Driver of the year
Impossible to ignore, relentless, all but flawless and intimidatingly quick, Max Verstappen was in a class of his own. The records he has achieved on the way to a third title speak for themselves. Nineteen wins from 22 races, 21 podium places, a 10-race consecutive win streak and becoming the first driver to lead for over 1,000 laps in a season. Yet they do not tell the whole story. In amassing them Verstappen demonstrated what a complete driver he is. The car was exceptional, but Verstappen has exploited it with consummate mastery and consistency. A glance at his teammate Sergio Pérez’s performance in the same machinery demonstrates how the 26-year old was operating on a different plane. There were superb drives, coming back from 15th to second in Saudi Arabia, from ninth to victory in Miami – a win that surely broke Pérez who had started from pole – from sixth in Spa and overcoming pressure and challenging conditions in a masterclass at Zandvoort. Verstappen’s dominance may have robbed the season of dramatic tension at the front but his performance cannot be faulted.
Team of the year
In the midfield there was a pleasing resurgence for initially Aston Martin and then McLaren, both teams delivering eye-catching seasons. Aston for their explosive start and not least for bringing a welcome joie de vivre to Fernando Alonso. McLaren’s journey from flailing in Bahrain to potential race winners in the second half of the season was equally gripping. Yet of course it is Red Bull that earn the plaudits. The RB19 was a magnificent car and the team backed it with an operational and strategic performance that was second to none. There is an ease that comes with knowing you have a definitive pace advantage but it cannot be allowed to turn to complacency. On many weekends they turned up to find the car was not at its best at certain tracks. Monaco was one where Verstappen was convinced in practice that he would crash. However, time and time again they worked through it and by race day it was indomitable once more. Verstappen of course won in Monaco and Red Bull are the benchmark now for every other team.
Race of the year
Singapore, the race where Red Bull’s run to an unbeaten season was finally ended by Carlos Sainz’s victory, was a standout. With Verstappen out of the running, Marina Bay threw up a grand battle that indicated how close the racing might be when Red Bull were not in the mix. It closed thrillingly with Sainz, Lando Norris, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton all vying for the win. However it was the rollercoaster ride of F1’s return to Las Vegas that hit the jackpot. Having opened with the debacle of practice being abandoned and then run behind closed doors after a loose drain cover struck Sainz’s car, the weekend could not have had a worse start. Yet it did turn around. The circuit, feared to be a dud, was mighty for racing with the cars two and three abreast and drivers genuinely able to compete with diving passes. It delivered beyond expectations and as F1 had hoped looked superb under the lights of the Strip. The sport surely now has its US showcase race of razzmatazz, showbiz and hoopla, which begs the question: where does that leave the Miami GP?
Comeback of the year
After the opening race in Bahrain, McLaren were staring at an awfully long season, with an awfully slow car. The team had already admitted they had failed to meet pre-season aerodynamic targets but Lando Norris managing only 17th in the race was still a body blow. Yet the new team principal, Andrea Stella, kept a remarkably cool head. The team were sixth in the constructors’ standings and 137 points behind Aston Martin before the Austrian GP when their much-anticipated upgrades arrived and transformed the car. Norris and Oscar Piastri were suddenly in the mix and a host of podium places followed, they passed Aston for fourth in the championship and on occasion were threatening Red Bull. It was gripping to watch and more is to come. The new wind tunnel and simulator are now online and their CEO, Zak Brown, predicted more for next season. “I would be disappointed if we’re not at the sharp end of the field challenging for race wins,” he said as the season closed.
The revitalised Fernando Alonso was a joy to watch, not least in some of his bravura passing moves. From the off he was scintillatingly decisive. At Bahrain he went wheel to wheel with Lewis Hamilton, trading places with the Briton before finally making it stick at turn 10. It was the first of a series of passes that proved he has lost none of his verve. However it was Charles Leclerc wrestling his recalcitrant Ferrari at every opportunity that stood out. He went round the outside of George Russell at turn one in Japan in a move that required bravery and inch-perfect precision. Then to cap it off the move that mattered was throwing himself up the inside of Pérez on the final lap at Las Vegas. Hurtling down the Strip at top speed, Leclerc had one final chance before the flag and with huge commitment he braked late and dived on to the inside line at turn 14 and was just able to control the car through turns 15 and 16 for the place. His determination and brio illuminated many moments long after Verstappen was cruising to the flag.
Biggest step up
With the paucity of testing in modern F1, the challenge for rookies is harder than ever, as Nyck de Vries found out in being dropped after just 10 races by AlphaTauri. In contrast, Oscar Piastri could not have made a more auspicious debut. The 22-year-old Australian adapted quickly in difficult circumstances given the woeful car McLaren delivered for the opening of the season. Piastri kept his head down and worked through it until he had the upgraded model and showed just how good he was. He won the sprint race in Qatar but more importantly was regularly close to his vastly more experienced teammate Norris which, on tracks he did not know, was a superb achievement. His race engineer, Tom Stallard, described him as both “calm and intense”, a combination he believes will take Piastri far. He took his first podium spots in Japan and Qatar, both consummate drives well beyond his years. If McLaren deliver on the promise of this year, in 2024 Piastri will be a formidable force as part of one of the best driver lineups on the grid.
Much as Verstappen was in command all season, it is impossible to ignore the elephant in the room which is that he simply was not challenged. Teammate Pérez, whose two early wins in Jeddah and Baku proved false dawns, was enormously disappointing. Errors and poor qualifying left his season in tatters and his seat in question. His failing was compounded by both Mercedes and Ferrari in not bringing the fight to Red Bull. Optimism that they would do so ended very shortly after the first race. Mercedes admitted their design philosophy was a mistake after qualifying in the first round at Bahrain, while at Ferrari it was soon clear their car was quick over a single lap but shocking on its tyres and lacking pace in race conditions. Even Red Bull were surprised their rivals had not done better. The gap between them was a chasm, even when Red Bull stopped developing their car. With no magic bullet, both teams struggled over the finish line but it was unedifying fare at best and the sport badly needs them to step up.