F1 2023 has been relegated to the history books and 30 years from now when I ask my AI companion to tell me in great detail about the ‘23 F1 season, my companion will gaze at me as only a lovable robot buddy can and provide a simple one word answer: Verstappen. To that response I will say, “Ah yes, the Verstappen years indeed. Now buddy, would you be kind enough to draw my bath and prepare my sleeping chamber.”
The RB19 in the hands of Verstappen was utterly dominant and will undoubtedly keep the rest of the paddock up late into the wee hours throughout the winter trying to uncover the secret. What was the secret? What sort of aero wizardry did Adrian Newey discover that made the car so kind to its rubber, so fast on the straights, so stable in the fast corners, slow corners and on the brakes? How did Max make it look like a Sunday drive in the park and win 19/22 races while the rest of the field struggled? I’m envisioning a private room at the Red Bull holiday party deep in the Tyrolean mountains where the top brass and Max are all raising a glass of fine Veltliner and toasting to The Secret. Meanwhile, Sergio Perez is in the lobby area having an awkward conversation with an admin staffer who has consumed too many Red Bull-vodkas.
The season got off to an ominous start in Bahrain when it was quickly evident that neither Mercedes nor Ferrari had created a Red Bull beater and in fact, Red Bull had widened the gap. Max led Perez home by 11 seconds, while that old wily Alonso was the surprise of the weekend in his Aston Martin debut, scoring a podium +38 secs to Max. Sainz was the lead Ferrari in 4th, +48 secs back and Hamilton led the Merc charge in 5th, +50 seconds back. Sadly after just this lone race, it was obvious that the Red Bull advantage was insurmountable.
The next race in Saudi Arabia provided a little extra drama when Max had mechanical issues in qualifying and was forced to start 15th, while Checo was on pole. In the race Perez had a relatively easy time of it, beating Max to the flag by 5 seconds. It was business as usual in Australia where Max took the win with Perez a messy 5th. If you want to say that there was a turning point in the season, you have to look at the 4th race in Baku. Perez arrived looking like the street maestro and flat out beat Max. He out-qualified him, he won the sprint on Saturday and he won the race on Sunday. Afterwards, Checo was talking about the drivers championship like he was in it to win it. Meanwhile, no doubt fuming on the inside, Max claimed that he spent the race messing with his settings and discovered something that he later on admitted propelled him for the rest of the season. Did he unlock the secret? Whatever he learned about the RB19 in Baku, he suddenly became a party of one, winning 17 of the final 18 races and setting all sorts of records in the process.
For those of you who have been around for a while, think about this: 19 wins in 1 season is only one less than 2- time world champion Mika Hakkinen achieved in his career. It’s mind boggling stuff.
So is it time to anoint Max as the GOAT? It’s an interesting thought, but I think I need to see Max switch teams and win again before crowning him. During my time following this circus religiously, Prost*, Piquet, Schumacher and Hamilton have all won titles driving for more than one team. Alonso came extremely close, Vettel came reasonably close, and I’m sure Senna would have won multiple titles at Williams had he survived, but I need confirmation that this isn’t another example of Vettel exploiting a Newey design masterstroke. Remember, at one point Vettel won 4 titles in a row and was looking like he belonged in the discussion, until he was first beaten by Danny Ric at the beginning of the hybrid era within the team and then became a quick driver prone to making horrible mistakes at Ferrari. I think Max may just be the guy, but he’s not better than Senna or Prost in my eyes until he goes to a competitor, crushes more teammates and wins more titles.
*The little professor was darn close to winning titles for 4 different teams. In ‘83 he led the championship in a Renault until the final race, when a DNF handed the title to Piquet in the surging Brabham BMW. Prost then took the fight to Senna for Ferrari in ‘90 until the infamous Senna Suzuka payback ended that championship in the turn one gravel trap.
That said, here are a few categories that rank the current crop of 20 drivers based on what I saw this year. This does not reflect the fact that some of these guys are young and may still be getting better.
Max Verstappen- Complete package. Crazy quick, ultra competitive, loves driving, doesn’t feel pressure……I could go on and on.
Genius but Human
Hamilton- Amazing feel, may not be quite as motivated racing for second in his twilight years.
Leclerc- One lap wonder, great race craft, might not be mentally ready to take on Max. And hallelujah to that. I like my Ferrari drivers quick and overly passionate.
Alonso- Relentless, fast, smart, usually leaves a team on bad terms after 3-4 seasons.
Norris- Massive talent waiting for the car to give him that first win. Made too many mistakes in qualifying late in the year when he had the second best package.
Russell- Put in his place by Hamilton this year, Russell is a big talent and seems like a confident, team leader in waiting.
Sainz- Brilliant drives in Singapore and Monza, quick and experienced, good teammate.
Piastri- Fought through a really tough beginning to the season and emerged as the golden child. Great kid, super quick, needs to learn how to manage the tires in order to threaten Norris.
Gasly- Quick, tough, experienced. With all the administrative chaos at Alpine this year he kept his head down and got on with it. Welcome to driving for the French National team!
Albon- The man who finished 3rd to Russell and Norris in the 2018 F2 championship looks like a rock steady driver who will have a long career at Williams.
Ocon- See comments for Gasly above. This guy is a fighter who matched Alonso at Alpine.
Liam Lawson- Got thrown into the deep end after the Danny Ric injury at Zandvoort and made the most of his big break. Essentially matched Tsunoda right of the box and scored points in Singapore, while finishing 11th in Italy and Japan.
Perez- Brilliant start to the year unraveled quickly starting in Monaco. He incredibly failed to reach Q3 eight times over the season and seemed to be crushed by the relentless speed of Max. Throughout the chaos, he still emerged 2nd in the drivers standings.
Yuki- He’s now a legitimately quick, experienced driver who has earned a 4th season in the merciless Red Bull camp. Give him a decent car and look out.
Hulkenberg- Returned after a couple of years away playing with his kids and was startlingly quick in the Haas. Sadly, the tire eating Haas chassis left him fighting for scraps on Sundays.
Stroll- Hard to call P10 in the drivers standings average for young Stroll but seeing that his teammate was 4th and 132 points ahead makes you realize that he had a pretty great package at his disposal. What is Aston to do if they have aspirations of climbing the constructors standings?
Bottas- Fun guy, bad car. What can you do? He doesn’t seem to have much on Zhou which I would like to see if I’m evaluating him for a drive when the team becomes Audi.
Magnussen- Out qualified by Hulk 15-7 and outscored 9-3.
Danny Ric- Great to see him back, but other than a nice weekend in Texas, he seemed to have a difficult time matching Yuki. I know he’s marketing gold, but put Lawson in the seat!
Guanyu- Alfa (Sauber) is like a ghost team out there but the record shows that Z recorded 6 points. His head to head with Bottas was 7-15 in qualifying, 10-12 in the races, and 6-10 in points.
DeVries- Got the ‘ol Tost chop rather quickly but didn’t seem like he was making a complete fool of himself.
Logan Sargeant- Tough to beat up on a rookie driver in a Williams, but that was a poor season. Shocking that he’s back for another. LS left a lot of expensive body work and parts in the tire barriers and guardrails of F1 circuits around the globe. Out qualified 22-0 and outscored 27-1 by Albon.
Time For A Rant
There are too many races. It was amazing to see Drive to Survive propel the sport into the global mainstream, but now Liberty Media are starting to look downright greedy. I understand that they are in the business of creating wealth for their shareholders, but I feel like they’ve reached the oversaturation point and people are going to start losing interest, especially with Max likely dominating again in ‘24. It’s hard to tell a great story when all 24 chapters are very predictable and you can see the obvious outcome from a mile away. Enough with these jetlagged drivers and teams going through the motions week in and week out. I’m waiting for the day that Lewis Hamilton says, “Hola Mexico” to the fans in Brazil. Back in the days of 16 races, each one felt like a crucial event towards crowning a champion and the waiting part for the next one generated even more buzz. (at least that’s how the world felt to me pre internet – lol)
So Liberty Media, I took the liberty to pare your schedule down to 18 races. Out are the majority of what I refer to as the Paddock Club grands prix, where the circuits and stands are totally devoid of any real soul, but the teams are hard at work entertaining high net worth individuals with the hope of receiving large checks in the form of sponsorship. Do we really need 4 races in the F1 rabid Persian Gulf region? (I can just hear Zak Brown protesting now) Therefore, with apologies to all who are affected, the following GP’s have been canceled for ‘24: Saudi Arabia, Miami, Imola, Baku, Qatar and Abu Dhabi. (Zak Brown has now blacked out standing up and face planted on the ‘93 MP4/8 in the McLaren showroom)
This leaves the following schedule for the Max Domination Tour ‘24:
Vegas – Yes, Vegas is so silly and outrageous it has to stay and become the finale, just to really mix things up.
Here are a few final awards to close out the season:
I’m tempted to just say, “Red Bull, well done, take ‘em all home and that’s a wrap, thanks for coming and see you next year.” But there has to be a few other things to praise so I’ll try to get creative here.
The OpenAI In Season Development Award
McLaren started the year looking like one of the worst cars on the grid by the final race they were arguably the second best team. Think about this, after the first 8 rounds they had a total of 17 points and they finished the year with 302. I did a little calculating and if you total constructors points from Austria through Abu Dhabi, here are the totals:
Red Bull – 539
McLaren – 285
Ferrari – 284
Mercedes – 242
In Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri they have an amazing young driver lineup, Zak Brown is a sponsor magnet and they just upped their Mercedes engine deal until 2030. Exciting times ahead for the papaya cars.
The Grecian Formula Legends Award
It was great to see Fernando Alonso get his hands on a good car again to remind us that he is a master of his craft. While Ferrari, Merc and McLaren all started the year struggling, Aston Martin came out of the blocks with a well balanced car that Alonso took to 6 podiums in the first 8 races. Unfortunately, Aston were not able to develop their package as quickly as the teams around them, but Alonso closed the year with an amazing battle with Perez for a podium in Brazil and then passed Yuki Tsunoda on the very last lap in Abu Dhabi for 7th to secure 4th overall in the drivers standings.
The Ayrton Senna Foundation One Lap Wonder Award:
Sorry Max, The recipient of the ASFOLWA this year is Charles Leclerc. (pan to crowd and see a visibly shaken Max table). Leclerc, by virtue of his 5 poles, gets the award for always being able to pull out an impressive flier when it counts. In fact, if you look at pole positions as a whole, Red Bull only beat Ferrari by a score of 14-7.
The Apprentice Team Chaos Award
Alpine, no surprise, wins the 2023 award for team chaos. When Alpine CEO and F1 newbie Laurent Rossi went public with the manufacturers intention to be title contenders after 100 races, I’m sure there were more than a few smirks from their rivals up and down the pitlane. Fast forward a couple of years and after losing Alpine reserve driver Oscar Piastri to McLaren and Alonso to Aston Martin, suddenly we were told that they may need 120 races. It was clear from the beginning of this year that they were going to have a very difficult time matching the 4th in the constructors that they achieved in ‘22 and after both cars crashed out of solid points paying positions and ended up totalled against the turn 2 wall in Melbourne, Rossi lost it and called the team amateurish. Needless to say, these comments didn’t go over well with the Renault board and within a few months Rossi was sacked, team principal Otmar Szafnauer was out, and sporting director Alan Premane, a 30+ year employee of the team dating back to the Benetton days, was sent packing as well. In the end, Alpine finished a lonely 6th in the constructors championship with Gasly and Ocon each getting one podium.
Final Thought: Would Liberty Media and FOM just please allow this Andretti-Cadillac entry already? In my opinion it’s a win all the way around. If they are a complete disaster and only last 3-5 years, then you have collected their $200m and everyone gets to say, I told you so, and feel all high and mighty. If they become a solid midpack team with a GM motor and an American driver, then they are adding real value to the TV/social media world. And in some crazy scenario that they become title contenders with an America vs the world attitude, F1 views and clicks will get pushed into the stratosphere. Let’s Make America Great Again!