Red Bull driver Max Verstappen equalled his 2022 record of 15 wins in a season by taking victory in the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.
The three-time World Champion recovered from sixth on the grid to take his 50th career win, but was not totally comfortable with both second-placed Lewis Hamilton and third-placed Lando Norris challenging him at various points. Hamilton and Charles Leclerc were later disqualified for failing post-race scrutineering checks, promoting Carlos Sainz to third.
On the weekend Daniel Ricciardo returned from injury, here are our conclusions from the Circuit of The Americas…
Max Verstappen’s calls for sprint format tweaks must be resisted
The highlight of F1’s sprint race format?
Not the 100km jolly on a Saturday afternoon, but the single hour-long practice session on a Friday.
With just 60 minutes to identify a workable setup ahead of qualifying, it is here where the organisation, processes and procedures of the teams – and the malleability of the cars – are put through the most stringent test.
Get it right and you’re in business; get it wrong and you’re condemned to a weekend in hell, where in extreme cases – see Aston Martin and Haas here – it’s preferable to forfeit your place on the grid in favour of a pit-lane start in exchange for the freedom to rip it up and start all over again.
It is almost a full year since Red Bull first fell foul of the vagaries of the sprint format in Brazil, where the dominant car of 2022 was rendered almost undrivable.
And with the car stuck under parc fermé conditions from Friday night, there was nothing the team could do about it as Verstappen and Sergio Perez ultimately limped to a distant sixth and seventh on the day George Russell took Mercedes’ only victory of the ground effect era.
So it’s no surprise, then, that Verstappen is no fan of this format – something he has made very clear over the last two weekends in Qatar and Austin, the first back-to-back sprint weekends in F1’s history.
“The problem with this beautiful format is that you can’t really change anything on the car,” he said with three dollops of sarcasm on Saturday here. “Once you commit to something, you’re stuck with it for the rest of the weekend.”
Verstappen is not alone in calling for teams to be allowed to keep working on their cars over a sprint weekend, yet the unease among the competitors about this specific element of the format is precisely why calls for change must be resisted.
If the various rain-affected weekends of recent years have taught us anything, it is that races are generally more exciting when the teams’ preparations are interrupted or reduced, forcing a degree of improvisation and, at times, guesswork.
The result? The cars are less planted, the drivers are less comfortable, the teams are less certain in their decision making. What’s not to like?
After the Red Bulls were the only cars to lift through the compression of Eau Rouge back at Spa – a measure taken by the team to avoid excessive plank wear, which would’ve risked disqualification (and was the reason why Verstappen’s race engineer reminded him throughout the race to “use your head”) – the bumpy nature of the COTA forced them to run a higher ride height than usual this weekend.
With such little practice time to optimise the car in its revised state Red Bull were incapacitated for the duration of the weekend, their normal advantage over the opposition drastically reduced.
Hence why Ferrari, in the hands of Charles Leclerc, were able to take pole position on Friday. Hence why McLaren and Mercedes, in the hands of Norris and Hamilton respectively, were both able to make Max nervous in the grand prix.
Verstappen still came through to win, of course – no challenge is too great in his glow as a newly crowned three-time World Champion – but it made for one of the most tense and absorbing races of the entire 2023 season.
And it can all be traced back to the sprint, bringing an extra variable into play and making Red Bull’s life more difficult than it normally would have been.
Maybe, just maybe, this much-maligned format does have its plus points after all…
A eureka moment for Mercedes at last?
Much of Mercedes’ rhetoric over the last two seasons has mirrored that of McLaren during the Honda years.
If only they could sort out the porpoising, the car would dominate. That’s what they kept saying in 2022. In much the same way McLaren were convinced they would have won races between 2015-17 if it wasn’t for that useless Honda powertrain.
When McLaren finally got rid of Honda, juicily sending the engine manufacturer on a path to title glory with Red Bull, the team’s statements over that three-year period were soon revealed for what they were: nonsense.
And when Mercedes began this season effectively with the 2022 car minus the porpoising, they quickly realised the fundamental concept was never the Red Bull beater they envisioned.
Hence the rapid redesign and a new-look car sprouting sidepods, yet with the same basic architecture as the original chassis, in Monaco.
Despite only marginal progress in the months since, the bold statements have kept coming, Mercedes – like McLaren back then – carrying all the signs of a team struggling to adjust to their new reality.
They remain hopeful of returning to title contention in 2024, but what evidence is there to believe it possible? How much trust, how much faith can there be in a team who keep overpromising and underdelivering?
Even Lewis Hamilton – watching two of Mercedes’ customers, first Aston Martin and then McLaren, make double the strides in half the time in 2023 – has often sounded alienated by his own team’s inability to get it right.
But this time? This time feels different.
With minds turning towards next year – surely the very last chance for rival teams to make an impression on Red Bull for the remainder of the current rules cycle – Mercedes brought to Austin a new floor set to inform the development path for the 2024 car.
With the underbody generating a greater proportion of a car’s overall downforce in this ground effect era, the impact was immediate – Hamilton visibly more lively on track, sensing he has a car he can work with again and remarking as early as Friday that this is one of the few upgrades that has made a noticeable difference over the last two years.
Mercedes remain constrained by the patchwork of 2022/23/24 ideas the current package has become – and the team’s strategic slackness potentially denied them a victory here long before Hamilton’s DSQ – but the new floor design is an important starting point, the point around which the rest of next season’s W15 will be conceived.
Of all the mistakes Sergio Perez has made in 2023, the crash that led to his car been craned up high in the Monte Carlo sky – gifting Mercedes, Ferrari and the rest a complete 360-degree understanding of the RB19’s precious secrets – will be the one that irritates Red Bull most.
On that note…
Would a Red Bull return unlock the old Daniel Ricciardo?
For Daniel Ricciardo, back in the saddle in Austin after missing five races with a broken hand, the road to a Red Bull return starts here. Maybe.
If Ricciardo is indeed the answer, Red Bull appeared to be asking the wrong question on Friday as he faded out of qualifying in a fashion that has become very familiar over recent years, bottom of the Q2 timesheets with an unflattering and consistent three-tenth deficit to Yuki Tsunoda.
That he rose again on Saturday to marginally miss out on a place in the top 10 in the sprint shootout, however, acted as a reminder that Ricciardo, Red Bull and AlphaTauri are all still very much in the process of untangling the bad habits he developed during his two seasons with McLaren.
Yet after being the last of the classified finishers on Sunday as Tsunoda scored a very good point with 10th place, with three race weekends completed in the AlphaTauri the evidence so far remains, at best, inconclusive that Ricciardo is what Red Bull really need as an alternative to Perez.
Which doesn’t seem to tally with the stories from Ricciardo’s post-British GP test in the RB19 in July, when the world was led to believe – albeit by some of his friends in the media – that Daniel was back and just as quick as he ever was.
The whispers from Silverstone were not so easy to trust when such critical details as fuel loads, tyre compounds and the condition of the track – rubbered in nicely after a full race weekend – were unknown, but the great revelation of that day was that Ricciardo’s fastest lap would have put him on the front row for the grand prix (so within two-and-a-half tenths of Verstappen’s time for pole position).
With that same driver now struggling to match someone of Tsunoda’s standard, could it simply be that Ricciardo – unlike Fernando Alonso – is just not cut out to drive mediocre F1 cars?
And if presented with a well-balanced car with huge inherent downforce and massive grip – let’s say, obviously picking one out at random, next year’s Red Bull RB20 – he would return to something closer to his former self?
Take a look through Ricciardo’s F1 career and a theme emerges that he tends to regress to the mean when the car isn’t particularly to his liking.
He was relatively evenly matched with Jean-Eric Vergne over two seasons at Toro Rosso in his earliest days, but to the surprise of everyone went on to run Sebastian Vettel, the reigning four-time World Champion, out of town when handed a winning Red Bull in 2014.
He would sometimes outqualify Nico Hulkenberg, sometimes not, in his first year at Renault in 2019, but dominated Esteban Ocon when the car improved significantly in 2020.
And, of course, he would lag behind Norris for two painful seasons at McLaren. Except for one weekend at Monza when it all suddenly made sense.
The best way to accelerate Ricciardo’s rehabilitation and unlock the Daniel of old almost overnight? Be brave and give him back his old seat.
Trouble is, tempting as it might be, it’s so hard for Red Bull to justify doing that – and to believe that he could live with Verstappen now – when he can’t even beat Tsunoda.
Aston Martin risk wasting the opportunity their start to 2023 created
Now demoted to fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, what has been the more remarkable aspect of Aston Martin’s season – the rise or the fall?
F1 appeared to have a new contender during their run of six podiums in eight races at the start of the season, the very presence of a force of nature like Alonso bringing a refreshing new energy and focus to the team.
How to explain their steady decline in the months since?
A tally of just 17 points from the last five races is surely not what Lawrence Stroll had in mind when back in Bahrain he declared Alonso’s first podium as “a clear indication” that the team are on a trajectory to compete for World Championships.
Did the development missteps of Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren over the winter simply flatter Aston Martin at the start of the year?
Has the challenge of balancing the demands of today and tomorrow – maintaining strong performances on track while managing the transition to an ambitious new factory – proven just too big? Or, as some believe, has the FIA’s flexi-wing clampdown hurt Aston Martin more than most?
If Lance Stroll is now familiar with falling in Q1, Alonso’s first early qualifying exit of 2023 was all the more alarming given that it came on a weekend the team introduced a sizable upgrade package.
Alonso questioned the wisdom of bringing an upgrade on a sprint weekend with such limited practice time, yet it is possibly a reflection of the creeping desperation within Aston Martin to get their season back on track that drove the team – as with Haas, still clinging to the hope of pipping Williams to seventh – to bring it here.
A far bigger worry, however, is that every attempt to improve the car this season – from the first major upgrade in Canada to now – has had the opposite effect for Aston Martin.
The call on Alonso’s side of the garage to revert to the old-spec car for race day, happily taking a pit-lane start, was damning of the team’s lack of progress.
There remains a possibility that their slide into midfield obscurity will benefit Aston Martin over the medium/long term, fifth place affording them more wind tunnel and CFD time over the winter for another serious (and, this time, sustained) tilt at the established frontrunners in 2024.
But this trend of downgrades must be arrested – and fast – if the team are to avoid wasting the opportunity their start to this season created.
Pole position is on the wrong side of the grid at COTA
So, who had Norris leading out of the first corner as one of their pre-race predictions?
Quite a lot of people, apparently.
The great statistic heading into the US GP was that in the last five editions of the race, only one polesitter had held the lead at Turn 1.
And that was Valtteri Bottas in 2019 at his Mercedes, porridge-eating, beard-growing peak. Nobody but nobody was getting past him that day.
So it really came as no surprise when Norris out-accelerated Leclerc off the line and swept into the lead, enjoying some laps at the head of the field himself having been left crestfallen by Oscar Piastri beating him to a first F1 win in the Qatar sprint two weeks ago.
Austin is one of the few tracks on the calendar when the pole position slot is probably on the wrong side of the grid, the dirty side here not quite as dirty as some other circuits ahead of the short, great climb to Turn 1.
It may be dismissed as a minor detail but carries potential safety issues too, encouraging the driver on pole to go extreme in defence in a desperate attempt to maintain the position.
See how Verstappen kept edging, edging, edging Leclerc ever closer to the grass at the start of the sprint race on Saturday – on one of the widest tracks of the season – to picture what could happen between two stubborn racing drivers refusing to budge.
How to fix this?
With a simple catch-all rule: if ever a driver who misses out on pole goes on to say that P2 is not a bad place to start, it’s probably a sign that pole is on the wrong side of the grid.