than competing at the top.

Mercedes' design continues to divide opinion, with a zero-pod approach being vastly different to their rivals and leading to questions about whether they have stuck to their guns out of pride rather than sporting merit.

With Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel, there is always a chance and the Briton will be determined to come back and add to his record 103 race wins having failed to secure a victory last season – the first campaign in his career when he has not registered a win.

The seven-time world champion was outperformed by team-mate George Russell last season, however. Russell secured a maiden race win in the penultimate race and offered consistency throughout the campaign.

Best of the rest

The biggest surprise of the testing weekend in Bahrain was the pace shown by Aston Martin who, with the addition of Fernando Alonso, have a driver who could mount a serious threat to the bigger guns on the grid.

Though a third world title for the Spaniard may be a stretch, regular podiums and dethroning one of the big three in the constructors' championship is certainly an achievable goal.

At Alpine, great care will be taken to ensure French compatriots Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon do not find themselves butting heads, with a frosty relationship over the years, while McLaren have already admitted they missed their development targets and start on the back foot as a result.

Andreas Seidl, now at the helm of Alfa Romeo-Sauber, enters with high expectations ahead of the team's transition into Audi in 2026, while AlphaTauri's long-term future continues to be questioned despite assurances Red Bull will not sell their second-string team.

Expect the season to also see further rumblings regarding new additions to the grid, with Porsche and Andretti among those pushing to join.

As ever, there is plenty to watch out for in F1 and from the first corner to the last there are likely to be surprises along the way.

Charles Leclerc is confident Ferrari can compete with Red Bull for both titles in the new Formula One season.

Ferrari failed to capitalise on their strengths last year and compete with Max Verstappen, who waltzed to a second consecutive championship title.

Early signs ahead of the 2023 season suggest Red Bull remain ahead of their rivals, with Leclerc admitting that is a perception he holds.

However, he believes Ferrari can mount a threat over the course of the season due to the developments from last year.

"From what I can see, it seems Red Bull is a bit ahead. But it's a long season, our goal is still to win the championship," he told Sky Sports.

"I am confident. We have great guys in Maranello, I think we have shown it with the big step forward from 2021 to 2022.

"There were too many mistakes in 2022, we know that, but we've been very honest with ourselves in order to get better for this season.

"The target is still [to win the title]. Even if we are starting a bit of the back foot compared to them in terms of performance, I'm sure we can come back."

Leclerc's assessment that Red Bull begin the campaign ahead of their rivals is shared by Mercedes' George Russell, who expects them to dominate the opening weekend in Bahrain.

"It probably wasn't the smoothest three days we could have hoped for at testing. But the learning we found is going to put us in better stead for this weekend," he said in Thursday's press conference.

"I think it’s definitely fair to say Red Bull are in a league of their own this weekend. But it'll probably be a nice fight for second between Ferrari and Aston Martin."

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