Bahrain Grand Prix
Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain Grand Prix Reuters / HAMAD I MOHAMMED

Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso had a lot to celebrate on Saturday at the Bahrain International Circuit. He marked 22 years to the day since making his F1 debut with Minardi back in 2001, and he is also celebrating an amazing career resurgence with Aston Martin at the opening race of the season.

The 2023 season kicks off with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, and Aston Martin has been the talk of the town all week. After topping both Free Practice 2 and 3, the anticipation over what Alonso could do in qualifying had the entire F1 community at the edge of their seats.

There were some doubts about the legitimacy of the Aston Martin's performance when it comes to actual competition, but Saturday's qualifying session was the first litmus test of what the car can really do. After qualifying in 5th place behind only both Red Bulls and Ferraris, it has become clear that the Aston Martin is the real deal. Alonso's teammate, Lance Stroll, is not far behind in 8th place with only the two Mercedes cars between him and the Spaniard.

Speaking to after the qualifying session, Alonso was visibly giddy with excitement as he said: "This is just an unbelievable result and car that we are driving at the moment."

He then shared his optimism about what the team could do as the season progresses. "This is just the baseline, the starting point of this project. [Everything is new], so we have now a good platform that we can develop in the next weeks and the next races."

Numerous pundits including former F1 driver Anthony Davidson had been hoping for a fairytale pole position for the 41-year-old. Alonso remained calm about the hype and assured that he wanted to remain cautiously optimistic. He admitted that after qualifying, it was a relief to finally be aware of where the AMR23 really stands against the competition.

He added that the testing and free practice results may have been exciting, but only after qualifying did they really know where they stand. "Starting in the top five in race one, this is just unreal. We are enjoying every moment, every practice."

Alonso admitted that he is still in cloud nine, with the car's performance appearing to be "too good to be true."

It will also be a huge relief for the former Alpine driver to know that he made a good decision when he unexpectedly joined Aston Martin when everyone thought that he was on his way to a contract renewal with the French team.

Aston Martin owner Lawrence Stroll did not only bring in Alonso to replace four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, but he also hired a number of key personnel to help the team make mind-blowing progress over the winter. "Now finally we are in qualifying and we are still top five, fighting with Ferrari and Mercedes. This was unthinkable eight months ago," said Alonso.

Heading into the opening race on Sunday, Alonso assured that the Aston Martins are ready to do battle over the race distance. He said that they encounter "very low degradation" and the car is able to maintain good tyre health. This will help them during the race, and Alonso is hoping to fight for a podium position.

Meanwhile, Stroll has also been impressive over the weekend, especially after missing testing due to a bike crash that resulted in broken wrists and toes. He had surgery less than two weeks ago, and was not even expected to be back in the car this weekend. However, not only did he make it back with metal pins in his wrists after surgery, he also qualified in P8, just behind Mercedes drivers George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.

"It was a very eventful session. I'm just grateful to be here right now," he said, explaining that a week ago he could barely move and could not even walk. He shared that he fractured a number of bones and proceeded to thank the medical team that treated him along with his physiotherapists.

"It is just insane to try and even make it here, and right now to be thinking that I just did three sessions in qualifying, made it to Q3, and just made it here in general. I'm just really grateful to be here."

Alonso was clearly delighted to see his young ward make it back and perform well in qualifying. He was one of the first to congratulate Stroll and even gave him a hug after the session.

Stroll was clearly feeling some stiffness in his hands during practice, but he said that he felt much better with each passing day. It remains to be seen if he will be able to endure 57 laps on Sunday. That will be a far cry from the bursts of activity during practice and qualifying.

"I'm feeling better every lap in the car, just starting to trust my body more, starting to get used to the car as well," he said.

Stroll starts behind seven-time world champion Hamilton, and both of them will be keen to avoid an incident in the opening lap. The cars are only separated by mere tenths of a second, and a good start off the line will prove crucial.

Up front, the Red Bulls will be defending the front row against the Ferraris, and it remains to be seen if those two teams will end up fighting for the championships just like last season, or if Aston Martin and Mercedes can make it a battle between eight cars.