Abu Dhabi Grand Prix conclusions: Watershed Verstappen moment, Perez limitations and more

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen stands atop of his mighty Red Bull RB19 car after yet another race win.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: A 19th win of the season for Max Verstappen

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen rounded off F1 2023 with a record-extending 19th victory of the season at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. 

The three-time World Champion dominated from pole position and was joined on the podium by Charles Leclerc and George Russell as Mercedes held off Ferrari to secure second spot in the Constructors’ standings.

Here are our conclusions from Yas Marina…

The beginning of the rest of Max Verstappen’s career starts here

Sport has a devilish habit of throwing up statistics dripping in symbolism.

As he crossed the line to take his 19th victory from 22 races in 2023 – a record even he might struggle to beat in the years to come – Max Verstappen pulled clear of Sebastian Vettel into third place in the all-time list of grand prix winners.

With 54 victories to his name, now only Michael Schumacher (91) and Lewis Hamilton (103) await. The path ahead is clear.

Coming at the end of one of the most complete seasons a racing driver has ever stitched together, it is a victory to mark the end of one phase of his career and the start of the next.

The initial stage of his ascent, the wins and World titles flowing so freely that there was no time to stop to make sense or consider the sheer gravity of his achievements, is complete. Now? Now begins the long climb to his ultimate destiny.

Max being Max, though, it might not take very long at all.

If his current rate of 15-20 wins per year can be sustained – and in this still relatively early phase of the current regulations, it is almost certain that Red Bull’s existing advantage will be carried through at least until F1’s next rules reset in 2026 – Verstappen could feasibly catch Schumacher within the next two seasons.

By which time he will still only be 28, leaving him with all the time in the world to hunt down Hamilton (and how much pleasure that will give him despite his oft-stated disinterest in statistics) and set an entirely new – potentially insurmountable – standard.

It was in Abu Dhabi back in 2020 that Verstappen offered a first glimpse of what was to come, winning from pole position with such poise that it made a title challenge the following year seem inevitable.

It was, in effect, Race Zero of 2021 – a flashing warning to Hamilton and Mercedes that he and Red Bull were coming down the track and fast.

Three years on, having become only the second driver after Vettel to go from zero to three Championships in a single great step, everything from this point will be targeted at becoming the most successful driver in F1 history, each triumph carrying a little extra significance as he gradually reels in Michael and Lewis one win at a time.

After spending the last three seasons sealing his place among the greats, now to strengthen his case as the greatest.

Welcome, Max, to the beginning of the rest of your career.

Charles Leclerc is a great servant to Ferrari

It was written here last week that the most impressive day of Charles Leclerc’s season came with the result that pained him most.

In recognising Ferrari’s only shot of a race victory in 2023 rested with Carlos Sainz in Singapore, Leclerc sacrificed himself by volunteering to start the race on soft tyres despite knowing it would heavily compromise him later in the race, using the extra grip to jump other cars off the line and protect Sainz.

As Sainz was lauded for being the one to break the Red Bull chain at the end of those 62 laps, Leclerc was 21 seconds back in a distant fourth.

Some might sniff and argue that other leading drivers – Verstappen, Hamilton, Fernando Alonso to name just three on the current grid – wouldn’t be caught dead being so subservient to a team-mate.

Yet here was an act of selflessness reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve shepherding Jody Scheckter to the title at Monza 1979, sitting dutifully in his team-mate’s slipstream from start to finish when he still had a mathematical chance of winning it himself, and one Enzo Ferrari would have approved of.

Ferrari comes first. Always.

The closing laps in Abu Dhabi underlined sense that this is a motto Leclerc lives by, his idea to let Sergio Perez past on the final lap in one last, desperate attempt to take second spot in the Constructors’ Championship from Mercedes proof that there is no lengths he will not go to make Ferrari successful.

The thought actually came to him a couple of laps too late and could have been executed in better fashion – could he have let Perez go entirely and, as team principal Fred Vasseur intimated, emulated Hamilton’s 2016 trick of slowing Russell directly, potentially bringing the McLarens back into play? – but that it occurred at all was impressive.

Even more so, maybe, as 2023 stands as Leclerc’s third winless season in four, one of the most gifted drivers still stuck on only five career wins.

At this stage, after so many false dawns and near misses, certain other drivers may have become impatient, insular and semi-detached, if not setting a torch to the team entirely.

It must hurt Leclerc, just two weeks younger than Verstappen, to be so far behind in career terms a driver with similar natural talent, yet through it all his commitment to the cause remains undimmed.

The ultimate Ferrari servant.

A little less conversation

How often do we hear team principals over team radio?

Usually it’s only in matters of critical importance – a driver refusing to obey team orders, for instance – or Christian Horner congratulating Verstappen on his latest victory (with considerably less enthusiasm than the previous time, as Hamilton recently pointed out).

On the whole, interventions from the top bosses are vanishingly rare. They are best seen, not heard.

That was a mark of Toto Wolff’s approach in the early days, not trusting himself to suppress his emotions from a seat in the pit wall and instead preferring to position himself at the head of the central control system – surrounded by a large entourage, like all the great evil masterminds – in the confines of the garage.

These days, however, you can pretty much measure how badly Mercedes’ race is going by how often the drivers hear from Wolff over the radio.

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It has been a recurring theme of 2023, Wolff’s most egregious intervention coming in Austria where he told Hamilton, Mercedes’ seven-time World Champion: “Lewis, we know the car is bad: please drive it.”

Even while recovering at home from knee surgery, meanwhile, it was he who issued the order to call off the battle between his drivers at Suzuka.

Only last weekend in Las Vegas he informed Russell that fourth place was still within reach, seemingly forgetting George had a time penalty hanging over him, and during the race in Abu Dhabi made Hamilton aware that he was the second-fastest car on track as Lewis threatened to have one of his whiny days.

Maybe, as team boss, Wolff views himself as ultimately responsible for the substandard machinery Hamilton and Russell have had to work with over the last two seasons and regards it as his duty to be motivator in chief.

When Toto makes himself heard over the airwaves, it’s never a good sign.

Oscar Piastri’s race pace is no real concern

Pretty much every driver to have arrived in F1 in the Pirelli era has agreed on one thing: the tyres are the most difficult thing of all to master.

The way they must be driven and treated is so unique – so unlike anything they experience rising through the racing ranks – that it takes time to understand how to get the best out of them.

Despite producing arguably the most complete debut season since Hamilton in 2007, with two podiums and victory in the Qatar sprint race, Oscar Piastri’s tyre management has emerged as a clear area for improvement over the course of his rookie campaign with a couple of glaring examples.

Having shared the second row of the grid with Lando Norris in Hungary, for instance, he finished three places and almost 30 seconds behind at the chequered flag.

And even on the day he secured his maiden podium with third in Japan, he took the chequered flag 17 seconds behind his team-mate – now at the end of his fifth full season and totally up to speed with those Pirellis – despite starting ahead.

Abu Dhabi continued the trend, Piastri ultimately finishing seven seconds behind Norris after starting a couple of places in front – later reflecting that he has “some things to work on” over the winter and that “these tyres are not easy” – yet it is a skill that is certain to come to him in time.

Tyre management was also a limitation of Verstappen’s in his rookie season in 2015, with Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) dedicating a large proportion of their 2016 pre-season running at Barcelona to bringing Max and team-mate Sainz more up to speed.

Just five races into the new season – and, memorably, his first in an unfamiliar Red Bull – Verstappen was back in Spain and nursing his tyres to perfection, holding off Ferrari’s two World Champions to take his first F1 victory.

It is always advisable to look more towards the peaks than the flaws when it comes to judging a rookie’s overall potential and in every other respect Piastri has marked himself out as a potential future World Champion in 2023.

Once he gets to grips with those tyres, he will be unstoppable and Norris – his emotions on full show yet again after another crucial mistake under pressure in qualifying – will find himself struggling to contain him.

Sergio Perez’s limitations on full display

Perez’s routinely poor qualifying performances would be easier for Red Bull to stomach if his recoveries through the field were more incisive.

Four times since Austria in July he has recovered from fifth on the grid or lower – and twice from outside in the top 10 in Austria and Vegas – to finish in the top three, but never once in a convincing fashion.

Recall, for instance, how long he spent fighting the two Ferraris at Monza, not realising as Verstappen did that the moves would have to be completed into the second chicane only after forcing a mistake from Leclerc and Sainz at the first.

Remarkably, each of the last four races of Perez’s season has been defined by a glaring shortcoming in combat.

First came Turn 1 in Mexico, where blinded by the idea of being a home hero he turned in on Leclerc and succeeded only in being launched high into the sky.

Then came Brazil, where he was bamboozled by Alonso’s defence of missing the apex of Juncao entirely to ensure a higher minimum speed and counteract Red Bull’s greater inherent straight-line performance. And then having finally found a way past on the penultimate lap, he dropped his guard to let Fernando slip back through.

After that was Vegas and a non-defence against Leclerc that On Track GP’s own Richard Bradley said even a 13-year-old kart racer would have been ashamed of.

Completing the quartet in Abu Dhabi was his unnecessary nudge into Norris having all but completed a move down the inside of Turn 6, the resultant five-second time penalty – as with his pit-lane speeding offence at Zandvoort – costing Perez a place on the podium.

Lots for Perez to reflect on over the winter, you’d think, but has he shown an inclination to be honest with himself and accept and assess his own limitations?

Not so, it seems.

Asked at the end of the race about his hopes and ambitions for 2024, Perez said with a smile that he is aiming to go “one better” and be crowned World Champion next season.

It’s hard to believe that dream coming true based on the current evidence.

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