Red Bull driver Max Verstappen claimed a record-extending 17th victory of the F1 2023 season in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.
The three-time World Champion dominated from pole position and was joined on the podium by Lando Norris, who equalled his career-best result of second for McLaren, and Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso, who came out on top in a thrilling battle with Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez.
On another difficult weekend for the Mercedes team, here are our conclusions from Sao Paulo…
Retirement? Fernando Alonso has found a home at Aston Martin
Even by the standards of F1, a world where the two biggest commodities are gossip and money, the rumours about Fernando Alonso’s future in the aftermath of Mexico were beyond ridiculous.
Aston Martin’s second half of the season has been disappointing, sure, but even in his greatest fit of pique – and with his history of questionable career moves – Alonso would not walk away from a team with whom he has enjoyed his strongest season in a decade, and to whom he has made a great effort to endear himself, in 2023.
Red Bull? Ha! Pur-lease.
As if Christian Horner would ever undermine Max Verstappen, now the winner of 42 of the last 64 races stretching back to the start of his maiden title-winning season in 2021, by signing a driver of Alonso’s talent as his team-mate. Some vote of confidence that would be…
Alonso himself was aghast at the rumours, taking an unusual step for a driver on Thursday by speaking out and promising “consequences” for the attention seekers.
From that moment, his motivation for the weekend was set in stone – to remind everyone, in particular those doubters, of the still-burgeoning potential of the Alonso-Aston partnership.
It helped that the car, having reverted to an old aero specification, was in its best condition for some time here, the team’s operational agility in positioning themselves at the very front of the Q3 queue helping to secure their best two-car qualifying result since the 2021 rebrand.
With the DRS zones connected at Interlagos, it seemed inevitable late in the race that Perez would steal that much-needed podium finish for himself.
Yet if there was one driver who is capable of holding back the tide – who thrives in situations when he has an obvious car disadvantage, when his back is pinned firmly against the wall – it is Alonso, ingeniously missing the apex at Juncao to carry as much speed as possible on to the main straight to counteract the Red Bull’s straight-line speed.
And when a leak did slip through – Perez finally forcing his way past on the penultimate lap – Fernando reached with all his plate-spinning might to somehow plug it and save the day, repassing him with the very last chance he had at Turn 4 on the final lap to complete one of his most heroic drives.
With an eighth podium in Aston Martin colours secured, Alonso leapt into the arms of his team in parc ferme in scenes that became so familiar during that magical run from Bahrain to Canada at the start of the season – yet this time, and after the challenges they’ve had recently, it somehow felt different, more defiant.
As Alonso marched to the edge of the podium to wave the trophy around for all to see, all he seemed to be missing was a cape.
Who would ever write him off? Nobody is shuffling him off into retirement any time soon.
He remains as formidable, hungry and committed as ever and, for all the reservations about how his relationship with Stroll and son would develop this year, appears to have found a home at Aston Martin.
And – whisper it – it wouldn’t even be the greatest surprise if he is intending to stick around to welcome his old friends at Honda for when this project promises to progress to the next level in 2026…
The resurrection of Sergio Perez
After his own personal Day of the Dead in Mexico City last weekend, in the land of Christ the Redeemer came the resurrection of Sergio Perez.
Perez looked to have inserted the final nail into the coffin of his Red Bull career at his home race, outqualified by Daniel Ricciardo – the driver considered most likely to replace him – before crashing out with a desperate move at the first corner. He was, to all intents and purposes, a dead man walking.
Rather than commencing the funeral procession, however, Red Bull – who have rarely hesitated when it comes to publicly executing underperforming drivers over the years – loyally stood by him.
His first-lap retirement at his home race was all the more devastating, Christian Horner said, as the underlying pace was actually really promising (indeed, he was only two tenths slower than Verstappen in qualifying).
The problem? Ricciardo, of all people, was wedged in between them on the grid. Tough to take the positives from that.
The crushing result at his home race risked being a mortal blow to Perez, robbing his will to go on and accelerating his demise, yet in Brazil arrived someone determined to drive to survive.
Once again the pace was there, Perez again within two tenths of Verstappen through Q1 and Q2 before being unluckily caught out by the yellow flags as last car in the queue as the storm arrived in Q3.
His confident, incisive moves – both from ninth on the grid and following a poor start to the sprint on Saturday – brought hope that Perez is thinking clearer and has finally stopped overextending himself in his attempts to match Verstappen, instead focusing on his own strengths, his own car, his own race.
His weekend lacked the crowning glory of a first podium since Monza, yet that third place would surely have been his without Alonso’s freakish genius and absolute refusal to give in.
And after the events of last weekend, the end result was almost immaterial alongside what was his most complete and convincing performance for months, arguably since his last victory in Baku back in April.
A week on from his lowest point, we have a pulse.
If only Perez had performed like this throughout the season, his place at Red Bull wouldn’t be in any doubt at all.
Mercedes (and Haas) need calm heads after confusing late-season upgrades
It looked for all the world that Mercedes’ world had transformed two weeks ago in Texas as Lewis Hamilton harassed Verstappen all the way to the chequered flag.
The Mercedes finally looked like a racing car again and with it Hamilton had come back to life, remarking that the team’s new floor – introduced with a clear look ahead to next year’s W15 – was one of the few upgrades he had actually noticed since the start of last season.
Then came post-race scrutineering, a disqualification for excessive plank wear – only the second in Hamilton’s long career – and all those doubts came flooding back again.
Was the Mercedes really as good as it looked in Austin? Or had the car been flattered by running too close to the ground on a sprint weekend Red Bull when went conservative with their own ride height and Verstappen was battling brake issues?
Was it yet another illusion in the long road back to the top?
With Mercedes once again way off in Brazil, Hamilton – having fallen 35 seconds behind Verstappen in just 24 laps in the sprint before finishing more than a minute down on Sunday (and behind no fewer than three Merc customer cars for good measure) – was back to making his usual noises that he can’t wait to see the back of this car.
Yet with the W14 long since a patchwork mess of 2022/23/24 ideas – following the team’s decisions to persevere with and then discard the zero-pod concept under Mike Elliott, the recently departed former technical director whose own review of the team’s technical structure earlier this year concluded that he was the problem (!) – it is still too early to judge the overall impact of the new floor.
With Toto Wolff recently admitting that the Mercedes retains the “genes” of the original design, that will only become clear when the revised floor forms a key element of next year’s car.
It is a similar story at Haas, where Guenther Steiner has been left increasingly puzzled by the team’s lack of progress since excitedly unveiling a so-called “white Red Bull” in Austin.
Like Mercedes, however, the characteristics and constraints of the original tyre-cooking car are still present and (in)correct, placing a clear limit on what is currently achievable.
The Haas is still fundamentally the Haas – even if it now wears Red Bull clothing and identifies as an RB19.
In much the same way the Mercedes still has zero-pod DNA – the tub remains identical to that which started the season – more than five months after sprouting sidepods.
With three sprint weekends, two circuits at high altitude and a new venue in Vegas packed into the last six races of the season, this is a particularly complex period to properly assess the effectiveness of upgrades and the key for technical teams who expected more from recent races is to resist overreaction.
The time to judge – to panic – is not now but the start of next year, when all these bright ideas have been applied to a completely new chassis free of the mistakes of the past.
The closing weeks of 2023? These can only be signposts – and potentially very misleading ones – along the way.
McLaren almost have the car – now they must learn how to win again
Nine years ago, after watching his Williams team turn a front-row lockout in Austria into a distant third and fourth at the chequered flag, Rob Smedley came up with a theory to explain why they were outclassed by Mercedes on race day.
The reason, he said, is because Williams – with just a single victory in the last decade – had forgotten how to win.
“We were racing against a very professional outfit with a quicker car, but very well organised,” he said. “And why are they so well organised? Because they’ve got such a depth of experience racing at that end of the field.
“From racing last year – as Williams were – in 13th, 14th, 15th position to racing in first, second, third, fourth position is a completely different thing. Believe me, because I’ve done both ends. We have to learn.”
The notion that winning is a habit has long been the stuff of cliché, yet as with all such statements it contains a large element of truth.
Success is a learned behaviour and winning breeds more winning. Just as losing tends to breed more losing.
Williams never did learn to win again and – despite the impact of James Vowles, the highly impressive new team principal – will be fortunate if they ever find themselves in a position to do so again.
The same could have been said of McLaren just a few years ago – as recently as March this year, in fact – but a remarkable recovery from a false start to 2023 now has them positioned nicely as the second-fastest team behind Red Bull.
Improving the car to this level, though, was in some ways the easy bit. Now? Now comes the hard part.
Having gone nine years without a win until 2021, McLaren’s victories over recent seasons – Daniel Ricciardo at Monza, Oscar Piastri in last month’s Qatar sprint – have been only fleeting triumphs, restricting the opportunity to turn winning into a habit.
When Lando Norris famously lost the win at Russia 2021 in the very next race after Ricciardo’s Italian GP success, it was said that McLaren’s status as a “young team” had cost them against the experience – the instinctiveness to make the correct call under immense pressure – of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
Two years on it was a similar story in qualifying at Interlagos, McLaren slow to take to the track as a storm arrived early in Q3 as Red Bull – who never quite lost the art of winning even in the extended gap between the Vettel and Verstappen eras – positioned Max close to the front of the queue for the best of the worsening conditions.
On that slight hesitation turned McLaren’s weekend, sixth and 10th on the grid allowing Verstappen to escape to victory when, had he started from pole and been in a position to control the pace himself, Norris could have made Red Bull very nervous.
That McLaren and Norris are disappointed with finishing second these days underlines how far they have come yet also how much road they still have left to travel in order to turn such tight situations in their favour, for it is invariably in these moments when the secret of knowing how to win reveals itself.
It’s going to be fun watching the team, along with both drivers, become fluent in that language again.
Nobody wants (or needs) three practice sessions anymore
So what to make of F1 sprints as the third season of the funky format comes to an end?
The tweaks for 2023 – based on some flawed belief that the drivers would take more risks in the sprint if it had no direct bearing on the grand prix itself – have been disastrous, Saturday’s ‘standalone’ running strangely detached, rendered largely meaningless and eminently missable.
The addition of what amounts to a qualifying rerun each Saturday morning screams of a sorry lack of imagination and, for all the arguments about skewing pole position statistics, it is a great shame that the result of the sprint no longer sets the grid for Sunday.
One of these days Verstappen is going to suffer a puncture in the sprint, opening the door for someone else to win, only for Max to dust himself down and dominate the grand prix from pole as if Saturday never even happened. Only that scenario will open eyes to the madness – the missed opportunity – of making the sprint race a separate entity.
The debates over refining (or simply rejecting) the sprint will continue, but one thing both sides can probably agree on is that the era of three practice sessions on a standard race weekend is not long for this world.
It is always an exciting time when Martin Brundle discovers a new catchphrase and his latest gem – “the worst sprint race of the last three years has been a whole lot better than the best practice session” – points to a fundamental truth.
Brundle’s view is echoed by the drivers, who in Thursday’s press conference at Interlagos agreed almost unanimously – Logan Sargeant, who on the evidence of his debut season needs all the track time he can get, was the exception – that the limited practice time is the redeeming feature of a sprint weekend.
Valtteri Bottas admitted that he has “never been a big fan of three practice sessions” and Charles Leclerc went further, commenting that the weekly FP1/FP2/FP3 slog “is really long” and “a bit boring.”
For a sport desperately seeking greater unpredictability, reducing the amount of practice sessions seems such an easy win – and crucially with no need to resort to gimmicks – for it stands to reason that the more preparation time teams are afforded the less variety there will be.
That has long been clear thanks to the various rain-affected weekends of recent times, resulting in the cancellation of various practice sessions with an often-enhanced effect on the show.
Despite F1’s determination to make the sprint a success, the best “experimental” format of the last few years remains the two-day weekend of 2020 Emilia Romagna GP, where Friday’s running was dropped entirely in favour of a single 90-minute practice session ahead of qualifying on Saturday.
It was successful, bringing a fresh focus to practice running, and seemed the ideal template for modern F1 and its ever-expanding calendar, but for no good reason – presumably the sharp decline in overall track time for broadcasters and sponsors – has been quietly forgotten.
Practice is tedious, allowing the performance pattern to become established long in advance of qualifying, and having three separate sessions on a standard weekend is unnecessary. At least on a sprint weekend, with just a single hour of practice to identify a workable setup, there comes a risk of getting it wrong.
The sprint format will likely remain imperfect – the current plans for 2024 to swap the timing of some sessions are unsatisfactory and amount to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – but F1’s basic intention to place teams and drivers in situations of competitive conflict as often as possible should be encouraged.
After all, it’s so much better to watch than a practice session.