In Bahrain, Formula 1 superstar Max Verstappen started his world championship hat-trick mission with a show of force. The world champion of the past two years celebrated an unchallenged start-finish victory in front of his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez at the opening Grand Prix in Sakhir and is facing another superlative season. Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin, who also benefited from a technical defect at Charles Leclerc in the Ferrari, raced into third place. Formula 1 returnee Nico Hülkenberg had to settle for 15th place in the Haas after starting tenth and a collision on the opening lap.

Even during the pre-season tests, it was indicated that Verstappen and Red Bull would start the year in a similar way to how they ended 2022. The Dutchman had won 15 of the 22 Grands Prix en route to his second title of the previous season, setting a record. After the practice days in Bahrain, the only question was how big Red Bull’s lead really was.

So it was hardly surprising that Verstappen and teammate Perez took the front row of the grid in qualifying. The champion confidently defended his pole position at the start and irresistibly overtook his pursuers. After all, Ferrari star Leclerc was able to dupe Perez in the first few meters and drove second through the scree desert of Sakhir in the first half of the race.

Later, the Monegasque not only had to let Perez pass him again, he even had to retire on lap 41 with an engine failure. “On days like this, there isn’t a lot that’s positive. We need to look at it and understand what happened there. It’s a real shame,” Leclerc said.

Things also went badly for comebacker Hülkenberg, who took over the cockpit from Mick Schumacher at Haas. The Rhinelander had caused a positive surprise as a tenth in qualifying. “First of all, it’s important to survive the first round, stay where you are and then build on that,” Hulkenberg said.

He could not put this hope into practice. Already on lap one, the 35-year-old demolished the front wing, fell back further and further and lost sight of the points positions early on. He also got a five-second penalty for exceeding the track barrier multiple times.

Meanwhile, old master Alonso made fan hearts beat faster. The 41-year-old had already made people sit up and take notice with the much-improved Aston Martin with best times in practice. While his predecessor Sebastian Vettel despaired of the weak car in the previous season and resigned at the end of the year, the team now seems to have made a big leap. “We want more because the car feels great,” said Alonso, who had even hoped for more than fifth on the grid.

The 2005 and 2006 world champion also provided good entertainment in the race with his duels with the Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and George Russell and later the successful hunt for compatriot Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari. Otherwise, however, the first rounds of the new season remained fairly uneventful.

After a few laps, Verstappen had built up a solid cushion and was able to control the Grand Prix at will. At the end of the field, Hülkenberg got a new nose for his Haas and shortly afterwards reported happily: The car is now running again. He promptly set the fastest lap of the race up to that point. As 18th, however, Hülkenberg was only interested in gaining experience for the upcoming tasks.

It was very bitter for Alpine driver Esteban Ocon, who ruined the day collecting penalties. First the race stewards condemned the Frenchman because he had parked too far in front at the start. Because he didn’t use the five-second penalty correctly, he was fined another ten seconds. And then the 26-year-old drove too fast through the pit lane – another five-second penalty.

Verstappen, on the other hand, completed the first of the 23 Grand Prix of the year without a hitch. While Vice World Champion Leclerc made his way back to the paddock on a Vespa after his retirement, the 25-year-old defending champion rolled very relaxed to his 36th Formula 1 race victory. And after the tired start in Bahrain, the question arises: who should actually stop this Verstappen in the new season?