Max Verstappen claimed Red Bull’s 100th Formula 1 win in Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The reigning World Champion was joined on the podium by Fernando Alonso, who secured Aston Martin’s sixth podium in eight races, and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, who registered a second consecutive top-three finish.
On a weekend where Charles Leclerc’s frustration with Ferrari boiled over once again, here are our conclusions from Montreal…
Charles Leclerc has lost his F1 superpower: the ability to be self-critical
The mark of a successful athlete? A preparedness to be self-critical, to accept that there is always room for improvement and so much more to learn.
The moment they allow themselves to think they have everything sussed, they are on the road to nowhere.
That was Leclerc’s redeeming feature in the early days at Ferrari, his willingness to be open about his own shortcomings – recall the way he caned himself for being “stupid” after crashing in Baku 2019 qualifying – even more striking, even more impressive than his immediate pace advantage over a driver as decorated as Sebastian Vettel.
He was relentlessly hard on himself, so much so that the thought occasionally occurred that Leclerc’s approach risked being counterproductive, potentially even damaging.
What ever happened to him?
Since Leclerc’s first title challenge began to crumble around this time last year, Formula 1’s model student has changed and not for the better.
Why bother taking a long, hard look in the mirror when it’s far easier and quite fashionable to blame the team, the car? In times of difficulty – and these are tough times for Ferrari – he has decided to look after number one.
Leclerc let the team have it once more – look what this lot have done to me again – after his early elimination from qualifying in Canada, having missed the window to squeeze in a lap on slick tyres in Q2.
“We will, again, discuss with the team but we need to do a step forward now because it’s not the first time that it happens,” he said, adding that “we are quite often on the wrong side of making those decisions in those tricky situations.”
It has been apparent, however, since Monaco 2022 – undeniably a turning point in the Ferrari/Leclerc love story, when the trust between them was perhaps permanently severed – that indecision in moments of uncertainty is a regular issue on his side of the garage.
For all his claims that his “clear opinion and intuition” was ignored by the pit wall, insistent on a banker lap on intermediates, why over the last 12 months has Leclerc not worked more on developing the assertiveness and leadership qualities that have often paid dividends for team-mate Carlos Sainz in similar situations?
Even during the race in Canada, Sainz was heard over team radio telling the team to reconsider when advised to pit.
In an identical scenario, Leclerc is still more likely to do as he’s told and ask about it later, no doubt having already criticised the team in the public glare.
Leclerc’s latest misstep came around 48 hours after his last, when conversation in Thursday’s formal FIA press conference turned to his alarming struggles at the previous round in Spain as he admitted to being worried after a Ferrari investigation did not uncover a problem with his car.
Yet it was plainly clear on the day – indeed it was pointed out in this very column – that the difference between Sainz and Leclerc in Barcelona qualifying was a simple matter of tyre temperature, the former’s more abrupt and abrasive technique better for generating heat on a cold day on the hardest compounds.
Two weeks on, has it somehow still not occurred to Leclerc – who after a complete rear-end change overnight in Spain could only recover to 11th in the race – that Sainz just did a better job, as he also did in similar qualifying conditions back in Melbourne?
In motor racing, the skill of being self-critical involves a driver disassociating their own inputs from the behaviour of the car itself. What can I sort out through adjustments to my driving and what, on the other hand, might require closer attention from the engineers?
The very best always ask questions of themselves first before seeking setup changes (note, for instance, how often Hamilton will admit “there’s more to come from my side” at the end of Friday practice).
Leclerc at his best remains among the most exciting talents on the grid, but has not exactly covered himself in glory either in 2023 and is gradually morphing into the sort of driver – evading accountability and, if reports are to be believed, increasingly active politically – many were convinced he would never become.
Even if he often has a point, whenever a driver takes on Ferrari so often and in such a public manner, there is usually only one winner.
Red Bull: F1’s greatest-ever sponsor?
All the numbers were being thrown around after Verstappen took the chequered flag in Montreal.
At just 25, he has already equalled the great Ayrton Senna’s total of 41 grand prix victories. This, meanwhile, was the 200th F1 win for an Adrian Newey car.
By far the most compelling statistic, however – because in sport the team’s achievements should always take precedence over individuals – is that Red Bull are now on 100 wins and counting.
Much was said about Red Bull’s influence on modern F1 following the death of founder Dietrich Mateschitz last October, less than a fortnight after Verstappen was crowned World Champion for the second year in succession, and on this milestone occasion it is worth revisiting to remind us just how far their tentacles stretch.
Red Bull’s presence on the grid is, of course, not just limited to the winning team of the first eight races of F1 2023, with former perennial backmarkers Minardi – currently competing as AlphaTauri – under Red Bull ownership since 2006 and also enjoying a certain level of success in that timespan.
Red Bull were behind the revival of Austria’s grand prix circuit and then, in 2014, the event itself in what is now widely regarded as one of the highlights of any given season, and over the the last two decades have gifted the sport such figures as Vettel and Verstappen, with Sainz and eight-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo emerging in between.
Critics of Helmut Marko’s methods point to the unforgiving treatment of some to have emerged from the junior academy, but overlook the fact that many of those drivers – like Sebastien Buemi, now a four-time winner of the historic Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race – may never have had the opportunity to race in F1 and achieve subsequent success without Red Bull providing a pathway.
And that’s not all, with Red Bull’s prominence trackside also increasing in recent times. After their logos lined some of the walls at the Miami circuit, last month they were announced as a key partner of Las Vegas’s inaugural F1 race this November.
Add it all together and there is a very convincing case to be made that Red Bull stand as F1’s greatest-ever sponsor.
Not bad for an energy drink, eh?
The Hamilton/Russell dynamic is following a similar pattern to 2022
Doubts over the true potential of the upgraded Mercedes W14 may remain, but what cannot be denied is that the revised car has relit Hamilton’s fire.
He has now outqualified and outraced George Russell at all three rounds since the Merc sprouted sidepods in Monaco, having started ahead of his team-mate just once (Baku) in the five races during the zero-pod’s dying days.
It is a role reversal reminiscent of last season when Hamilton – still unbalanced by the trauma of Abu Dhabi 2021 and slowly readjusting his expectations to the most troublesome car of his career, handed to him at the worst possible time – struggled initially to deal with the bouncing monster.
Russell, you’ll recall, began his time at Mercedes with a run of nine straight finishes in the top five, yet the tide began to turn as the team gained a greater understanding of the car.
From round nine in Canada, Hamilton finished in the top five 11 times – including eight podiums – in the final 14 races, establishing a small but decisive pace advantage over Russell even if the latter would go on to claim Mercedes’ only win of the season in Brazil.
Might the same be happening again? Is Lewis coming back to life now the car, though still not perfect, is in a happier place with a more stable platform?
If so, it would be nothing we haven’t seen before.
Even during his time alongside Valtteri Bottas, there would be days – think Russia and Monaco 2017 – when Hamilton was unable to drive around the car’s limitations as effectively as his team-mate, only to take off and hit new heights when the sweet spot was located later in the year.
It felt significant here that Russell’s mistake came as he fought to remain attached to the rear of the Hamilton/Alonso battle, pushing things a little too hard in his attempts to keep up and being caught out on the kerb at Turn 9.
Having seemingly had Hamilton covered just a few weeks ago, suddenly George has a live one on his hands again and the pressure to respond is now all on him.
Fernando Alonso’s latest podium hints Aston Martin are here to stay
Just getting to this point – in contention for podiums on a weekly basis – is a stunning achievement for F1 2023’s most-improved team.
They key question in a sport in which nobody ever stands still, however, was whether Aston Martin could sustain it against the might of Mercedes and Ferrari as they managed the transition to a new state-of-the-art factory.
With the necessity to put the building blocks in place for a prosperous future, wasn’t it inevitable that the present would be sacrificed to some degree?
Not for the first time this year, Lawrence Stroll’s team have challenged conventional thinking and demonstrated that, actually, it doesn’t have to be that way.
With Mercedes and Ferrari making highly visible changes to their cars in recent weeks, Alonso was quick to sound the alarm in Spain – the scene of Aston Martin’s weakest performance of the season – emphasising the importance of hitting back in the development race.
So along they came in Canada armed with new sidepods and a revised floor – all with the aim of improving the AMR23’s drag shortfall and making the car more aerodynamically efficient, to use the modern term.
On paper at least, the long straights of Montreal had the look of one of Aston’s toughest races of 2023 to date based on previous form.
Yet there was Alonso, within 10 seconds of Verstappen at the finish having batted away the advances of Hamilton’s Mercedes, all while managing rear-brake temperatures in the closing stages, to equal his best result of the season.
From Alonso’s poor start from the front row to the concerns over the brakes, this may not have been their most convincing day of 2023 so far.
But as the champagne flowed again it was maybe the most important – proof, perhaps, that Aston Martin really are here to stay.
How good is Alex Albon? It’s quite hard to tell…
How good is Alex Albon?
No, sorry, that wasn’t intended to be rhetorical.
Actually how good is he? What’s his ceiling as a grand prix driver? We ask because it’s quite difficult to get an accurate gauge.
With two top-10 finishes and a couple of Q3 appearances already for a Williams team who’ve found points hard to come by in recent years, Albon is now achieving the sort of results that have won drivers – including his predecessor Russell – big moves from backmarkers in the past.
But how much of it is down to Alex and how much of it is Williams?
Albon’s big problem? Nyck de Vries, who deputised for him at short notice at Monza last year and scored two points on his F1 debut.
In truth, since that day – and particularly in light of De Vries’ painful struggles against Yuki Tsunoda at AlphaTauri in 2023 – it has been hard to shake the feeling that any driver of a decent enough standard would be made to look good by that Williams at certain tracks.
For all the plaudits Albon has received this year is he really doing anything that, say, Tsunoda, Zhou Guanyu, Lance Stroll or even Mick Schumacher couldn’t?
His seventh-place finish in Canada owed much to Williams’ boldness in making Albon the first driver to sample a set of slicks during the rain-affected qualifying session, his lap on nicely warmed tyres enough to top the Q2 times.
With his place in the top 10 secured in a car with fearsome straight-line performance, fast enough to keep others behind even without DRS, is there much more to it beyond remaining calm, putting your foot down and letting the complete lack of downforce do the rest?
This is not to discredit Albon’s performance, but to make a distinction between the man and the machinery.
Something to consider before excitedly urging Red Bull to give him another go.