F1 2023 conclusions so far: ‘Warbot’ Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez crisis and more

Oliver Harden
F1 2023 mid-season conclusions, Max Verstappen.

F1 2023 mid-season conclusions, Max Verstappen.

The F1 2023 season began as a stop-start affair, but after a breathless run of seven races in 10 weeks everyone is ready for the summer break.

Everyone, perhaps, except Max Verstappen and Red Bull, who won every single one of those rounds and whose dominance of this year has shown no sign of abating. Expect the Max-a-thon to pick up where it left off when the season resumes at his home race at Zandvoort later this month.

Having last paused for breath during the three-week gap between Australia and Azerbaijan back in April, here’s what we’ve concluded from the nine races since Melbourne…

Is F1’s boom built to survive another ice age?

Liberty Media’s greatest achievement? Making a commercial success out of this era of Formula 1 with its deeply unloved, dull-sounding V6 hybrid engines.

Whaddya know? Turns out a bit of YouTube and Netflix is more than enough to make up for what newer fans lost by never feeling a V10 rumble the earth beneath their feet.

Potentially the biggest challenge of all facing F1’s owners, however, is happening right now – finding a way to navigate the sport’s current boom through yet another ice age of one-team, one-driver dominance.

If the eras of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton were bad for business in years gone by – Sebastian Vettel’s was generally more open than his record of four straight titles suggested – the current control exerted by Red Bull and Verstappen risks being the most gloriously self-harming of all.

Fans are regularly urged to remember how privileged they are to witness such greatness unfolding before their eyes – and that, to a large degree, is true – yet it is tough to appreciate when it feels like they are sitting down to watch exactly the same thing happen each weekend.

The obscene success of Verstappen, like Schumacher and Hamilton before him, is the sort of dominance best fit for a message in a bottle – to be found and fully valued by future generations rather than those forced to live through it – and even picking a highlight from the first 12 races of 2023 is a hard ask.

Australia? A dramatic end, but you really wouldn’t want to encourage that nonsense with the red flags. Monaco? The heart did at least skip a beat when the rain came down. Silverstone? That was fun! For about three laps. Until Max retook the lead.

It does not help too that the new raceable cars F1 excitedly introduced in 2022 had a shelf life of just 12 months before downforce did its thing again, the natural performance gains found by teams from season to season partially re-establishing the forcefield to protect the car ahead.

Certainly, the fun and games of 2021 are now well and truly over and F1 has returned to the dormant state – its key elements of rivalry and competition stripped away – in which it has found itself all too often this century.

A wise man once said that sport is the only industry on the planet that can serve up crap one day and persuade people to pay through the nose for the same thing a week later.

That statement gets to the heart of sport as something that seeps into the bones and inspires emotions of attachment and devotion like nothing else.

Ever wondered just how many Drive to Survive converts were really bitten by the bug? With Max painting an era orange, we may be about to find out.

Red Bull and ‘war machine’ Max Verstappen are setting a new standard

Jacques Villeneuve may not be to everyone’s taste, but it cannot be denied that the 1997 World Champion has a way with words. Always has.

And in an interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport last month, he came up with the best line anyone has ever mustered to get to the essence of Max Verstappen, leaving sportswriters around the world kicking themselves that they didn’t think of it first.

Max, he mused, is “a war machine, a robot” before expanding with an answer that had the feel of a love letter.

“He always has an extraordinary energy, he never gives up,” he explained. “And he makes a difference. Verstappen has always been like that, for years. He’s at his best for the whole season. It’s hallucinating how he does it, maybe only [Fernando] Alonso was comparable.

“If you look at most of the other drivers they all have ups and downs, often with quite a bit of difference between them. Not him. I really don’t know where he gets all that energy from. When he is like that, which is practically all the time, he is unbeatable.”

If words are not your thing – in which case: what are you doing here? – it helps that the numbers pretty much say it all.

Following last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, Verstappen has now won 35 of the last 56 races stretching back to the start of his maiden title-winning season in 2021.

Much has been made of his current streak of eight consecutive wins and the team’s record-breaking run of 13, yet the dominance of Verstappen and Red Bull together stretches far beyond that.

Were it not for a fuel misjudgement in Singapore, sprint setup woes in Brazil, a driveshaft failure in Jeddah and an ill-timed Safety Car in Baku – three of which were won by Sergio Perez anyway – Verstappen really could have claimed victory at every single one of the 23 races held over the last 12 months since France 2022.

If that underlines the scale of their current control, it also reveals how easily Red Bull’s target of an unbeaten season – growing ever larger on the horizon with each passing weekend – can be suddenly snatched away across the remaining 10 races.

Other team and driver combinations have dominated F1 before, but never like this. Never with such brutality. Never with such consistent, effortless excellence and efficiency.

Together they have set a new standard and consigned the whole concept of the occasional off weekend – a recurring theme of Hamilton’s golden years with Mercedes – to the past.

Red Bull in 2023 are the slickest of well-oiled machines F1 has ever seen – and Verstappen is the relentless, rampaging warbot at the heart of it all.

Sergio Perez has played his hand so badly at Red Bull

For all the talk that followed Daniel Ricciardo’s return “home” as the team’s reserve driver last winter, there were only two possible scenarios in which Perez’s Red Bull seat would come under threat during 2023.

The first? If he suddenly turned into Pierre Gasly or Alex Albon and stopped doing the very job he was signed to do, unfathomably becoming lost in the crowd of the midfield in what is already one of the most dominant cars in history.

The second? If his underlying inter-team tension with Verstappen, which dramatically revealed itself to the world at Interlagos last year, proved unresolvable.

That Perez’s place has come under such severe scrutiny in recent months, with Ricciardo placed at AlphaTauri seemingly to be evaluated as a potential alternative, tells you all you need to know about the way his season has developed.

And it started so well too, with two victories from the first four races – yet was it a coincidence that his season imploded at the moment he began to have ideas above his station and talked up the possibility of beating Verstappen to the title?

Steady on, Sergio: don’t you know Max is, always has been and always will be the point around which Red Bull’s world revolves? Talk about asking for trouble.

With such a bold statement came with it the pressure and sure enough the mistakes, Perez failing to reach Q3 for five consecutive races between Monaco and Silverstone and too ready and willing to reach for excuses (note his regular use of the royal “we” in times of difficulty).

None left a bitter taste quite like his qualifying exit in Australia, where Perez blamed – and continued to blame, even referring to it over team radio after winning in Baku – an unspecified car problem for his off in Q1, rubbing harshly against Red Bull’s repeated assertion that the RB19 was perfectly healthy.

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His disappearing act, mirroring his run of just three podiums in nine races following his Monaco victory last year, would have been so much easier to stomach if Verstappen and Perez had played nicely on the increasingly rare occasions they have met on track.

A competitive tension permeated through the air as they traded fastest laps in Jeddah, each not quite trusting the other to accede to the pit wall’s requests to slow down, and even as Perez led at Spa Verstappen was not convinced that Checo was following the same instructions he was being given by his race engineer.

Yet it was the start of the Austria sprint race, as the once-trusty wingman squeezed Red Bull’s reigning double World Champion on to the wet grass at the team’s own track, that may have crystallised the thought in the minds of Helmut Marko and Christian Horner that Perez and Verstappen may be better kept apart.

A heat-of-the-moment move it may have been, yet while both drivers wisely backed away from the brink on the day the reverberations of that act of war will not be forgotten and may only be revealed in time.

If the Brazil 2022 controversy taught us anything, after all, it is that Max very much is the type to hold a grudge…

It is difficult to escape the sense that there is a cultural element behind Perez’s continued refusal to back down to Verstappen rather than, as many would, remain eternally grateful for the car he has and the fortunate position he finds himself at this relatively late stage of his career.

After Valtteri Bottas’s name became synonymous with weakness alongside Hamilton at Mercedes – a long-term Finnish sponsor memorably turned its back on him after a winless 2018, fuelling his famous team radio retaliation – there is perhaps an unspoken but desperate need for Perez, the pride of Mexico who competes with a greater sense of national identity that most, to avoid the same characterisation.

If there is even a grain of truth to that theory, it is hugely admirable – noble even – but painfully self-defeating and short-sighted to the point of naive when applied to a Max-centric environment.

When he eventually loses his Red Bull seat, be it at the end of this season or next, he will look back with regret at how badly he played his hand.

Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc are both in need of a change of scenery

The sooner Lewis Hamilton accepts that his one and only chance of becoming an eight-time World Champion came and went with the controversy of Abu Dhabi 2021, the better.

Everything from that moment would become a helluva lot clearer to him.

If it took eight whole seasons for a team to emerge as Mercedes’ equals from the start of the V6-hybrid era in 2014, it is quite safe to assume after a run of 13 straight wins and counting that Verstappen and Red Bull will not be caught – at the very earliest – until F1’s next rules cycle begins in 2026, by which time Hamilton will be 41.

Lewis continues to say all the right things about Mercedes but 18 months into this ground effect era, and even after the car finally sprouted sidepods, the team are no closer to getting him back to where he needs to be in the time he has left realistically.

His latest contract extension is said to be a foregone conclusion, yet seems based on little more than loyalty, a lack of imagination and the lingering hope of a miracle.

Viewed dispassionately, with a confusing car fielded by a team increasingly uncertain and error-prone in their execution of race weekends – Hamilton and George Russell have failed to make Q3 seven times between them in the 15 qualifying sessions (including sprint shootouts) so far this season – there is little left to inspire confidence in the environment that once gave him so much.

If he can bring himself to face up to the fact that the title record is now out of reach and that really he is still only here for the fun of it, his next move would be far easier to make: better his final years spent in the fulfilment of experiencing life at Ferrari than being frustrated by failing to recapture former glories.

Over at Ferrari currently, Charles Leclerc is another driver coming to the end of the line even if he doesn’t necessarily know it yet.

Or does he? Rumours have persisted since late last year, after all, that he has a pre-contract agreement in place with Mercedes to eventually succeed Hamilton – and he was suspiciously cagey in Baku when asked directly if talks had taken place…

Despite the arrival of long-term Leclerc ally Fred Vasseur as team principal, an appointment almost specifically designed to appease him, Charles’ frustrations with Ferrari are never far from the surface these days – and when someone reaches that stage at the Scuderia, as Alonso and Vettel discovered, there is usually no going back.

And his two crashes at the same spot in the space of 24 hours in Miami – plus his complete inability to get the hardest tyres to work in cold conditions in Barcelona, made worse by his failure to realise it as the team began looking for a car problem that clearly wasn’t there – are the telltale signs of a driver who has lost his way.

Escaping the politics – the madness – of Ferrari for a Mercedes team more settled, straightforward and with greater long-term potential, in spite of their current troubles, is the move Leclerc really needs to restart his stalling career.

Seat swap, anyone?

Should happen, won’t happen.

McLaren are right back where they were in 2021 – with one key difference

A matter of months after Aston Martin did the impossible, shattering F1’s glass ceiling in spectacular fashion to compete with Mercedes and Ferrari on even ground, McLaren have only gone and done the same.

If Toto Wolff was impressed by Aston’s rise – memorably commenting back in Bahrain that the Mercedes customers had gained two seconds in six months with a car that is “half ours” – he will be blown over by McLaren finding half that in about two weeks in early July.

Having had just 17 points on the board after the Canadian GP in mid-June, McLaren are on 103 just four rounds later – the tense fight for fifth that had appeared to be developing with Alpine after the first race of that sequence in Austria quickly concluded by consecutive Lando Norris podiums at Silverstone and Hungary.

An aggressive and ambitious upgrade plan is at the heart of the improvements to the MCL60, but do not dismiss also the effect of the stiffer tyre construction introduced at the British GP in making the car come to life.

All of a sudden – after 12 months of questioning where exactly all this was heading and seeing team principal Andreas Seidl decide that organising Audi’s 2026 entry with Sauber was a more attractive proposition – McLaren are right back where they were two years ago.

It was very tempting to believe they were on an unstoppable upward trajectory in 2021, when Norris often interfered with the Mercedes/Red Bull battle and Ricciardo ended the team’s nine-year wait for a win at Monza, yet the following year’s rule changes came a little too soon in the team’s evolution for McLaren to sustain it.

The difference this time?

The improved results come after their long-awaited new wind tunnel, said to be crucial to the team’s long-term ambitions, finally opened for business in June.

If 2021 was ultimately little more than an oasis in the desert, McLaren are now able to build from a position of strength.

Honourable mentions

Aston Martin are in the position McLaren were in 2021 with a major infrastructure project (transitioning to a new factory) compromising the present – but Alonso’s results until Canada confirmed they will be a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Lawrence Stroll will never, ever sack his own son – the very reason the Aston Martin team exists in its current form. It’s time this pointless conversation stopped.

Oscar Piastri is the most exciting driver to arrive in F1 since Verstappen and will only get better with experience. If Norris starts struggling to contain him, much like Ricciardo eventually found Max too hot to handle, it could prove career-defining for everyone’s favourite boy next door.

Carlos Sainz is a more accomplished driver than many – including, it seems, the new regime at Ferrari – give him credit for. His front-row start in Barcelona exposed the extent of Leclerc’s crisis and he would make for a fine lead driver in a lesser team (Audi?).

Alpine: why?

For all its technical excellence, F1 recruitment lacks the science and due diligence of other sports. Signing a driver based on a single race, as Red Bull/AlphaTauri did with Nyck de Vries in light of Monza 2022, is asking for trouble…

Yuki Tsunoda is finally coming of age but faces his toughest challenge yet against the rehabilitated Ricciardo. Finish Daniel’s career for good and doors will open; lose and the consequences are unthinkable.

Alex Albon’s own rehabilitation continues apace, but the fact that even De Vries scored points in that Williams should calm talk of an imminent return to Red Bull or a potential move to Ferrari.

Smart and sensible with a deep respect for the position he holds, James Vowles is already emerging as ‘next Mercedes team principal’ material after just half a season in the job at Williams.

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