F1's 2023 preseason test in Bahrain didn't offer too many suggestions that a significant shakeup is in store for the upcoming season. Instead, Red Bull's trouble-free running and positive media statements suggest that Max Verstappen will be the driver to beat again, with Ferrari and Mercedes waiting in the wings.
However, a change may come for the 'best-of-the-rest' award for the midfield as Aston Martin surged forward with Fernando Alonso showing he's far from past his best. Alpine and McLaren scrapped it out for the P4 placement in the World Constructors' Championship in 2022, but Lawrence Stroll's investment in Aston Martin might be paying off, and the green team might steal the show.
At the back, there seems to be no clear back marker squad for the season. Williams took the pain of P10 last year away from Haas, who suffered a point-less 2021 one year earlier. Encouragingly, neither team look like a no-hoper for 2023, though, suggesting the already-congested mid-pack will get even busier.
In more detail, it's a tale familiar to 2022 for the frontrunners. Red Bull again looks like the strongest team in testing, with Verstappen even firing a metaphorical warning shot that the car feels even better than last year. There's little for Red Bull to improve, so any step forward would make them more of an unstoppable force.
Meanwhile, Ferrari looks like they've caught up on their Austrian rival's top speed, which effectively lost them the championship in 2022. However, trade-offs in performance might hamper Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz elsewhere. The new management under Frederic Vasseur means it's all very feel-good at Ferrari, but that may change if they haven't closed the race-pace gap to Red Bull.
The Mercedes porpoising that dogged the Silver Arrows in 2022 appears vanquished in 2023. The now-black-liveried team might not be at their mid-2010s best, but they're starting from far more solid ground than last year's test. Unless Mercedes is holding something back, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell might be podium contenders and occasional victors but not championship protagonists in 2023.
The most newsworthy moment of the preseason test came before any cars took to the track. Lance Stroll reportedly broke both his wrists in a cycling incident, something Aston Martin oddly wasn’t keen on offering details on. Felipe Drugovich, the 2022 F2 champion, was the benefactor of this. He took the Canadian's place and will make his F1 debut in Round 1 should Stroll not recover.
Alonso was the man in green to beat. The new marquee signing for Aston Martin was looking comfortable, quick, and happy in his new surroundings. Moreover, the Spaniard's consistency on a multi-lap run caught the attention of other teams who wonder whether Aston Martin will leapfrog the midfield for the P4 position.
McLaren, last year's P5 finishers, looks like the team with the most work to do. Problems with the car's front wing end plates hampered the track time for their driver pairing of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri. Reports that Lando Norris even punched a wall in annoyance are not encouraging signs that the team will fare better in 2023 than they did in 2022.
Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri have plaudits to boast over from their test. Alfa took the fastest time on Day 2, with Guanyu Zhou's sterling effort, and Alpha tallied the highest laps of all teams between their two drivers. While neither is likely to trouble the P4 position behind the 'big three', the headlines from topping tables of any kind can't hurt their preparation.
Elsewhere, Alpine, Haas, and Williams had unremarkable but equally encouraging testing days. Even though they didn't particularly shine, having no significant problems for their drivers or team principals to lose sleep over is better than three days stuck in the garage with mechanical gremlins.
All of the above, of course, comes with the massive caveat that testing doesn't mean anything. There's no way to tell if the teams are running the chassis they will run in Bahrain for the opening round. And, equally, fixing issues is preferable to do in the test rather than over any Grand Prix weekend. Reliability or unreliability in testing doesn't mean anything if it doesn't translate to the competitive season.
In short, while testing might let us see the mood in the 10 camps, it doesn't tell the complete picture. That will only come next weekend when Formula 1 2023 begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix.