F1 2023 conclusions: Max Verstappen’s rivals facing last chance against F1’s newest all-time great

Oliver Harden
F1 2023 season conclusions.

Max Verstappen and Red Bull stood above everyone else in the 2023 F1 season.

How to sum up the F1 2023 season in a single sentence? Max Verstappen making history, Sergio Perez very nearly becoming history and the rest.

This year was very much a tale of two Red Bull drivers with Mercedes, Ferrari, McLaren and Aston Martin all taking it in turns to try but never quite succeed in taking the the fight to the most dominant team F1 has ever seen.

Having last stopped for an overall assessment during the summer break, here are our final conclusions from 2023…

Max Verstappen and Red Bull are already among the great driver-team F1 partnerships

The true extent of Red Bull and Verstappen’s dominance in 2023 hit home hardest on the only day they failed to win.

As Carlos Sainz crossed the finish line to take victory for Ferrari in Singapore, the sight of a team other than Red Bull, a driver other than Verstappen, winning a race somehow felt like an event. A novelty.

How far we have fallen from the golden days of 2021.

That night – even more so than the record 10 victories in a row, even more so than the record 19 victories in a season – captured the essence of what Verstappen and Red Bull have become.

Even Michael Schumacher at his Ferrari best had a feisty upstart in a McLaren or a Williams snapping at his heels; even Lewis Hamilton, during his dominant days with Mercedes, had a tricky team-mate to contend with or a four-time World Champion in a Ferrari to worry about.

Max and Red Bull?

All sense of competition was stripped away in 2023, as if one of the most naturally gifted drivers and most organised teams in history together bent the entire sport to their will.

It has been incredible to watch, if at times painful to live through. Can greatness be fully appreciated when it comes with such draining inevitability? Certainly, the recent suggestion that Max alone represents the biggest danger to F1’s long-term prosperity under Liberty Media was the greatest backhanded compliment an athlete could ever wish to receive.

And what if this is not the end, but merely still the beginning?

For all the public optimism of other teams about 2024, Verstappen and Red Bull have established an advantage they will surely carry through until F1’s next regulation change in 2026 and possibly beyond.

Different winners will likely remain a rarity as Verstappen and Red Bull continue to cement their names among the most formidable to have come before. To the list including Schumacher/Ferrari, Hamilton/Mercedes and Senna/McLaren, now add Verstappen/Red Bull.

This is Max’s world now.

The rest? They’re all just living in it.

For all his faults, Sergio Perez allows Max to be Max

The great Sergio Perez debate was put into some perspective recently when someone posed the question few had thought to ask: what exactly would Daniel Ricciardo do in the Red Bull that Perez can’t?

Difficult question to answer, isn’t it?

Would Daniel, for instance, outpace Verstappen so convincingly to win at circuits like Baku?

Doubtful when acceleration out of slow corners – which allowed Checo to go just as fast as Max in the 90-degree turns of Baku’s Sector 1 while taking less from the tyres, setting him nicely up for the rest of the lap – remains the one advantage Perez still has over Verstappen.

Would he be generally faster and more consistent?

His pace in the RB19 Pirelli test would suggest so – his fastest lap at Silverstone, by all accounts, would have secured him a place on the front row (so within two-and-a-half tenths of Max) for the British Grand Prix two days earlier – but that overlooks the psychological strain of racing alongside Verstappen for an entire season.

All careers as Max’s team-mate end in failure and every solution Red Bull have tried so far – the established incumbent, the impressive rookies, the experienced outsider – has headed the same way.

Verstappen’s team-mates are to be judged not by how much they succeed, but how much they struggle.

And the way Ricciardo faded meekly alongside Lando Norris at McLaren does not inspire confidence that he would be able to withstand Triple World Champion Max, having already slipped behind Young Max prior to his original Red Bull departure in 2018.

So distil it down and what really would Daniel bring that Perez doesn’t? A nicer atmosphere? A few more smiles, at least until Max made his mood darken?

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When people talk about the best driver lineups in F1 it is always – understandably – Ferrari and Mercedes who get the most mentions, yet the greatest pairings of all are not so much about overall talent but balance.

There is a reason why Lewis Hamilton has been slightly diminished since George Russell arrived in 2022 and for as long as Carlos Sainz – just too talented, tough and intelligent to be a true number two – is at Ferrari the team will never have consistent access to Charles Leclerc’s complete potential.

Perez? Sure, he gets carried away a bit when he wins, he moans about the car’s development moving away from him, he qualifies nowhere near where he should and his shortcomings in combat are often exposed in his recoveries.

In being so frustrating, uninspiring and inconsistent, however, he affords Verstappen the breathing space to reach up and touch the sky.

“But!” some will say. “What about when Max has an off day? Won’t Red Bull need a wingman to step up?”

Max doesn’t do off days. Hasn’t for years. Unless Red Bull themselves have an off weekend like Brazil 2022 or Singapore 2023, on such occasions even the best drivers are rendered powerless.

For as long as Verstappen claims 15-20 wins per season and scores enough points to win the Constructors’ Championship all by himself, what real necessity is there to seek change? The identity of his wingman is largely irrelevant. Plus Perez brings sponsorship, which always helps.

The end of his contract in 2024 has the feel of a natural conclusion to Perez’s career, next season bringing the opportunity to either restore his reputation or stagger on.

Yet having resisted the loudest calls to drop him already, Red Bull should be wary of changing anything – of upsetting that balance they have – unless they absolutely must.

By being Sergio Perez, he allows Max Verstappen to be Max Verstappen.

2024 is the last chance for Mercedes and Ferrari to get it right

For Mercedes and Ferrari, this was largely a wasted year rooted in the bad decisions of last season.

In failing to recognise their 2022 car concepts had limited long-term potential, both teams consigned themselves to a season spent reversing out of a cul de sac, allowing Red Bull to break free and achieve an unprecedented level of dominance.

Rarely has second place in the Constructors’ standings, secured by Mercedes in Abu Dhabi, felt more like the First Loser Award.

If Ferrari at least did manage to salvage something from the season, achieving the distinction of being the only team other than Red Bull to win a race and setting a healthy number of pole positions along the way, Mercedes often looked out of ideas as the W14 morphed into a muddled patchwork mess of 2022/23/24 ideas.

Did Lewis Hamilton really sign up for two more years of this?

With the 2024 car set to establish the base for ’25 as attention gradually turns to F1’s new regulations in 2026, next season is almost certainly the very last chance for these teams to get it right under the current rules cycle.

And the signs for Ferrari and Mercedes, despite the current on-track evidence, are promising.


Because, unlike 2022, there is now a far greater awareness – helped by Perez’s crash in Monaco qualifying, giving everyone a full, 360-degree view of the RB19 craned high in the sky – of the true secrets behind Red Bull’s success.

Turns out it wasn’t the sidepods after all – listen up, Merc – but the high-roofed venturi tunnels within the floor combined with a longer-travel suspension, allowing Red Bull to run a lower ride height and effectively “seal” these tunnels for improved performance.

It is a function of ground effect F1 that the real performance differentiators are hidden underneath, with this situation likened in some quarters to the original ground effect era in the late 1970s when Lotus’s rivals were slow to understand exactly what wonders Colin Chapman had worked.

For Lotus and Chapman then, read Red Bull and Adrian Newey now.

If technical analysts in the F1 media have become wise to Red Bull’s deepest secrets, chances are that the technical departments of Ferrari and Mercedes – if they know what’s good for them – have too.

The night is darkest just before the dawn. Now there are no excuses.

Anything Aston Martin achieve before 2026 is a bonus

The most important moment of Aston Martin’s season?

Not Fernando Alonso’s podium in Bahrain, the result that validated an extraordinary winter’s development work, or when he pitted for another set of dry tyres just as rain arrived in Monaco and missed his best shot to win a race.

In fact it wasn’t anything at all to happen on track, but the morning of Wednesday May 24.

“AMF1 Team has today announced it is entering into a works partnership with Honda from 2026,” began the statement to confirm Aston Martin’s potential ticket to the top.

And bring a much-needed reminder that anything the team achieve before then is a bonus.

In hindsight, Aston Martin were promoted to a false position at the start of 2023 as a result of Ferrari and Mercedes’ missteps, Alonso’s run of six podiums in the first eight races bringing unrealistic expectations upon a team ranked seventh in the Championship in 2022.

Their gradual retreat was inevitable, not merely because Merc and Ferrari mounted recoveries (of sorts) but because Aston Martin remain at an early stage of their development, still putting the pieces in place for a prosperous future.

This was also the year the team made the move to a new state-of-the-art factory – the second-most important moment of their season – Aston Martin half a step behind McLaren in the infrastructure race between the Mercedes customers to shatter F1’s glass ceiling.

As McLaren discovered in 2022 while waiting for their new wind tunnel to open for business, it is difficult to maintain standards today when there is such a huge focus on tomorrow.

Aston Martin almost became victims of their own success, the criticism that followed their mid-season decline disproportionate – and a reflection of today’s instant-results culture – for a team actually ahead of schedule.

Despite Alonso’s reputation as someone who would start an argument in an empty room, he too is aware of the time it takes to build a winning team and has embraced with open eyes the challenge of taking Aston Martin to new heights all while enjoying his strongest season in a decade.

Still as hungry and motivated as he ever was – and, yes, still more than capable of winning the World Championship with the right car – he is the perfect personality to drive the project forward even if, at 42, he may ultimately not be the one to reap the rewards.

All roads lead to 2026.

McLaren and Williams are in very good hands

Before this season, most fans would have known Andrea Stella as the voice in Alonso’s ear at Ferrari, the race engineer he later took with him to McLaren.

Calm amid the chaos, trustworthy and loyal – it’s always a good sign when drivers take people from team to team – but did he really have the necessary attributes to assume one of the most coveted and high-pressure positions in F1?

When McLaren announced Stella’s promotion to team principal in the very same statement in which they confirmed Andreas Seidl’s departure last December, it had the feel of a move to ensure limited disruption and continue the team down the path Sauber-bound Seidl had set out – more about the project itself than the person.

There were fears that the job could swallow Stella whole following McLaren’s dreadful start to the season after missing development targets last winter.

Yet in the months since Stella, carrying himself with the unassuming intelligence that characterises the most remarkable F1 people, has proved himself as a leader of serious substance.

Having recognised the team had lost their way technically, Stella wasted little time in adjusting the structure of the team, putting the pieces in place for McLaren’s amazing recovery to emerge as Red Bull’s most consistent threat come mid-season.

It is a similar story at Williams, where James Vowles – previously known primarily for the “Valtteri, it’s James” radio soundbite as Mercedes’ strategist – has made a fine first impression.

Only the third team principal in Williams’ entire history, Vowles has a great respect for the position he now holds, frequently reiterating his refusal to make short-term fixes and insisting every decision he takes during his stewardship will be made with the team’s long-term interests in mind.

His treatment of his drivers demonstrated an emotional intelligence reminiscent of his mentor Toto Wolff, among the first of the new breed of very modern F1 managers.

Compare and contrast, for instance, Vowles’ unflinching support of a struggling Logan Sargeant to Guenther Steiner’s almost sadistic deconstruction of Mick Schumacher in 2022, undermining his own driver at every opportunity.

A sign of Vowles’ commitment to making only the right choices for Williams could be found in the team’s extended search for a new technical director, with Pat Fry’s appointment only announced at the end of July.

The signing of Fry – responsible for the 2019 car that ultimately returned McLaren to winning ways and the man who made Alpine look semi-respectable in 2022 – will ensure Williams’ revival, after their best Championship placing since 2017, does not end here.

Rest assured, these grand old teams are in very good hands.

Honourable mentions

Something’s not right with Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel combat. His collision with Russell at the start in Qatar was almost identical to his clash with Alonso at Spa 2022. Almost 39, is this apparent loss of spatial awareness a hint of decline?

The sooner Hamilton accepts his only shot at an eighth Championship came and went at Abu Dhabi 2021, the better. A move to Ferrari would have transformed the tone of the final years of his career. By extending for two more years with Mercedes, he has condemned himself to more frustration with fading hopes of recapturing his former glories.

Russell’s confidence is both his greatest quality and his biggest weakness. There is a fine line between imposing yourself on every single situation and arrogance/recklessness.

Mercedes’ organisational slackness is as big a concern as the underperforming car. The sight of Hamilton and Russell colliding in Barcelona qualifying followed by another near miss in the sprint shootout at Spa – and several Q1/Q2 exits along the way – pointed to an alarming drop in standards since their title-winning peak.

His toughest season to date, but Charles Leclerc remains the driver around whom Ferrari must build their future. His acts of selflessness in Singapore (sacrificing himself to help Sainz win) and Abu Dhabi (dropping behind Perez) were a measure of the man.

But don’t underestimate Sainz, who continues to rise to every challenge set before him. Pipping Leclerc to consecutive pole positions in Monza and Singapore was proof of how far he has come this year.

Oscar Piastri is a Verstappen clone: fast, cool and with little interest in anything else but racing. Outpacing Lando Norris over a single lap at true driver circuits like Spa and Suzuka is a very good sign. He will be tough to contain once he masters those Pirelli tyres.

Norris has never had it so good in F1, but his emotional reaction to Piastri’s sprint win in Qatar confirmed that his temperament risks holding him back. A maiden victory of his own has become a matter of urgency. With just an ounce of Russell’s self-belief, he would be lethal.

Lawrence Stroll sent his own son to slaughter by signing Alonso. After Lance measured up well against Sebastian Vettel, did Lawrence think he could handle Fernando too? Big mistake.

Team Enstone as we know it is dead: Alpine are a marketing scheme with an F1 team attached. The public sackings of Otmar Szafnauer and Alan Permane at Spa was a reminder that sport is a people’s business that treats people badly.

Did Pierre Gasly make a mistake joining Alpine? For as long as he was at AlphaTauri, he was still young, exciting, bubbling with potential. These days, much like his team, he merely fades into the background and makes up the numbers. And all this just as AlphaTauri prepare to form closer ties with Red Bull…

Ricciardo is slowly but surely untangling the bad habits he picked up at McLaren. Red Bull and AlphaTauri are the only ones who understand him and stood a chance of piecing Daniel back together again.

Yuki Tsunoda is finally learning to stand on his own feet. His most impressive season so far has come after losing his mentor Gasly last winter, with team principal Franz Tost’s departure another change to adapt to in 2024.

Liam Lawson will have a seat on the grid before 2024 is out. His stunning five-race cameo totally extinguished any lingering doubts Red Bull may have had over his ultimate potential.

Audi have a lot of work to do to make a successful team out of Sauber, who can do so much better than their current Bottas/Zhou line-up. 2024 already looks set to be another season of stagnation before things start to get serious.

Alex Albon’s rehabilitation continues apace, but his Red Bull reputation will continue to stalk him. Talk of being at the centre of next year’s driver market is premature, but he would make a sensible signing for Audi when the time comes.

Nico Hulkenberg should never have been without an F1 seat for three full seasons. His dominant qualifying performances over Kevin Magnussen confirmed his adaptable, plug-in-and-play quality made obvious by his Covid cameos with Racing Point/Aston Martin.

Hulkenberg’s frustrations with Haas are revealing. Having initially complained about their unique model in 2016, the likes of Aston Martin and AlphaTauri are now doing it better. No higher than eighth in the Championship for five seasons running, Haas have found their natural level.

Logan Sargeant is deserving of another season on balance. Promoted to F1 much too soon, he began to reward Vowles’ faith towards the end of 2023 even if he does remain rough around the edges…

Las Vegas will be a highlight of the F1 calendar for years to come and its success puts Miami in the shade. Miami’s future has to be as a night race.

Track limits are the scourge of modern F1. The post-race nonsense in Austria made a mockery of the sport and must never be repeated.

Three practice sessions on a standard race weekend is unnecessary in F1’s modern era. The 60-minute FP1 session in place on sprint weekends is popular among drivers and should be a starting point for any future format changes.

Maybe it’s time to stop the practice of standing starts after red flags if Race Control can’t be trusted to use them sensibly. The end of the Australian Grand Prix was up (down) there with Abu Dhabi 2021 when it came to F1 choosing show over sport.

Memo to all stewards everywhere: please stop “noting” things. The sight of that blue FIA banner at the top of the screen is the ultimate passion killer and its appearances should be limited. Only let us know when incidents are being investigated.

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