Conclusions from a record-equalling Max Verstappen victory at the United States GP

Oliver Harden
Max Verstappen celebrates with his team. Austin October 2022

Race winner Max Verstappen celebrates with his team. Austin October 2022

Max Verstappen won the United States Grand Prix to equal the record for the most victories in a single season for a Formula 1 driver and clinch the 2022 Constructors’ World Championship for Red Bull on an emotional weekend for the team.

Here are our conclusions from Austin…

Verstappen’s victory a fitting tribute to Dietrich Mateschitz

Take a look around Formula 1 – around motor racing as a whole – and the tentacles of Red Bull stretch far and wide, from drivers to teams and even the races themselves.

Eight of the 20 drivers who started at the Circuit of the Americas on Sunday, from 35-year-old Sebastian Vettel to 22-year-old Yuki Tsunoda, have passed through the Red Bull system at some point, emphasising the depth of Dietrich Mateschitz’s imprint on F1 over the last two decades.

As Christian Horner – himself handed the opportunity of a lifetime when he became F1’s youngest team principal, aged 31, in 2005 – offered a touching tribute to Mateschitz following his death on Saturday, it seemed he was not only speaking on behalf of his team but of all to have held a link, past or present, to Red Bull.

Everything they have achieved, and everything they will achieve in the future, they owe it all to Dietrich.

And for a man who wielded more power and influence than most in Formula 1, Mateschitz did so with the most gentle touch and a complete absence of ego.

Not for him the life of the interfering owner: Mateschitz instead watched from afar, placing his total trust in the likes of Horner, Helmut Marko and Franz Tost to transform his vision into reality.

From what we know of him – and we must work only on character references as Mateschitz was a fiercely private individual – it would have felt almost wrong had Verstappen won this race in the routine and clinical fashion to which he has become so accustomed in recent months.

With Horner suggesting Mateschitz would have hated the idea of a minute’s silence in Austin, where Red Bull conducted their pre-race preparations to the sound of his favourite band The Rolling Stones, Verstappen’s slow second stop created the tension necessary for a true rock ‘n’ roll finish.

The true power and strength of Verstappen and Red Bull revealed itself in the final 20 laps as the two-time World Champion hunted down Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton, passing the latter for the lead with just six laps remaining.

As Red Bull celebrated their first Constructors’ title in nine years after a long climb back to the summit, the nature of Verstappen’s 13th win of 2022 was made infinitely more enthralling, exhilarating and entertaining than it might otherwise have been.

In other words, Max won it the Red Bull way.

Was this Mercedes’ last chance to win a race in 2022?

Armed with their final upgrade package of the season, Mercedes had targeted the United States GP as a race where they could finally secure their first win of 2022.

But they said the same about Spain, Silverstone, France, Hungary, Zandvoort and Singapore and look how they all turned out…

For a few minutes after Verstappen’s slow stop, however, a return to the top step of the podium for the first time since last December felt close enough to touch.

Yet not for the first time this season, the Red Bull’s recovery proved Mercedes’ shot at victory – 24 hours after Hamilton had qualified six tenths off pole position – was only ever an illusion.

From the start of this year Mercedes, Hamilton and George Russell have been united in their belief that they will get there in the end, but with only three races left of 2022 the end is coming up quick.

Will they get another chance to avoid a first winless season in a decade and for Hamilton to rescue his record of winning a race in every season of his F1 career?

Even during their dominant period Mercedes were generally weaker relative to the opposition, notably Red Bull, in the high-altitude conditions of Mexico.

Brazil? Potentially if it rains, but what if it doesn’t? Last year’s race between Hamilton and Verstappen tells us a car with a straight-line speed deficit will be defenceless on that long stretch (and two DRS zones) between the last corner of one lap and Turn 4 of the next.

As for Abu Dhabi? Look at those two long straights and weep.

Mercedes in 2022 have become increasingly reminiscent of pre-2021 Red Bull – a team of title-winning calibre constrained by a car that only excels in certain conditions and even on those rare occasions are reliant on factors outside of their control working in their favour.

What chance of the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers all running into trouble on exactly the same day and opening the door for a Mercedes win?

If it hasn’t happened already in 2022, why should anyone expect it to happen now?

The gloss is coming off George Russell’s season

As strong as Russell’s first year at Mercedes driver has been, defined by that long and unbroken stretch of top-five finishes, there was a point early in the summer when his season threatened to come off the rails.

Nobody cared to admit it at the time – mostly because few feel comfortable apportioning blame when the dangers of motor racing feel so real – yet he was largely at fault for the incident that resulted in Guanyu Zhou’s Alfa Romeo flipping upside-down at the start at Silverstone.

Still his only DNF of 2022, that was sandwiched between a Canadian GP where Russell spun on slicks in a wet Q3 – a mistake he was quite willing to wear as he pursued a surprise pole position – and a race in Austria where he received a penalty for colliding with Sergio Perez on the first lap.

That slightly sticky spell was negotiated neatly and soon forgotten as Russell recovered to score successive podiums in France and Hungary, also the scene of his memorable maiden pole.

With Russell himself openly admitting in Austin that he is not currently operating at that consistently high level, however, his latest dip in form is harder to ignore.

He has failed to outqualify Hamilton in the six grands prix since the summer break, with the three races since his last podium at Monza making for his most challenging period of the season.

If Singapore could be easily dismissed as one of those weekends – a brake issue in qualifying leading to Q2 elimination before gambling on strategy from the back in the wet – Suzuka, where he was beaten by both Alpines in qualifying, was slightly more concerning.

As in Japan, he qualified only a touch behind Hamilton in Austin but took polesitter Carlos Sainz out of the race at the first corner, earning a (quite lenient, given the effect on Ferrari’s race) five-second penalty.

Russell may have been the only man within Mercedes relieved that Hamilton did not hang on for the victory, for surely it would have not have sat comfortably with him that on a day the car could have won his own chances were blown by such a poor mistake.

He made the point of apologising to Sainz, but as every race passes the gloss is coming off his campaign.

The best and worst of Lance Stroll

There is a common misconception that racing drivers consider themselves to be uncoachable.

Whenever a driver endures a difficult period (think Romain Grosjean in 2012), it is often asked why – unlike, say, tennis players – they refuse to call upon the services of a dedicated coach to help them make marginal gains.

In reality, however, quite a large number do seek advice to refine their talent – it’s just that the coach in question does not fit the image most have of a man in a flat cap stood on the outside of a corner telling them exactly where to brake.

Since his debut season in 2017 Lance Stroll has worked consistently with the esteemed driver coach Rob Wilson – formerly relied upon by Kimi Raikkonen, David Coulthard, Valtteri Bottas and more – who makes the best drivers in the world even better using a humble Vauxhall Astra.

With Wilson it’s not so much about braking closer to the 100-metre board but working on the very heart of a driver’s technique – such intricate details as weight transfer, reducing the brake pedal pressure at just the right rate and his ‘flat car’ philosophy (effectively, minimising the load going through the car at any given time).

You won’t hear Lance or Aston Martin – or for that matter, Kimi or Valtteri – crediting Wilson on a race weekend, presumably because they prefer the world to think it’s all them.

But the impact of Stroll’s work with Wilson has become increasingly noticeable in recent weeks, Lance dragging the improving-but-still-reticent AMR22 to Q3 at Zandvoort and sixth in the wet – his highest finish in almost a year – in Singapore.

When he then qualified seventh in Austin on Saturday – quicker even than Lando Norris’s McLaren and Fernando Alonso in the Alpine – you could not help but wonder whether Stroll was now more advanced, at least in terms of technique, than his illustrious team-mate Vettel.

This weekend had the feel of a genuine breakthrough in Stroll’s career until the moment, on Lap 22, when he swiped suddenly to the left as Alonso, his 2023 team-mate, pulled out of his slipstream to pass on the back straight.

In an instant – as with his collision with Nicholas Latifi’s Williams in Melbourne qualifying – all his promising work was undone, Stroll again facing accusations that he never, ever learns.

There is perception and there is reality; in between them lies the truth.

Even the greatest coaches can only do so much to help those prone to moments of madness.

Ricciardo is risking the end of his career to become the world’s highest-paid clown

Daniel Ricciardo’s refusal to pursue a Haas seat for 2023 wouldn’t be so strange if his performances for McLaren over the last couple of years merited something better.

His reluctance to do everything he can to remain on the grid and restore his reputation at the first opportunity is the clearest indication of all that his hunger has gone and his priorities have changed in the years since he left Red Bull.

There used to be steel behind that smile. Now? Just an inflated ego and a sense of entitlement.

Texas was the scene of one of the last sightings of the old Daniel in 2021, Ricciardo revelling in the unique atmosphere of the event and finishing as high as fifth.

This year his favourite race only served to highlight how far he has fallen as he finished 16th, ahead only of the hapless Latifi, having once again been humiliated by Norris in qualifying.

The deficit to his team-mate this week? Just the standard six tenths.

As he chases a reserve driver role for next season with the hope of making a full return in 2024, Ricciardo doesn’t seem to realise that the same concerns over his McLaren spell will still exist 12 months from now, except he’ll be another year older as well as facing the normal doubts surrounding any driver making a comeback.

When you stop to consider how a Mercedes or Red Bull might use him as a reserve in 2023 – capitalising on his popularity for social media penetration – he is about to risk the end of his career to become the world’s highest-paid clown.

The joke will ultimately be on him.