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Why F1's midfield looks too close to call

A reference to Formula 1’s ‘midfield’ also implies the existence of a leading class and a gaggle of backmarkers. But some team principals reckon only half that is now true.

Nyck de Vries, AlphaTauri AT04, Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23 and Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Nyck de Vries, AlphaTauri AT04, Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23 and Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60

Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Behind the obvious top trio of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes, they say a toss of a coin will decide which of the seven other squads are strongest in 2023. Even then, the order will change from one race weekend to the next as the timing of upgrades and differing circuit characteristics upset the status quo. No one will be massively cut adrift, lapping purely to make up the numbers.

On the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain last week, Haas boss Guenther Steiner was asked to predict the early pecking order of the so-called Class B competitors. The charismatic Italian said: “You ask me where anybody is in the midfield, I don’t know. I have no clue.

“I think this year is even closer. Some cars will be better on certain tracks, some on others. Fast and slow tracks and things like this because it's so close together. That's my feeling at the moment. I could be wrong. But I look at it, my guys ask me, I don't really know where we are.

“I think there’s no midfield anymore. There’s the top teams and the rest. That’s my opinion, I'm seeing it now.”

That’s a bold assessment given the ground-effects revolution starting in 2022 so far only merits a mixed assessment. The rulemakers sought to upset the established order to create a more competitive and varied F1. But Red Bull dominated with 17 grand prix victories. And there were zero underdog successes as per Daniel Ricciardo at Monza in 2021 or Esteban Ocon’s unlikely triumph in Budapest that the previous rules era occasionally permitted.

In fact, including sprint rounds, of the 75 podiums on offer last year, only one was scored by a driver from a team outside of the big three. That came courtesy of McLaren’s Lando Norris in the wet-dry Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Pleasingly, however, under a rules package conceived to slash the levels of dirty air that hamper overtaking, the number of passes did climb considerably. According to Pirelli data, there were 599 on-track overtakes in 2021. That rose to 785 last term, marking a healthy 31% increase. And it was in no small part thanks to an ultra-congested midfield that those positions were traded more regularly.

Alpine's A523 features revised rear suspension and improved packaging

Alpine's A523 features revised rear suspension and improved packaging

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

As the cost cap gradually equalises the field (although Steiner reckons it’ll be a decade before the infrastructure head start enjoyed by the top three is truly eroded), it stands to reason that the mid-pack will only continue to close. New team principal James Vowles beginning to pick the low-hanging fruit at Williams to boost its performance, and Haas enjoying the backing of another title sponsor while Audi pumps money into Sauber, plus AlphaTauri getting to grips with the larger-scale Red Bull windtunnel will further exaggerate this trend.

For the immediate future, the indication from the three days of testing at the Bahrain International Circuit testing is that the midfield is extremely tightly packed.

Alpine has been among the boldest in developing its 2022 aero concept for the season ahead. The A523 features an all-new rear suspension configuration and a revised cooling package to boost reliability and marginally increase engine power. The top brass hopes these tweaks, combined with a standard-setting development curve, will allow the team to bridge the gap to Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes while pulling away from the chasing pack.

In the first instance, if Alpine hits its targets, that won’t make for an entertaining spectacle. New signing Pierre Gasly and the incumbent Esteban Ocon should prepare for 23 lonely rounds as they only battle one another in an effective no man’s land. But Aston Martin has other ideas, it seems.

While the violence with which Fernando Alonso was chucking the AMR23 into corners and picking up the power so soon after each apex suggests several low-fuel glory runs, the Silverstone squad was widely regarded as a major winner from testing. It's in prime contention for the ‘most improved’ accolade after ranking just seventh in the 2022 constructors’ championship.

Hands-on team boss Mike Krack says: "Our expectations are always high, and this time of year, everybody wants to do well and talk others into certain roles. We are realists. We have clear objectives, that is to improve compared to where we were last year and then we will see."

Typically, Krack is rather coy in public. But the internal Aston atmosphere leans towards cautious optimism. That sentiment is helped by the team finding 2.371s over its best lap time in Bahrain testing a year ago, which makes it the second biggest gainer behind Williams. That uptick in performance is why Aston is being heavily talked up by its likely mid-pack rivals.

Alfa Romeo sophomore student Zhou Guanyu shared the track with Alonso in both the morning and afternoon sessions on the second day of running. His verdict from chasing down the AMR23 and then inspecting it in his mirrors was: "It's clear Aston Martin did a step. Alonso seems to be very competitive over the two days, both conditions. I think he will be one of the top guys in the midfield battle."

Alonso and Aston Martin looked threatening, with Zhou Guanyu getting first-hand experience of their pace

Alonso and Aston Martin looked threatening, with Zhou Guanyu getting first-hand experience of their pace

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

But only serving to reinforce the suggestion that the midfield will prove the real melting pot in 2023 was Zhou setting the fastest time of all on the Friday as he pipped Max Verstappen by touring to a 1m31.610s. That meant he led the way by 0.04s. This pace from the C43 was matched with far greater reliability than the floor-shredding, overheating 2022 car demonstrated in pre-season running.

Add in the pre-emptive Audi investment that will finally take the Sauber-operated squad up to the budget cap and the team should not endure the same second-half drop off experienced last season as it lost out in the development race. That would theoretically enabled Alfa to close the 104-point deficit to fifth-placed McLaren.

That’s a prospect for the Hinwil operation that has become a whole lot more feasible following the underwhelming showing from the Woking whizzes in testing. The usually beaming Zak Brown cut a far more downbeat figure when he sat down for the team boss press conference on day two in the Middle East. Little wonder, since the MCL60 diamond anniversary special seems to retain the mid-corner car balance inconsistency that dogged Norris and Ricciardo so severely for the duration of last term.

Trackside observations showed the new challenger to be unwieldy under braking, prone to understeer and then often unstable under acceleration. It is highly unlikely to be the worst car, even prior to upgrades, but it will leave McLaren prey to its closest competitors in the opening rounds. Hence the team is already planning an effective B-spec machine in time for Baku.

“It's hard to know until we get going,” said Brown, when asked by Autosport to what extent his team was on the backfoot. “We know we set some goals for development, which we didn't hit, and we felt it was better to be honest about that.

“Like everyone, we have a lot of development coming. So, we are encouraged by what we see around the corner.

“I think we will be going into the first race off of our projected targets, but it is hard to really know where that means we will be on the grid.

“Our aspirations are to get back to the front. We know that will take a little bit more time. All the technology infrastructure is either in or going to be pretty much completed this year. So that's quite exciting.

McLaren once again faced test struggles, and may tread water until its planned Baku updates come online

McLaren once again faced test struggles, and may tread water until its planned Baku updates come online

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“We have some good developments coming, but so does every other single team in F1. We need to pick up the pace.”

Too small brake ducts being fitted to the MCL36 for Bahrain testing last year combined with Ricciardo being sidelined by a case of COVID. These factors massively stymied pre-season race simulations. all told, McLaren clocked a lowly 14-15 result in the Sakhir season-opener. But that it wound up fifth in the points after a late slip behind intense competitor Alpine shows the kind of recovery it can pull off. Should the heritage outfit do similar in 2023, it will surely find itself at the heart of the midfield maelstrom.

It's arguably the remaining three teams that looks most likely to undermine Steiner’s claims that there is only one class behind title contenders Red Bull, Ferrari and Merc. His own Haas outfit, AlphaTauri and Williams run the biggest risk of being left behind to create a clear mini-league for backmarkers.

Haas has favoured a more cautious, evolutionary approach for crafting its VF-23. The ‘supertimes’ metric - which establishes a performance pecking order by recording the fastest lap each team sets during a grand prix event - rated the American-fronted squad eighth last season. With Aston Martin (ninth) predicted to shoot up the order, Haas risks falling even lower. However, it felt hamstrung in 2022 by Mick Schumacher and decided to get rid for this term.

Aside from the German’s interfering entourage, his pace was far too peaky, and he twice suffered solo car-snapping crashes that each took seven figures out of the team’s purse. By recalling veteran Nico Hulkenberg back to the grand prix fold, Haas hopes to have a more consistent team-mate to Kevin Magnussen to bank more points finishes. Furthermore, feeling as though it has employed a safer pair of hands, the team accountants aren’t expected to calculate quite so many costly repair bills.

In that less expensive scenario, Haas won’t have to shelve critical late-season update packages as it was forced to do last year to stay in the black. For a squad that scored fifth in the Bahrain curtain-raiser, more wiggle room in the budget should slow the rate at which it falls back compared to the rest of the midfield (an astonishing Brazilian GP sprint pole in 2022 aside).

AlphaTauri hopes its AT04 can address the problematic nature of its predecessor

AlphaTauri hopes its AT04 can address the problematic nature of its predecessor

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

It was arguably most difficult to assess AlphaTauri from testing last week. Its stocky-looking AT04 appears less unwieldy than its predecessor, which points to the Bicester-based aerodynamics division having better adapted to using the larger scale Red Bull windtunnel. It was this transition to its sister team’s facility that resulted in an underbaked 2022 car only capable of ninth in the constructors’ standings. Should the new machine provide a better basis and, with their eye in, designers gain greater success with development parts, AlphaTauri might not necessarily find itself eating the dust of its midfield rivals.

That leaves Williams. With just eight points to AlphaTauri’s 35 in 2022, it rediscovered its out-and-out backmarker form after a poor first crack at the ground-effects regulations. Driver Alex Albon said the first hints of a better year would come with the downhill, off-camber run into the sharp Turn 10 left-hander in Bahrain.

“That’s the notorious corner,” the Thai-Brit explained. “Hopefully, if we're backing it in on the rear axle, that's a good sign. We're trying to change the [mid-corner] behaviour of the car. That might take a bit of time to understand and optimise.”

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Neither Albon nor rookie team-mate was auditioning for a roll in the Fast and Furious franchise by drifting their through the corner throughout testing. However, they weren’t plagued with locking up the front Pirellis either. That suggests some marginal gains over the now-obsolete FW44 creation. And, as the campaign wears on, like so many others in the midfield, the timely arrival and effectiveness of upgrades will determine the extent to which Williams can hang onto the coattails of the midfield.

The first thing on Vowles’ in-tray is to appoint a technical director who can govern this year's in-season update path. Hire strongly and the Grove outfit needn’t necessarily settle for the wooden spoon every weekend. Especially when the internal expectation is that a persisting short-fall in downforce will enable the team to comparatively excel at top-speed-dependent Monza and Spa.

Scoring points in Italy and Belgium would support Steiner’s claims that track nature changing from one round to the next will hopefully ensure the midfield is no less competitive in 2023. That would also prove that cautious team bosses have been right to avoid making any solid predictions concerning where they stand in F1’s congested centre land.

Williams has work to do to peel itself away from the back of the field

Williams has work to do to peel itself away from the back of the field

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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