Max Verstappen’s 19th win of the season, putting him on 1,003 laps led across the entire campaign, was never really in doubt from the moment he made it out of Turn 1 in the lead.
After Charles Leclerc’s valiant attempt to trouble the 2023 dominator failed, his focus switched to those behind him and hauling Ferrari above Mercedes in the constructors’ championship, which came to no avail despite some impressive lateral thinking.
As Fernando Alonso took fourth in the drivers’ standings with a late move on Yuki Tsunoda, inadvertently confirming AlphaTauri just missed out on catching Williams for seventh, the final prizes and positions were handed out at the Yas Marina circuit as the season drew to a close.
Here’s the 10 key things we learned from F1’s 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix finale.
1. Verstappen signs off with yet another new F1 record
Verstappen’s waltz to the 2023 world title had been a long time coming, his triumph sealed back in Qatar nearly two months ago. Since then, he’s been demolishing and then extending the record he broke last year for wins in a single season. With his Abu Dhabi triumph, that stands now at 19.
But once he’d crossed the line and set off the massed pyrotechnics at the Yas Marina track, Verstappen ended the year with one more record. This was for total laps led, his final tally at 1,003. This makes the Dutchman the first driver to reach 1,000 laps led in one season and equals the total McLaren led in its famous domination of 1988 – albeit the total in that case split between two more F1 legends, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.
Verstappen was also the only driver to complete every single lap of the 2023 campaign and he revealed afterwards the 1,000-lap milestone was something he was thinking about even as he still had one more pitstop to make last Sunday.
When Autosport asked why he’d told Red Bull it should consider pitting Perez first for their second services with the Mexican far behind and battling others in the pack, the world champion replied: “It was to try and lead for 1,000 laps in the season.
“I knew that that was on the cards. So, I said to GP [race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase], he was also of course aware of that, just to make sure that they wouldn't pit me too early.” AK
2. Mercedes grabs second place ahead of “Mount Everest” task
For all the negativity and disparagement hurled at Mercedes’ W14 by its own higher-ups, the Brackley squad nonetheless managed to lock down second in the constructors’ championship – albeit after facing a renewed challenge from Ferrari in the second half of the year. Not winning races isn’t quite what the team had in mind last winter, but strong reliability ensured that the team could consistently pick up points throughout the year.
George Russell put together a solid drive to secure fourth on the road, which became third with Sergio Perez’s penalty – the Briton admitted that “Lady Luck” had been on hand to help the team after a less-than-hoped-for season. Lewis Hamilton endured a lacklustre day by his standards, but the two points he’d secured also offered something of a safety net – although he was in little mood to celebrate the constructors’ runner-up position.
Now, Mercedes has the chance to change tack completely with its design for 2024. The W13 of 2022 hinted at untapped potential, and a continuation of its design concept for this year showed that it would continue to remain untapped as the Red Bull school of thought had proven to be the best way forward since the dawn of the 2022-spec aero regulations. Mercedes has since gone back to the drawing board and will have to hope an all-new concept for next year will offer a return to winning ways.
“There's a Mount Everest to climb in order to catch up with Red Bull,” said team principal Toto Wolff. “I have no doubt that McLaren is going to be right in the mix next year, and maybe Aston Martin and maybe others. We must leave no stone unturned which we do in Brixworth and Brackley. And as tough as it is to be reminded that it's just P2, it's also a great, great opportunity to come back and strive for the stars.” JBL
3. Leclerc shows Sainz-like lateral thinking in Ferrari P2 bid
Carlos Sainz’s tactical nous offered one of the season’s highlights in Singapore, when he strung Lando Norris along with DRS to ensure the faster George Russell could not make a late play for victory at the Marina Bay Circuit. The race stands as a further highlight having been the only non-Red Bull win of the 2023 season.
At Yas Marina, Charles Leclerc showed that he can flex his grey matter just as much as his team-mate. Aware of the championship stakes and the significance of the positions behind, Leclerc was informed that Sergio Perez had a five-second penalty to serve after clashing with Lando Norris. This would make any hopes that Perez could position his car between Leclerc and the third-placed Russell somewhat more unlikely; Ferrari needed the Mexican to take third, ensuring the Scuderia would be level on points with Mercedes and assume P2 on countback owing to Sainz’s Singapore win.
“As soon as I was aware about the five seconds penalty, I was asking constantly the gap between George and Checo,” explained Leclerc. “Then they told me that Checo had passed George, so I knew Checo was behind me, and his best chance was obviously to get the DRS from me and try and pull away as much as possible from George.
“I knew that there was quite a bit of discussion between my engineer and myself, and I let him know as well that this was my plan. But it didn't work out...”
But if it had, it would have been a valuable masterstroke by Leclerc, who perhaps does not receive the same credit for a cerebral approach to racing compared to his Ferrari stablemate. Perhaps he now commands that respect. JBL
4. FIA officials eye team headgear violations
The closing stages of the Abu Dhabi race featured an unusual stewards’ investigation – all the teams were suspected of having pitcrew members not wearing sufficient eye protection during tyre changes.
This started with specific investigations into the stops involving Lewis Hamilton and Pierre Gasly, but by the end of the race Verstappen, Williams drivers Logan Sargeant and Alex Albon and Alfa Romeo's Zhou Guanyu had also been cited.
After the race, the stewards summoned all team managers about the situation, which is understood to have been spotted by pitlane marshals and officials. It centred on Article 34.13 of F1’s sporting regulations.
This states: "All team personnel carrying out any work on a car in the pitlane when the car is in its pitstop position during the qualifying session, the sprint shootout, the sprint session or during a race pit stop, must be wearing helmets which meet or exceed the requirements of ECE 22.05 – European motorcycle road helmet, DOT – USA motorcycle road helmet or JIS T8133-2015, class 2 – JPN protective helmets for automobile users. The use of appropriate eye protection is compulsory."
It is understood that several team members across the field were seen working on cars with their helmet visors open or partially open. But as the stewards’ concluded “the video evidence was in some cases insufficiently clear to determine where, for example, a visor was open, [but] the team member concerned may have been wearing glasses or other eye protection”, no penalties were dished out.
In any case, these would’ve been financial hits to the teams rather than sporting penalties for the drivers involved.
All teams and the officials have agreed to ensure “this article is respected by all team members in the future”, per the stewards’ bulletin revealing no sanctions would be forthcoming. AK
5. Pitlane complaints over impeding continue to rage
When Max Verstappen was feeling somewhat impatient after two red flags had sapped away at running in FP2, he displayed the kind of driving skills that might be handy in an underground hotel car park. He nudged ahead of both Mercedes cars in the circuit underpass, and then set about moving past Pierre Gasly after the pit exit line. Race director Niels Wittich elected to nip that sort of action in the bud, which was backed by the drivers during their briefing.
But the traffic queues in qualifying have become much more prevalent following the maximum lap time rule, making it hard for drivers to find space without slowing down on the exit of the pitlane. Impeding during qualifying laps has been cut down on somewhat, although Carlos Sainz reckoned that a new trend has emerged to hamper rivals’ lap times without earning the stewards’ ire.
“We know that if you do a corner two seconds in front of another car, one second or two seconds in front, you're going to make him lose a tenth or two in that corner. When it's tight in Q1 and Q2, I see people giving a bit of dirty air on purpose in some corners to maybe make the others lose some time in corners, which we don't consider impeding, because it's not like you need to lift,” he hypothesised.
Daniel Ricciardo laughed that off, suggesting that Sainz “is going to get what he's given. But he started it!”, although admitted that some of the field would engage in such gamesmanship.
“Yeah, we know what we're doing,” he said. “My approach is if I do it to someone, they're going to do it back to me,” he added. “So I'm like, I'll try to be nice to everyone and hopefully get it back to me in a nice way.” JBL
6. Alonso earns fourth in drivers, as Aston Martin loses it
Abu Dhabi was bittersweet in the Aston Martin camp, as Fernando Alonso secured his best drivers’ championship finish since 2013 with fourth place overall – tied on points with Charles Leclerc at season’s end. But Aston’s dwindling fortunes after an explosive start to the year meant that it had dropped behind McLaren in the constructors’ battle, and lacked the pace to challenge the papaya cars in the season finale.
Alonso opened the season with five podium finishes in the first six races, while both McLaren drivers had a best finish of sixth between them. But their fortunes switched in Austria, as McLaren’s ambitious upgrade path started to bear fruit. Norris grabbed fourth at the Red Bull Ring to finish ahead of Alonso, starting off a much greater run of form over the second half of the season.
Although Aston’s presence in the points-paying positions has not been guaranteed over the second half of the year, Alonso has been able to make the best of it and kept himself in the hunt for fourth, which he secured with a late overtake on Yuki Tsunoda to ensure he could beat Leclerc on countback – scoring five third places to the Monegasque’s three.
“It is completely unexpected, completely unreal to be fourth in the championship,” Alonso gushed. “As I said on Thursday, 2012 and this season, for me are the best in my career. It is a position that I could never imagine at the beginning of the year or with the car performance that we had.” JBL
7. AlphaTauri keeps F1’s upgrade development war going right to the end
AlphaTauri brought a major floor upgrade to the Abu Dhabi race in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to win its battle with Williams for seventh place in the constructors’ championship.
Team CEO Peter Bayer told Autosport the new floor was a "little joker in the back pocket" to "chase down Williams", but AlphaTauri was also using the change as a chance to evaluate the approach for possible use in the 2024 campaign.
The new floor featured a new main body and sides, plus significantly revised additional airflow-altering strakes, which are aimed at adding additional downforce. In the paddock, this raised concern at other teams considering AlphaTauri’s potential future collaboration work with Red Bull in what is set to be a major political talking point over the winter and into the 2024 campaign.
Elsewhere, Aston Martin’s beam wing and rear wing endplate alterations and Alfa Romeo’s front wing changes were the only other updates brought to the final race.
At Haas, which again ran with its cars in different specification following its major sidepod redesign for the Austin round, Kevin Magnussen revealed at Abu Dhabi, “the upgraded car is more in line with the plan for next year, the concept looks like what we think of for next year”.
He also said: “It's not actually got more downforce on paper, it's not faster, but it is better to drive, it's easier, the balance is more consistent and that's why you don't see a step back when we run the new spec”. AK
8. Sargeant still unsure if he has clinched the final 2024 seat
Sargeant finished 16th in the Abu Dhabi finale having started last due to not setting a lap in qualifying after repeated track limits violations at Turn 1. In the early stages of the race, Williams tasked him with holding up Daniel Ricciardo following the Australian’s early stop as part of its constructors’ battle with AlphaTauri.
The final result meant Sargeant’s rookie season ended with a best result of 10th at Austin and his points total at one, behind team-mate Alex Albon’s 27, as Williams persevered in the fight with AlphaTauri over seventh place in the 2023 standings. This is worth a $9 million gain to the Grove-based squad thanks to the gap between seventh and eighth in terms of how F1’s $1 billion total prize pot is distributed.
Ahead of the race, Sargeant had admitted “I don’t know” on whether Williams would retain him alongside Albon for 2024. The American driver endured a rookie season with many high-profile crashes, but his progress to secure his first point in Austin (thanks to Hamilton and Leclerc being disqualified from the final results) and his strong qualifying in Vegas did at least point to the progress Williams had tasked him with showing before the season’s end.
He said “this back half of this season, I’ve really found some momentum” after the Abu Dhabi race, but Williams is still set to return back to Grove and conduct a final review of Sargeant’s season and improvements before making a final decision and revealing its completed 2024 line-up. AK
9. McLaren pledges long-term allegiance to Mercedes powertrains
Further announcements were made to sew up more of the 2026 powertrain market, as McLaren unveiled an extension to its deal with Mercedes to run until the end of 2030. This will hence run for the first five years of the new power unit formula which will redefine the balance between internal combustion engine and hybrid systems.
McLaren reunited with Mercedes in 2021 after an ill-fated switch to Honda in 2015 coincided with a significant downturn in on-track fortunes. This prompted McLaren to work out a deal to place Honda with Toro Rosso, taking on a Renault deal for three seasons before committing to use the Brixworth-designed powertrains on an initial five-year deal.
Following the signing of Toyota World Endurance Championship racer Ryo Hirakawa as a reserve driver, there were mutterings that McLaren was looking to tempt the Japanese giant back to F1, but the long-term extension with Mercedes has largely put those admittedly tenuous rumours to bed.
"It was quite straightforward, because we are very happy with the ongoing collaboration," Stella said. "They were absolutely instrumental, even in the progress of the team this year, I have to say.
"But above all, the kind of reassurance we got from a technical point of view, the operational standards, just how solid is what we saw, when we checked what was at stake for 2026, made this decision quite simple for us. We are just delighted that we have this level of continuity and stability as we look forward." JBL
10. Alpine abandons its push to get equal F1 engine power
After arriving in Abu Dhabi from Las Vegas, Autosport revealed on the eve of the final event that Alpine’s hopes of addressing an approximate 20-33hp gap on F1 engine power to its rivals Honda, Ferrari and Mercedes had been ended.
This was at the team’s own request after the FIA’s Power Unit Advisory Committee had been tasked with finding ways to get Alpine’s Renault engine back on terms with the products of the other manufacturers, which are all closely matched.
Alpine was understood to be left furious behind the scenes that a ‘good faith’ agreement between the teams apparently made when the current engine rules were signed off in 2021 that meant design changes could be made if one or more were disadvantaged was, in the team’s view, reneged upon by unnamed other squads.
Without the unanimous support required to make changes to the Renault power units, Alpine decided it was better not to waste any more time or resources and instead concentrate its efforts on the new engine rules coming for 2026.
This leaves the team down on grunt for two more years, but its work after its Monza struggles to make gains via aerodynamic tweaks in cutting drag at least seemed to be paying off come the season’s end judging by its form at Vegas before heading to Abu Dhabi. That provides some considerable encouragement for the Enstone team heading into the off-season. AK