Can anyone stop Verstappen’s F1 title charge?

    Seven races into the 2023 F1 season, it looks like Max Verstappen already has one hand on the title trophy. We take a look at the story so far.

    Published On Jun 14, 2023 09:00:00 AM

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    2023 F1 Max Verstappen

    Verstappen has won five of the seven races so far in F1 2023.

    What makes an F1 season iconic? Like any good script, you need gripping characters and a riveting plot; throw in a good title battle and you have yourself a classic. However, the plot that has emerged early into the 2023 season is one of sheer dominance, with Red Bull scoring four 1-2 finishes in five races – that’s just one short of its entire 2022 tally.

    Out-developing the rules

    Dominant spells aren’t just a modern-day occurrence in F1; we’ve seen it with McLaren in the 1990s, Ferrari in the early 2000s, Red Bull in the 2010s and more recently with Mercedes. In fact, it’s a natural progression of the sport. Some teams will always end up acing the new rules package and it takes years for the others to catch up.

    The new aero rules, introduced in 2022, were designed on paper to make following cars and overtaking easier. And this worked for a while, but with some of the brightest minds in the world working on building these cars, we’re already starting to see some teams out-developing these rules and finding clever loopholes.

    And with one-stop races becoming a norm, there isn’t much room for strategy to significantly impact the end result. But there is hope on the horizon with new tyre compounds being introduced, and the 2026 rules looking at moveable aero and lighter cars

    Chasing the bulls

    Red Bull has clearly found the best interpretation of the latest rules. Its 2022 car was already mighty quick, but the 2023 machine is an absolute rocket, while chief rivals Ferrari and Mercedes have faltered.

    And this is where the problem lies – not only does Red Bull not have any close rivals this year, but the sort of advantage it has makes things look too easy. Even slip-ups in qualifying don’t affect the race result much, as we saw with Max Verstappen, who won from P9 on the grid in Miami and went from P15 to P2 in Saudi Arabia.

    Take the Red Bulls out of the equation and you actually have all the makings for an epic season. Ferrari, Mercedes and a surprisingly resurgent Aston Martin with Fernando Alonso are all closely matched on pace. Imagine a season where Alonso, in his 40s, is a genuine title contender.

    But it’s this tightly matched grid that is also making overtaking that much tougher. To pull off an overtake, one car needs to have an inherent advantage over another, and barring Red Bull, there just isn’t that much of a pace differential across the grid. The new shortened DRS zones only make matters tougher.

    So far, Red Bull seems to mitigate this issue the best, with the RB19 gaining a very visible advantage when DRS is deployed. So the only car that can overtake out on track, is the car that doesn’t really need to.

    But is it fair to criticise a team for doing a good job? The sort of dominant form that Verstappen has shown lately is far from easy to pull off, even if you have the best car on the grid. And ultimately, if we want to see battles for victory, Ferrari and Mercedes will simply need to up their game.

    Verstappen vs Perez

    With the other teams underperforming, the focus turns to the inter-team rivalry at Red Bull. Perez’s two wins at Jeddah and Baku has fans hoping for a repeat of the Nico Rosberg vs Lewis Hamilton era at Mercedes. However, it’s important to note that both those wins came when Verstappen faced setbacks. He started from P15 at Jeddah due to a driveshaft issue in qualifying, and was caught out by the Safety Car at Baku.

    And Miami was a race that really humbled Perez. With Verstappen starting from P9 and Perez on pole, it was the perfect opportunity for the Mexican to seize control of the championship. Instead, we saw Verstappen blitz to victory with a menacing display of control.

    Running his opening stint on hards, versus Perez on the mediums, Verstappen was already up to second place by lap 15. By the time Perez pitted for hards, Verstappen remained just as fast on tyres 20 laps older. And this is what cemented his win.

    Sure, Verstappen was on the optimum strategy; overnight rain and the cooler temperatures made the hard tyres the perfect compound to start on. And by the time he switched to mediums, the car was around 80kg lighter and the tyres weren’t graining up as much. But even Perez admitted that were strategies reversed, Verstappen would still perhaps have the superior pace.

    “I don’t know how different it would have looked for Max if he was on the same strategy as myself, but he was clearly the fastest car out there,” Perez said at the post-race press conference. “It’s pretty simple: when you don’t have the race pace then it’s really hard to win the race."

    The picture has only gotten bleaker for Perez in the subsequent races. Qualifying struggles put him out of position in Monaco and Spain, and unlike Verstappen, he wasn’t able to cut through the field and finished the two races 16th and fourth respectively. Verstappen, meanwhile, has extended his title lead from 14 points in Miami to 53 points in Spain.

    There’s still time for a very different story to play out. But Perez may need to adopt a different attitude to make it a real title fight.

    Over the years, Verstappen has proven to be a ruthless competitor – a trait that several F1 champions have displayed – while Perez has played the team game. If he wants to take the fight to Verstappen then he’s going to need to pull a Rosberg (circa 2016) and race for himself.

    The dark horse

    Aston Martin could very well be a dark horse in this year’s championship, though. The team has already improved leaps and bounds, with Alonso finishing on the podium in five out of six races. But he’s had to settle for the position of ‘best of the rest’ with Red Bull still out of reach.

    However, Aston Martin does have an advantage up its sleeve. In 2021, F1 introduced a new sliding scale aero-testing rule wherein those who finish lower in the championship get more wind tunnel time. Having won last year’s championship, Red Bull already has the smallest allowance and a further 10 percent of that has been slashed for breaking the budget cap in 2021.

    Since Aston Martin finished seventh last year, it still has one of the biggest aero-testing allowances on the grid. If it uses this wisely, it could, in theory, catch up to Red Bull towards the end of the season.

    But Alonso admits that realistically, Aston Martin’s battle remains with Mercedes and Ferrari. “Hopefully, some of the tracks we will be a little bit closer to them [Red Bull]. And some of the upgrades that we will bring later in the season may put us in a different or more competitive position. But I think our main focus, to be honest, is just looking behind and trying to keep Mercedes and Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship under control,” he said after the Miami GP.

    “We have to accept they [Red Bull] are doing a better job than everyone else and we need to do a better job.”

    Mercedes’ resurgent form in Spain, where the team scored a double podium finish, further bolsters Alonso’s statement. Barcelona has always been a strong venue for Mercedes, but it also gave the team their first real chance to see what the updated W14 is capable of.

    F1 teammates head-to-head after Spanish GP
    TeamDriversPoints
    Red Bull RacingMax Verstappen170
    Sergio Perez117
    MercedesLewis Hamilton87
    George Russell65
    Aston MartinFernando Alonso99
    Lance Stroll35
    FerrariCarlos Sainz58
    Charles Leclerc42
    AlpineEsteban Ocon25
    Pierre Gasly15
    McLarenLando Norris12
    Oscar Piastri5
    HaasNico Hulkenberg6
    Kevin Magnussen2
    Alfa RomeoValtteri Bottas4
    Zhour Guanyu4
    AlphaTauriYuki Tsunoda2
    Nyck de Vries0
    WilliamsAlex Albon1
    Logan Sargeant0

    Also see:

    Verstappen takes lights-to-flag Spanish GP win; Mercedes on podium

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