No one is waving the white flag quite yet but there is an overwhelming sense that after only two races of the new Formula One season a drawn-out procession has begun to an inevitable conclusion of Max Verstappen and Red Bull claiming the title. Good news for the Dutchman and his team but the manner in which it is likely to play out will be far less welcomed by F1 as it attempts to hang on to all the new fans it has attracted in recent years.
In the opening two meetings Red Bull have secured two one-twos, the first in Bahrain with Verstappen in front of teammate Sergio Pérez and on Sunday the reverse result in Saudi Arabia. At Jeddah Pérez won from pole but Verstappen came back from 15th on the grid to take second with both cars exhibiting remarkable pace, at times a second a lap quicker than the rest of the field.
During his comeback Verstappen breezed past Lewis Hamilton as if the British driver was in a different class of car. Hamilton, who has experience of such domination when Mercedes held a similar advantage in the early years of the hybrid era that began in 2014, said: “I’ve definitely not seen a car so fast. When we were fast we weren’t that fast – that is the fastest car I have seen, especially compared to the rest. Max came past me with some serious speed.”
It was an observation backed ominously by Verstappen intimating that the championship was already a fight between just two cars, his and his teammate’s.
Such ascendancy is not unusual in F1. In the modern era McLaren’s mighty MP4/4 in the hands of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost secured 15 poles and 15 wins from 16 races in 1988. In 1992 the Williams FW14B was untouchable. It scored ten wins from 16 races with Nigel Mansell taking nine, including five in a row to open the season before sealing the title with five races remaining. In 2004 Michael Schumacher was unstoppable with 12 wins from the opening 13 races as he and the Ferrari F2004 subdued all opposition.
Most recently the boot was on the other foot for Mercedes when they opened the hybrid era with an absolute masterclass of superiority in the W05, which took 18 of 19 poles and won 16 races, including 11 one-twos.
Red Bull enjoy an advantage now similar to, if not greater than, any of those cars. Nor does there appear any real likelihood of them even being challenged, certainly in the short term.
Mercedes have conceded they have pursued the wrong design concept and have to return to the drawing board, with team principal Toto Wolff admitting in Saudi Arabia that it was not realistic to consider they could even target wins this season.
Ferrari, who at least challenged Red Bull last season, are floundering too. They have neither the pace nor it seems the reliability to compete, with Charles Leclerc declaring that they had no “miracle solution” after the Scuderia finished sixth and seventh in Jeddah. Which leaves only Aston Martin, who have done superbly to join the big three but realistically cannot yet muster the resources to bridge the half-second gap to Red Bull.
Red Bull are in a class of one at the front of the field. A season of victories is unlikely but Verstappen and Pérez disappearing into the distance at the head of the field in almost every race is very much on the cards.
Which may be an issue for F1. The sport’s success has driven a huge rise in interest over the past three years especially in the US, a market F1 has targeted for expansion and which will hold three GPs this year. Some newer fans (and to be fair some who have been following the sport for years) are unlikely to feel quite as enthusiastic about a 23-race season where the race winner is largely a foregone conclusion.
The commercial imperative this may impact is an important one, certainly to F1’s owners and there may already be some impetus on the FIA to impose a regulation change in an attempt to peg back the advantage. Which would be an ugly, blunt and decidedly unfair way to treat Red Bull. Indeed Toto Wolffemphasised that his rivals instead should be praised not penalised for their success.
“Even if it is not great for the show that the same guys win all the time, it is because they have done a good job and we haven’t,” the Mercedes team principal said. “We shouldn’t down talk it, because I remember hearing questions like that between 2014 and 2020. What makes the sport so special is that you need to work hard to win and you deserve it as a matter of fact. Entertainment follows sport, it is maybe not good from the commercial side but it is what makes F1 so special.”
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, has hailed it as the team’s best start to a season. “The team is operating at an incredibly high level throughout the organisation,” he said. “You don’t get a result like this by just one department doing its bit.”
At the sharp end of that organisation, despite Pérez’s victory in Jeddah, realistically it is Verstappen who will lead the charge. Pérez is bullish about his chances but it is hard to picture this season even presenting a two-horse race but rather another canter to the line for the world champion’s third title in a row.
In so doing their car may well prove itself, as Hamilton suggests, to be one of the best in F1 history and ready to take its place among the greats. Yet in so doing the spectacle might fall flat indeed, a dominance that F1 may not like but without doubt one Red Bull have earned.