F1 is back: Verstappen and Red Bull could dominate again with Ferrari on the back foot
A new Formula One season is upon us and the 2023 campaign will be the longest in the history of the elite motorsport class.
The number of races is rising to 23, with Las Vegas joining the show, though drama will not be limited to the track.
Two seasons ago, the controversial conclusion to the campaign in Abu Dhabi was a dominant story, while last year saw Red Bull's budget cap breach and an Oscar Piastri fight between Alpine and McLaren, as well as frustrations with governing body the FIA, notably over the drivers' freedom of expression.
Get set for sporting theatre to unfold over the course of the season ahead, though the biggest talking point centres around whether anyone can dethrone Red Bull.
Red Bull gives you wins
Max Verstappen finished at the front in 15 of 22 races last season, setting a record for the most triumphs in a single campaign, and he has won over half of the events in the past two years (25 wins from 44 races).
While pre-season testing never offers a full indication of what lies ahead, Red Bull's strength was still evident and the consensus is that the defending champions will begin the campaign with an advantage over their rivals.
If that gap cannot be reduced, the biggest threat to a third consecutive crown for Verstappen may come from team-mate Carlos Perez. Should that happen, tempers may flare as they did in Sao Paulo in November when Verstappen refused a team order to allow the Mexican through.
One aspect that may provide hope to Red Bull's rivals is the punishment issued for the budget cap breach, which included a 10 per cent reduction in aerodynamic testing allowance for 12 months. While it came too late to have a major implication on the overall develop of this year's car, it could restrict the team's ability to fix any issues that arise.
Ferrari's fight to the front
A season that offered so much promise for Ferrari last term ultimately fell away through mistakes in race strategy and engine failures, the latter of which resulted in the team having to run in a low-power mode to avoid further woes.
Charles Leclerc certainly has the ability to go head to head with perennial rival Verstappen, who he has raced since his junior days, while Carlos Sainz got his long-awaited maiden F1 win at Silverstone last year.
The appointment of Fred Vasseur as team principal, replacing Mattia Binotto, hands the Scuderia an experienced head on the pit wall and may result in fewer questionable calls in race strategy.
Ferrari are confident they can mount a challenge this season and, even though Leclerc has conceded Red Bull may start with an advantage, he believes the Prancing Horse can respond.
"The target is still [to win the title]. Even if we are starting a bit of the back foot compared to them in terms of performance, I'm sure we can come back," Leclerc told Sky Sports.
Mercedes on a mission
Any hopes of a Mercedes revival in 2023 appear to have stalled already, with testing performances suggesting the team may have to look over their shoulders at those chasing from behind rather than competing at the top.
Mercedes' design continues to divide opinion, with a zero-pod approach being vastly different to their rivals and leading to questions about whether they have stuck to their guns out of pride rather than sporting merit.
With Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel, there is always a chance and the Briton will be determined to come back and add to his record 103 race wins having failed to secure a victory last season – the first campaign in his career when he has not registered a win.
The seven-time world champion was outperformed by team-mate George Russell last season, however. Russell secured a maiden race win in the penultimate race and offered consistency throughout the campaign.
Best of the rest
The biggest surprise of the testing weekend in Bahrain was the pace shown by Aston Martin who, with the addition of Fernando Alonso, have a driver who could mount a serious threat to the bigger guns on the grid.
Though a third world title for the Spaniard may be a stretch, regular podiums and dethroning one of the big three in the constructors' championship is certainly an achievable goal.
At Alpine, great care will be taken to ensure French compatriots Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon do not find themselves butting heads, with a frosty relationship over the years, while McLaren have already admitted they missed their development targets and start on the back foot as a result.
Andreas Seidl, now at the helm of Alfa Romeo-Sauber, enters with high expectations ahead of the team's transition into Audi in 2026, while AlphaTauri's long-term future continues to be questioned despite assurances Red Bull will not sell their second-string team.
Expect the season to also see further rumblings regarding new additions to the grid, with Porsche and Andretti among those pushing to join.
As ever, there is plenty to watch out for in F1 and from the first corner to the last there are likely to be surprises along the way.