And so, after a long 2023 Formula 1 season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday marked the end of an utterly dominant campaign for Max Verstappen and Red Bull.
Or did it? As there is no assurance the Dutchman and his team will not be in a similarly commanding form in the 2024 season, as the advantage they held over their rivals was still considerable at the end of this one, Max winning from Charles Leclerc by 17.0s.
Lewis Hamilton was rightfully concerned about that, noting Red Bull have not upgraded the RB19 since August, and his boss Toto Wolff admitted it would be against the odds beating Red Bull in this era of regulations.
And these two know best, as they presided over the previous era of dominance of our sport that started in 2014 with the turbo-hybrid era, and were untouchable until 2021 when Verstappen beat Hamilton, and even then it was a gruesome season for both.
History has taught us, that when a team starts a new era of regulations with a great advantage, that advantage would last over the whole era, as they will keep improving and while others might chase, the initial gap will play the role of a buffer to the leading F1 outfit.
Ferrari and Michael Schumacher dominated in the early 2000s and it was only a change in the tyre regulations that made them lose their upper hand. The same applies to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull who dominated four seasons between 2010 and 2013 which is now known as the blown diffuser era.
Mercedes did the same over two eras of regulation, 2014 with the new power units and then 2017 when the cars changed aerodynamically – bigger wings and tyres.
And so betting against Adrian Newey’s upcoming RB20 being another masterpiece would not be smart, the same applies to those putting money or praying that Verstappen forgets how to drive an F1 car.
With McLaren, Ferrari, and Mercedes improving over the second half of 2023, one can only hope they start 2024 in better shape, and Aston Martin know why their AMR23 started so well and apply that knowledge into their AMR24. Maybe then these guys will bother Verstappen and Red Bull a bit more and make sure he doesn’t win by more than 10s that often.
Hence, if historic trends are something to go by, Sunday night at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit will not mark the end of the Verstappen dominance, unless something freaky goes down at Milton Keynes.
Just when we thought no one could dominate F1 like Mercedes did between 2014 and 2020, Red Bull took up the baton from their rivals from 2022.
While many may not be happy about Red Bull’s and Verstappen’s dominance, their achievements in 2022 and 2023 have to be lauded. They have built two incredible cars in the past two seasons, and their prodigy has grown into the driver they knew he could be and even better.
Things just came together for the Christian Horner-led squad ever since Max won the Drivers’ Championship in 2021, as if it were the trigger for the successes that followed.
They have been perfect on all fronts, car and upgrades, drivers, race operations, strategy… you name it and Horner kept the ship sailing with discipline and the result, winning all but one race in 2023.
Horner joked about that, saying after Abu Dhabi: “To have won 21 out of 22, just missing out on Singapore – which leaves room for improvement!”
That must have sent chills down the spines of, Toto Wolff especially, and the other team bosses, classic Horner.
But who says Newey will not eradicate any weaknesses from the RB19 when designing its successor? In F1 there is always room for improvement. Just when we thought Mercedes couldn’t get any better in their dominant run, they came up with the Dual Axis Steering in 2020.
Remember the DAS? When Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas pushed and pulled the steering adjusting the front tyres’ toe angle, controlling their temperatures on the straights. Of course that system was banned, but who’s to say Red Bull won’t pull off something special in 2024?
In Abu Dhabi, and just when we thought – or secretly hoped – Verstappen was in trouble after FP3, he totally controlled qualifying and then the race, a fitting conclusion to his and Red Bull’s season.
And despite his ups and downs, let’s not forget Checo Perez’s second place in the Drivers’ Championship, Red Bull’s first one-two in their history.
All in all, a dream season for the energy drinks outfit, and while they may not be able to repeat it in 2024, don’t count on them slowing down any time soon.
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc have the wrong jobs at Ferrari
Both Sainz and Leclerc are brilliant drivers, no doubt, but they have been showing some shrewd strategy acumen recently, something the Scuderia lacks on their pit wall.
Go back to Singapore, when Sainz was leading from Lando Norris, and with George Russell chasing in third threatening both the first and second positions.
The Spaniard decided to give Norris DRS to defend from Russell, but his race engineer came over the radio worried the McLaren was catching up only for Sainz to say: “It’s on purpose.”
That was smart stuff from Carlos, but we all know by now that he is a very smart racer, and while the other Charlie is the fast one, he also showed he can read a race well in Abu Dhabi.
In Abu Dhabi, what a coincidence, Russell again was threatening to throw a spanner in the Scuderia’s works, as he was set to finish third with Perez getting a five second penalty (more on that later) which secures Mercedes’ second place in the 2023 F1 Constructors’ Championship.
But then Leclerc asked his team about the gaps and slowed down allowing Perez to overtake him hoping he could build up a five-second gap to Russell, less than that to him of course, making sure when the dust settled that the #63 Mercedes finished off the podium.
Sadly for Leclerc and Ferrari, that did not work, but here are two examples of the drivers leading the Red strategy team, and while I do not recall any major strategy blunders from Scuderia this season, such plans should be fed to the drivers from the pit wall not the other way around.
Perez’s penalty over the Norris incident
While trying to overtake Norris during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Perez touched wheels with the McLaren driver and after that was given a five-second penalty for that.
Now for me that was plain wrong and goes against the ethos of “Let them race” F1 has been following recently.
Firstly, Perez did slide into Norris, but it was nowhere near what Verstappen did to Leclerc in Las Vegas on the first lap. Then, the five-second penalty was the right one.
Secondly, while Perez shouldered some blame, Norris also turned in quite aggressively on the Red Bull that was alongside the McLaren, maybe slightly ahead.
Thirdly, Perez did not gain an advantage after that. On the contrary, Norris did as he went through the run-off area only for the former to chase him down again and overtake him properly from the second attempt.
If there was an occasion when the stewards should’ve called it a racing incident, the Perez/Norris case was one.
But then matters became more ridiculous when the stewards called Perez after the race as they were unhappy when he called them “a joke” over the radio when he was informed of his penalty, and gave him a warning after that.
To be honest, the way Verstappen responded to his penalty in Las Vegas, asking his engineer to give his regards to the stewards was worse for them than being called a joke.
My point is, when you take a questionable decision, you have to have thick skin against criticism.
Abu Dhabi Quick Hits
A shoutout to Franz Tost who bowed out of the F1 scene on Sunday in Abu Dhabi. The former AlphaTauri/Toro Rosso boss may have not won championships, but has nurtured drivers who did – Vettel and Verstappen – and other who became really decent ones – Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo to name a couple. So all the best to him in his post-F1 life.
Fernando Alonso took fourth in the 2023 F1 Drivers’ Championship with eight podiums to his name. A decent result given the downhill path Aston Martin were on from midseason, and hopefully they give their feisty driver a better car in 2024.
McLaren were better in Abu Dhabi, but Norris needs to cut down on errors like the one he had on his final lap in qualifying, especially if in 2024, McLaren deliver a better car from the start, and he wants to challenge Verstappen more often.
So this concludes our coverage from the 2023 F1 season. Takeaways will return in 2024.