The biggest questions ahead of the 2023 Formula 1 season

7-time champion Lewis Hamilton finished sixth in 2022. Will Mercedes have a better car in 2023?

44 Lewis Hamilton of United Kingdom, Mercedes - AMG PETRONAS, W14 - Mercedes, action during the Formula 1 pre-season tests of the 2023 FIA Formula One World Championship from February 23th to 25th, 2023 on the Bahrain International Circuit, in Sakhir, Bahrain. (Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Mercedes started the 2022 Formula 1 season way off of Red Bull and Ferrari. (Photo by Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Is Mercedes going to be a threat to win immediately in 2023?

That’s one of the biggest questions in Formula 1 ahead of the upcoming season that begins on Sunday with the Bahrain Grand Prix (10 a.m. ET, ESPN). The dominant team of the 2010s was off the mark from the start in 2022 thanks to the radical new car rule changes for the season. Mercedes wasn’t a factor to win for most of the season before George Russell got the team’s only win of the season in Brazil in November.

Russell was fourth in the standings a season ago and Lewis Hamilton was sixth. It was the first time the seven-time F1 champion had ever gone winless in a season and his average finish of 6.2 was his worst since 2012.

It was obvious Mercedes had an uphill climb on their hands right away as Hamilton finished 10th in the second race of the season and 13th in the fourth race of the season after qualifying outside the top 10. Hamilton finished outside the top 10 just twice the rest of the season. But the lack of outright pace in the car and those early struggles made it clear before the halfway point that he wasn’t going to be a threat for the title.

Mercedes made huge strides over the course of the 2022 season, however, and those gains are a reason for optimism that the team will be much closer to Red Bull and Ferrari at the start of 2023. While Mercedes are deserved underdogs to Red Bull for the constructor’s title and Verstappen is the big favorite to win the driver’s title, an eighth title for Hamilton and another constructor’s title for Mercedes will seem very realistic if the team is competitive over the first few weeks of the season.

Here are some other big questions ahead of the season.

Can Ferrari sustain a challenge in 2023?

Ferrari had the pace to match Red Bull at the start of 2022 as Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races. But Red Bull went on a tear after its reliability issues were figured out as Verstappen and Sergio Perez combined to win the next six races. Ferrari went back-to-back with Carlos Sainz Jr. at Silverstone and Leclerc in Austria after that Red Bull win streak but then failed to win a race the rest of the year despite Leclerc’s 10 pole positions.

Mattia Binotto has been replaced as the Ferrari team principal by former Sauber and Alfa Romeo boss Fred Vasseur. Will that change in leadership come with a change in strategy? Ferrari tried some downright bizarre strategical moves in hindsight over the course of the 2022 season and Red Bull took advantage. The most notable blunder came at Monaco where Leclerc started first and finished fourth behind both Red Bull cars and his teammate.

Ferrari has gone 14 years without a constructors title and 15 years without a driver’s title as Kimi Raikkonen is the last Ferrari driver to win a world title. Leclerc is the No. 2 favorite to win the title alongside Hamilton. If Ferrari can find some sustainable long-run pace in 2023, his title challenge could be a lot more serious than it ended up being a season ago.

BAHRAIN INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 25: Charles Leclerc, Scuderia Ferrari SF-23 during the Bahrain Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 25, 2023 in Sakhir, Bahrain. (Photo by Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races of the 2022 season. (Photo by Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Who is the best mid-pack team?

It reasons that Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes will be the top three teams again in 2023. Who will be the fourth-best?

Alpine finished fourth in 2022 and was 14 points better than McLaren in fifth. There was a big gap to Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin, while Haas edged out AlphaTauri for eighth and Williams scored just eight points all season.

The odds favor either Alpine or McLaren to be the No. 4 team, though we wouldn’t rule out a bigger challenge from Aston Martin for fourth. The addition of another team or two into the battle for fourth will be a welcome subplot to the 2023 season.

Which driver will have the most success with his new team?

Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and Alfa Romeo kept their driver lineups intact from 2022 to 2023. Every other team has one new driver.

McLaren’s Lando Norris is joined by Oscar Piastri in 2023 after the team signed Piastri away from Alpine in the biggest contract saga of 2022. Piastri is widely seen as an extremely promising talent and McLaren hopes he does better than Daniel Ricciardo did in 2022. Ricciardo is out of a full-time ride in 2023 as he spends the season as Red Bull’s reserve driver.

Fernando Alonso left Alpine to replace the retired Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin alongside Lance Stroll. With Piastri finagling a move to McLaren, the team signed Pierre Gasly away from AlphaTauri to race with Ocon. Former Mercedes reserve driver Nyck DeVries takes Gasly’s spot at AlphaTauri after he impressed in spot starts with Williams in 2022.

Haas dropped Mick Schumacher (now the third driver at Mercedes) in favor of F1 veteran Nico Hulkenberg and Williams signed American Logan Sargeant to replace Nicholas Latifi. Sargeant is set to be the first American to run a full season in F1 since Scott Speed, though he may end up last among the 20 full-time drivers unless Williams has made some exceptional speed gains in the offseason.

McLaren struggled at times during preseason testing, so the first half of 2023 could be a bigger learning curve than expected for Piastri. That paves the way for either Alonso or Gasly to be the driver with the most immediate success at his new team. Alonso posted some quick times during testing.

Will Vegas be an immediate gem?

There are 23 races on the 2023 calendar after the Chinese Grand Prix was canceled in January. The cancellation of that race means F1 will go four weeks between the third race of the season in Melbourne on April 2 and the fourth race of the season in Baku on April 30.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix slots in as the penultimate race of the season between races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. The race is the third U.S. race of the season and will take place late at night as the cars run around the Las Vegas strip.

The environment for the race means the Grand Prix could quickly become one of the best races on the schedule if the quality of racing is any good. And it could be especially fun if the title still hangs in the balance ahead of the race weekend.