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Analysis
Formula 1 Azerbaijan GP

The areas each F1 team must address ahead of 2023 development war

The four-week gap following the Australian Grand Prix has allowed many of the Formula 1 fraternity to take some annual leave. But the development arms race doesn’t take time off.

Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo Racing C43

A fallow period on-track belies teams working to sign off upgrades to be manufactured and freighted to Azerbaijan.

With the hole in the calendar meaning fewer races have been run at this point in the year, it allows any new parts to be bolted on sooner and improve performance for a greater amount of time. Add in a cost cap that deters expensively transporting excess items to the Middle East, Australia or Miami and it means that a raft of new components are expected to break cover this weekend in Baku.

Here are the key areas each squad needs to focus on as the 2023 development war kicks into life.

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW45

Photo by: Williams

Williams

Protracted underinvestment will not be overcome overnight. Williams is therefore focused on the longer-term so development of the FW45 will likely be abandoned early while resource is directed towards 2024. Still not having a permanent technical director to dictate a clear upgrade path makes this even more probable.

Regardless, car behaviour on entry to slower-speed corners must be addressed. Progress has been made over the unstable FW44 in this respect but there’s scope to improve. Wayward balance saps driver confidence as they are either too tentative on approach or too often lock up the front tyres.

The GPS data also shows that compared to fellow Mercedes-powered outfit McLaren, the Williams are slow to reapply the throttle to point to a twitchy rear axle. The car also lacks overall downforce. The upshot is a design that’s extremely efficient in a straight line. But too much time is lost when the going gets twisty.

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT04

Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT04

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

AlphaTauri

While tied on one point with Williams, analysis of race stints when running the same tyre compound suggests that AlphaTauri is definitively the slowest of the field. The Faenza squad is acutely aware of its shortcomings as evidenced by sporting a reprofiled floor already in Australia.

This resulted in higher apex speeds and tenths gained as the AT04’s poor low-speed cornering habits were partially addressed. The team has attributed messy handling to running too high a rear ride height. This causes the aerodynamic load to drop off under braking to create a skittish back axle.

Using the same Honda powertrain as Red Bull yet failing to match its sister team in the speed traps also suggests excess drag. Both areas will be exposed by the split personality of the Baku layout, which is marked by a staccato first half to the lap before the flat-out final-sector dash to the line.

Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C43

Zhou Guanyu, Alfa Romeo C43

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Alfa Romeo

After losing out in the development race in 2022 by not having the cash to operate up to the budget cap, the major new Audi investment should keep the Sauber squad in the game for longer. It will therefore have the capacity to address a straight-line deficit.

The C43 has so far proved trumped nearest rival Haas under braking and enjoys decent medium-speed acceleration - trends reflected across the opening three races. However, it consistently falls behind beyond 165mph as excessive aerodynamic drags begins to differentiate the two Ferrari-powered squads.

This must be refined for Alfa to become competitive in the speed traps. In this ground-effects era, increasing the downforce generated underneath the car would theoretically allow a team to fit smaller front and rear wings to slice through the air more efficiently.

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23

Nico Hulkenberg, Haas VF-23

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

Haas

In the mini head-to-head with Alfa Romeo, Haas is losing out over a flying lap through the slowest apexes and most noticeably during the major phases of acceleration. From these characteristics, it might plausibly be implied that the VF-23 is heavier or its suspension set-up less well optimised.

Over a race stint, while the abrasive Bahrain asphalt is anomalous, Haas was hampered by struggles to manage the Pirellis.

This was less acute in Saudi Arabia before the red flags in Australia muddied the water. In between stoppages down under, Haas retained strong straight-line performance and enjoyed a notably powerful DRS advantage. This should carry over well to a high-speed final sector in Baku. While overall downforce is less inspiring, Haas will wait until Spain before debuting upgrades.

Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523

Pierre Gasly, Alpine A523

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Alpine

Alpine has initially fallen short of its target of slotting straight back into fourth place. But it can still deliver on the promise to out-develop all other teams by building on an impressive 2022 record of bringing successful car updates that enjoyed a strong correlation with wind tunnel simulations.

The current challenger has so far proved more reliable than its points-squandering predecessor. But when it comes to in-season developments, the A523 would benefit from superior peak downforce. It has so far proved to be a jack of all trades but a master of none.

Some of its broad operating window might plausibly be sacrificed for a higher performance ceiling to reel in star performer Aston Martin. This is underlined by Alpine extracting more pace in a straight line only to lose out to Fernando Alonso’s new employer through the more twisty middle sectors in Bahrain and Australia.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, and Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads Oscar Piastri, McLaren MCL60, and Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-23

Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images

McLaren

Baku is critical for McLaren. Ever since the winter car launch when management stressed the need for ‘realism’, hopes have been pinned on a major Azerbaijan upgrade to revive fortunes. The language has been toned down more recently, as the team now say several packages are needed while the changes might not immediately produce an uplift due to the specific nature of the street circuit.

With the MCL60 still suffering from the same unpredictable behaviour as the 2022 car that left drivers bereft of confidence and unable to be consistent, cornering balance must be improved.

Major changes to the floor are anticipated. These should help address a lack of overall downforce that has left McLaren to fall behind fellow Mercedes engine customer Aston Martin through most medium- and high-speed turns on the calendar so far.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

Photo by: Ferrari

Ferrari

Unreliability eliminating Charles Leclerc in Bahrain, both cars losing out in a straight line in Saudi Arabia and fluffing the strategy in Australia qualifying suggests Ferrari still hasn’t solved its major operational shortcomings of last season. But specific to the SF-23 is a lack of downforce.

The Scuderia wanted to close the late-2022 gulf to Red Bull in a straight line. It has done so over the winter by sacrificing peak cornering performance.

This has resulted in a car that’s just as twitchy as its capricious predecessor. But whereas last year’s machine proved particularly troublesome for Carlos Sainz when it came to controlling the rear axle, this time around both drivers are struggling to manage a lazy front end. Exacerbated by the abrasive Bahrain surface, understeer was rife.

A tweaked floor with a raised edge and revised front wing endplates broke cover in Saudi Arabia. That early introduction plus Ferrari feeling well set for Baku means updates are not expected for this weekend but are instead anticipated to arrive in Miami, Imola and Barcelona.

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Mercedes

Mercedes must wait until the Emilia Romagna GP for its potentially game-changing string of updates to emerge. While it is easy to get swept away with talk of a new car concept that will pave the way for sidepods to return, the cost cap and crash tests limit starting from a completely blank sheet of paper.

That means Lewis Hamilton will continue to feel a “disconnect” from the cockpit being placed too far forward relative to the front axle. The seating position - dictated by the novel exposed crash structure, size-zero sidepods and engine cooling package - is extremely unlikely to change until 2024.

As such, to address complaints over a fundamental handling imbalance from the car being too biased towards the front, Mercedes must improve the rear-end stability in the short-term. Revised suspension components already are in the works to improve mechanical grip, while the next step to keep the rear more planted is to bring more downforce to the back of the W14.

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Aston Martin

The key to Aston Martin’s remarkable start to the campaign has been its low-speed prowess. Few have been able to match quite how late Fernando Alonso is able to stand on the brakes, then swiftly pick up the throttle and initially accelerate out of tighter corners. This has been the case since Bahrain and through to Australia.

But the AMR23 does suffer significantly in a straight line, even if Alonso hasn’t deviated from finishing in third place despite the contrasting characteristics of the three tracks. See a 9mph deficit to Red Bull at three separate points during a lap of the flowing Jeddah street circuit.

The Aston is a draggy car, suggesting rear height and refining the top aero surfaces should be the main area of focus for the Silverstone squad. However, Mercedes’ lasting struggles with the W13 of 2022 shows that high drag can be core to the design concept and far harder to eliminate.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB19

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Red Bull

When it came to nicking a point for fastest lap off team-mate Sergio Perez in Saudi Arabia, Max Verstappen was able to drop his time by some 2s on the final tour. That and rapidly extracting an 8s advantage in Australia before metronomically holding station suggests Red Bull has pace in reserve. Once it has the pit window covered, attention can turn to nursing the Pirellis and preserving the car.

That distorted picture and the perfect qualifying and win record of the RB19 makes it hard to pinpoint a weakness. It has the edge on a Saturday and then performs when it comes to race pace. Sound car balance helps keeps the tyre alive to enable Red Bull to be so strong towards the end of a stint and not suffer a major lap time drop off.

Performing much better in a straight line compared to sister squad and fellow Honda engine runner AlphaTauri bespeaks of aerodynamic efficiency also.

While it falls outside of the traditional in-season development arms race, Red Bull is susceptible to bouts of unreliability. Verstappen being eliminated by gearbox trouble in Q2 in Saudi Arabia was most hurtful, although the two-time champion has persistently complained of having to manage a variety of downshift issues throughout practice and the grands prix.

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