This post was contributed by Rob Beltman, who has an incredibly insightful eye for racing matters.
If I tell you beforehand that we are going to watch a guy not put a single foot wrong in 1325 laps, of which he will spend 1003 in the lead of the race, would you join me in binge-watching the entire season of F1 2023, or would you bugger off to the bar and have a pint with some mates? I guess even I’d do the latter. Perfection means watching things NOT happen. No crash or clash, no mistake or technical mishap, no plot-twist or turn of events. It is what it is…as much totally and jaw-droppingly admirable as it is mind-blowingly boring. But I’m sitting here in the aftermath of the ’23 season not being bored. Not because I’m Dutch, because believe me when I say that quite frankly I am sick and tired of hearing our national anthem as well. But because the racing in 2023 wasn’t all that uneventful after all, I feel.
Twists and turns
Let’s realize first that 5 teams have had 8 podiums or more. That does not happen a lot in F1. The battle for second in the constructors between Ferrari and Mercedes went down to the wire, with on the one hand McLaren resurging and on the other hand Aston Martin showing some late season pace that many thought was lost forever. On any given Sunday, we’ve seen seriously good fights for P2 and P3 (even on the last corner of the last lap), right down to the final points paying positions. And the backmarking teams like Haas, Alpha Tauri and Williams have, at times, been able to aim for those points as well. They weren’t condemned to starting P15 downward and staying there. The battles for position among constructors and drivers have been quite interesting. So it has not, by any means, been a dull season across the field. The points table simply doesn’t support that view.
The batlle closed up during the year too. In Bahrain, Verstappen kicked off with a win, putting 11 seconds on his teammate while only 11 cars finished in the same lap as the leader. In Abu Dhabi, only two drivers were a lap down and the top 5 was comprised of 4 different teams. We’ve had a season where we saw Fernando Alonso rejuvenated, taking podium after podium and maybe, with slightly better strategy in Monaco, he could have taken his elusive 33rd win. We had many a rain-soaked weekend, messing up quali’s or canceling out race strategies, not the least of all the absolutely bonkers Dutch GP. A podium with Verstappen, Alonso and Gasly, who had respectively stopped 6 times, 5 times and 5 times. But that wasn’t the only ‘curveball’ weekend. Take Australia, with that crazy late restart chaos in which absolute mayhem occurred and both Alpine’s took each other out. And even the Las Vegas Grand Prix, overhyped if ever a new race could be, managed to live up to or even exceed expectations, with great changes for the lead of the race and even a late move for P2 and P3.
Like a broken record…
If all that was on offer, then what robbed us of even greater thrills and made F1 pundits sound like a broken record after each Grand Prix? Easy. Max Verstappen’s insatiable hunger for success. It’s in Vegas he showed he could overcome anything, from a 5 second penalty to a crash that damaged his front wing, to still take the win. But it’s in another US race it all began. In Miami, Checo started believing in his own chances to take the lead in the championship. Even though he had underperformed in Australia, he started the Miami GP in P1, with Verstappen missing out due to red flags in quali. But Max was determined to make a statement. And so we got a stunning display of racecraft, whereby he gained time on Perez who was leading the race in clean air, while Max was overtaking the likes of Leclerc, Russell and Alonso. When he got out of the car, he ended up pointing firmly at the Nr 1 on his nose as if to say: “nobody knocks me of my perch!”. And nobody would. Not this season. Indeed, he now has the single longest streak of leading the WDC ever. Another record broken this year. Just like the longest winning streak: 10 races, from Miami to Monza.
During this time, his Mexican teammate went on a spree of extremely poor performances. He started by crashing at the very first opportunity in Q1 in Monaco, failed to qualify well on a damp track in Spain and missed Q3 in Canada and many other places thereafter. Indeed, Perez was in Q3 more often in his Force India days than he was this year in the utterly dominant RB19. His confidence was clearly shaken as he ran out of excuses and Red Bull almost ran out of patience. So much so, that they decided to give Daniel Ricciardo a shot at racing again, costing an underwhelming Nyck de Vries his seat at Alpha Tauri. There needed to be clarity about DR3’s potential if a harsh choice for 2024 needed to be made. But Daniel’s return was short-lived, and we got to see another rookie doing a stellar job: Liam Lawson. It’s almost unbelievable he hasn’t been offered a seat for ’24 after stepping in at the most difficult time of all, in Zandvoort, and doing a great job all the way to Japan.
Not just any kind of orange…papaya!
Talking about rookies: what a year for Oscar Piastri, proving his worth in the McLaren by keeping Lando Norris honest and even grabbing a sprint-race win. He’s definitely not lacking single-lap pace and has a cool head in high-pressure circumstances. It’s just the racepace and tyre management that need some improvement. But he’s a diamond in the rough we got to see make a great debut. That certainly wasn’t dull. Neither was the entire McLaren revival, starting in Austria and brilliantly carrying through over the second half of the season. They are, without a doubt, the team to watch in next year’s winter tests. Can they continue to bring design features that work and keep putting the Mercedes works team to some degree of shame.
Mercedes must have been the disappointment of the season, for almost everybody. The Bahrain grand prix was already such a shocker that the team sent out a letter of apology in early March to its fanbase. Many had hoped that, after literally coming back bouncing in ‘22, the team would actually be bouncing back in ’23. It isn’t until after the car concept was changed and zero-pods were retired, some degree of performance returned to the car. But throughout a season that for McLaren started in Austria and for Aston Martin seemed to end there, with upgrades making the car slower instead of faster, Mercedes were a steady force to be reckoned with. Sure, Lewis has gone winless once more, but they have secured 2nd in the constructors with a car that has been called all kinds of names by the team and drivers. It proved very tricky to set up right, often catching out one driver while the other could compete relatively well at the front, bar a disqualification in Austin. The W14 (a or b) simply will not have earned a place in the hearts of many fans or employees of Mercedes. The fact that McLaren has soundly outscored Mercedes in the second part of the season and has taken. A serious development step, should be worrying for next year. They might have a better understanding of where the performance is coming from.
Prelude to something epic…
With the interesting dynamics between the top 5 teams and a lot of the others teams regularly fighting for points, F1 is actually healthier than it has been in many many years. You can’t – with impunity – outspend, out-test and out-develop your competition. Windtunnel time and CFD-runs are limited in a progressive system that enables catching up, while more and more teams are actually capable of operating right up to the limit of the budget cap. F1 is becoming a true meritocracy, where you can only out-smart and out-perform the competition. One driver has been doing that all year long, being absolutely flawless. Of course, he’s done so with the full support of a team and crew that were as insatiable and ruthless as Verstappen is himself. You can rest assured he will show up in 2024 aiming for nothing less than utter domination again. Winning isn’t everything for him, it’s the only thing. It’s up to the rest to show up and take the fight to him. Let’s hope they can!