As F1 2023 kicks off, spare a thought for the newly-retired Sebastian Vettel. The German four-time world champion would've tuned in to watch the first race in a decade-and-a-half from his home, only to see his replacement Fernando Alonso, at his old team Aston Martin fight at the front.
It was easy to scoff when Lawrence Stroll indicated he wanted the Racing Point team he bought in 2018 to become title winners within five years of the 2021 Aston Martin rebrand. However, the 2023 Bahrain Grand Prix might prove the Canadian businessman was correct, as a sublime Fernando Alonso podium rocked the F1 pecking order.
The 41-year-old Spaniard's Sakhir drive is the only talking point from the 2023 season-opening round. Red Bull and Max Verstappen might still be in a league of one at the top of the standings, but we expected that. Aston Martin's impressive preseason testing pace translating over to both qualifying and the race, however? That was newsworthy.
For many viewers, especially newcomers from the recent 'Drive to Survive era' of F1, this would've been the first time to see Alonso excel. His overtakes on George Russell, Lewis Hamilton, and finally, Carlos Sainz for his podium weren't simple DRS passes. Each came on different parts of Bahrain's 3.363-mile layout, none of which you expect to see a pass.
This Fernando Alonso hasn't been AWOL since his last regular podium-scoring season in 2013. Yet, he's dutifully battled for the lower positions in the midfield for a decade. But, when points and podiums are at stake, those similar-quality overtakes suddenly have more weight, more screentime, and live longer in the memory. Alonso's 2023 Bahrain was a masterclass in passing from the accumulated knowledge of an F1 career spanning back to 2001.
F1 having an Alonso capable of regular silverware shouldn't be a surprise; he just needed the right car. The real shock is that he didn't find that car at McLaren, F1's second-most-successful team, or Renault/Alpine, where he won his world titles in 2005 and 2006. Instead, it comes at the regularly-rebranded Silverstone-based Aston Martin.
After frustrating seasons with unreliable Honda engines at McLaren, Alonso chose to retire following the 2018 season. At the time, it was fair to assume that the aging racer had driven an F1 car for the last time. However, a surprise return to his old team, Renault/Alpine saw him competing again and showing off some of the skills he was known to possess. However, the limited capability of the Alpine car had many wondering why he chose to return. He didn't stand much of a chance of earning a spot on the podium, let alone winning a race. For a driver as obsessed with winning as Alonso was, the move was bewildering.
With his brilliant exploits in the 2023 season opener, it is now clear that the limited performance of the Alpine car and the McLaren one before it robbed us of seeing the brilliance of Alonso much more than any of us assumed. Sebastian Vettel’s retirement paved the way for us to witness something most of us thought we would never see again, and boy, was it fun to watch. It’s also likely that the German may be wondering if he walked away a season too early.
Although the Aston Martin green has only featured on the grid since 2021 (aside from a brief cameo in the late 50s), the team itself began life as Jordan back in 1991. They brought Michael Schumacher to F1, homed Damon Hill when Williams dumped him during his 1996 championship-winning season, and even fought for the 1999 title.
Jordan's successes and, finances ran dry in the early 00s, and the team rebranded to Midland in 2006 after a 2004 buyout. Midland soon became the shortlived Spyker, and by 2008, Spyker had become Force India. That ownership change proved to be the last for a while, and Force India grew into a solid midfield team akin to their Jordan beginnings until further financial issues hit again in 2018.
Lawrence Stroll saw his opportunity in Force India's money troubles. He had financed his son, Lance Stroll, to reach Formula 1 in 2017, and two largely uncompetitive seasons with Williams had Lawrence looking for alternative teams for Lance to race in. Ever the businessman, Lawrence had a vision of turning Force India into an outfit to rival Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, with his son at its center.
Force India became Racing Point in 2019. Then, after a consortium led by Stroll acquired a stake in the luxury car brand Aston Martin in 2020, Racing Point became Aston Martin F1 in 2021. This name change was more than a rebranding exercise, and money poured into a new £200m ($240m) factory to develop the car into a championship contender in a five-year plan.
After two consecutive P7 finishes in the World Constructors' Championship, it looked like any silverware-winning ambitions were stumbling. However, a year is a long time in Formula 1, and developing the 2023 car over the 2022 season has evidently paid dividends with Aston Martin's exploits in the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The question now is how far they can go. Matching Red Bull might be overly optimistic in 2023, but next year could see that gap closing. And, equally, Ferrari and Mercedes aren't going to lay back and let Aston Martin run away into the distance.
Yet the most pertinent question I have is, what happens should Lawrence Stroll build a winning team for Lance Stroll? Is he going to be happy with Fernando Alonso taking all the plaudits? It's a fascinating dynamic to kickstart 2023 – and who knows where this story will end.