Fernando Alonso has taken over the wheel from Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin - and, as if by magic, finds a top car. Meanwhile, the competition from Mercedes and Ferrari is already disillusioned after the first F1 race.
"Ooooh, Fernando Alonso" resounded through the paddock, a crowd of photographers gathered in front of the Aston Martin garage - and then finally, beaming with his trophy, came the old master, sung about by his crew. Even if the impression was obvious: Fernando Alonso didn't win the season opener in Bahrain. But with the success of double world champion Max Verstappen, the third-placed Spaniard looked like the second big winner.
After the successful season opener, Alonso was as exuberant as a newcomer. Current and former rivals paid homage to him. "He drives as if he were 25 again, gigantic," said Nico Rosberg, world champion of 2016. Alonso was always "at the limit". The Asturian's overtaking maneuvers against Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes and Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari in the second half of the race were highlights of a boring start.
Alonso himself was also full of joy. "This is just the beginning. This car is still being developed," he said after his 99th podium in Formula 1 - and only his second since 2014. The entire weekend felt "like a dream" for him. And indeed: Alonso, who can be grouchy and hurtful in failure like no other in the field, beamed in the days of Bahrain like in the best of times.
This is a long time ago: in 2005 and 2006, when he won his world title against Michael Schumacher, none of his current opponents were active in the premier class. And when 41-year-old Fernando Alonso Diaz debuted in March 2001, rookie Oscar Piastri wasn't even born. But "Magic Alonso" ("Marca"), trained and ambitious as ever, sees himself far from being on the home straight.
"In any case" he believes in his 33rd Formula 1 victory, the first since 2013, "because we still have 22 chances this season". Over the winter, with Sebastian Vettel switching to him and replacing last year's wingless Aston Martin with the AMR23, the ambitious team has made a quantum leap - a development that long-term winner Verstappen is also following closely. "They have a very good car, they will be a contender on some circuits," said the Dutchman, who started his mission title hat-trick in Sakhir with an unchallenged victory.
Behind the bulls, however, and this is just as clear, Aston Martin, which has been reinforced with numerous top engineers, is positioning itself - while Ferrari and Mercedes appear at a loss. "Every race" will win Red Bull, said Mercedes driver George Russell after seventh place. His team boss Toto Wolff put it succinctly on the Sky microphone: "Red Bull is on another planet. Aston Martin had the second fastest car, their development is incredible. For us: epidemic."
And Ferrari lack not only speed but also durability. As a precaution, the battery in Charles Leclerc's SF-23 was changed before the race, and the drive failed in the Grand Prix. "There is a lot of room for improvement," said the new Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur euphemistically.
For many years, especially at McLaren, Alonso had to make similar analyses. In his 20th season, of course a Formula 1 record, he can finally look ahead again. Sixth place for his teammate Lance Stroll shows just how strong the car is - with a broken toe and less than two weeks after wrist surgery. "Let's wait and see what happens in Jeddah and Australia, they're different types of track," said Alonso, "but if we're strong in the next two races, we'll have a very good 2023."