‘No-one is going to catch Max this year’

Formula 1
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Japanese Grand Prix, Formula 1Getty Images

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff painted a bleak but realistic picture of the Formula 1 season after the Japanese Grand Prix.

“No-one is going to catch Max this year,” he said, following Max Verstappen’s success at Suzuka.

“His driving and the car are just spectacular. You can see it by the way he manages the tyres. This season is [about] best of the rest. That is the fight that is on.”

It was not exactly news. Verstappen’s win on Sunday was exactly what was expected, and exactly what he achieved in two of the three races preceding it. And may well have done in the other had a brake problem not eased a path to victory for Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in Australia two weeks before.

Still, for a person with pretensions of being a rival for Red Bull, Wolff’s was a pretty bleak assessment after the fourth race, getting on for the quarter-way point of the championship.

Most of Verstappen’s rivals expected this season to be like this, if perhaps not quite to such an extent. After all, the Dutchman and Red Bull have dominated F1 since about the halfway point of the 2022 season, when a brief challenge from Ferrari at the start of a new regulation set finally expired in a bonfire of strategy errors and reliability failings.

‘Maybe other teams can win at some tracks’

Verstappen went into this season on the back of the most dominant year in F1 history. It simply doesn’t happen in F1 that one team and driver have such an advantage one year and don’t retain at least some form of edge into the following one as well. So predictions of a close season were thin on the ground over the winter.

There was, though, some hope that Red Bull’s rivals might catch up. So far, although the chasing pack has moved around a bit, that has not really materialised. But both Verstappen and the team that has become his closest rivals this year – Ferrari – believe that it still might yet.

“Melbourne felt like a bit of a hiccup,” said Verstappen. “But what we did today, that’s what we want to do, and that’s what we aim to do every single weekend.

“It’s still a very long season. I don’t want to think about the rest of the season too much. I really want to approach it race by race.

“I know there will be tracks coming up that might not be so favourable for us. When we do get to tracks where we know that we can be quick, we have to really take advantage of it and score the maximum amount of points as a team, and that’s what we’ll continue to try and do.

“And then, of course, I think we know that we get to tracks where maybe it’s a bit more difficult we have to try and maximise that as well, where maybe other teams can win as well.”

Where could those tracks be? After Red Bull’s struggles in Singapore last year – the only time they were beaten in all of 2023 – Verstappen has his ideas.

“Looking at the history so far, street circuits are in general a little bit more difficult for us,” he added. “I do think that our car has improved a bit, you know, in the low speed.

“But of course, on a street circuit, it’s not only low speed, it’s drivability, it’s kerb riding, riding over the bumps. So general ride of a car. So these things are still a little bit unknown at the moment of how well we have improved on that.”

Carlos Sainz

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Ferrari on the up

Behind Red Bull, a pattern is emerging, and one that has rendered all of the races this year, frankly, a bit dull.

Ferrari are clearly best of the rest. McLaren are the third fastest team, and there is a debate to be had over the order of Mercedes and Aston Martin in fourth and fifth.

The performance of all four of these cars over one lap on tyres with maximum grip that hide some of the machinery’s weaknesses is close enough that the grid order can be jumbled. But in the race the true pace of the cars comes through.

Charles Leclerc was outstanding in recovering from a difficult qualifying, which left him lining up eighth. He used the fact he was the only frontrunner to try a one-stop strategy – slower on paper than two, but allowing him to run at his own pace for longer – to finish an impressive fourth behind his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz. But Leclerc could do this only because of the giant strides his team have made since last year.

Ferrari had the second fastest car by the end of 2023 as well – although they certainly did not start last year in that position – but in terms of overall competitiveness they have taken a step closer to Red Bull this season.

This is not so obvious in qualifying, but it certainly is in races, where their consistency and tyre management has improved exponentially. And there are hopes of more to come, enough even to put them in the fight with Red Bull by perhaps mid-season.

“Very satisfying,” said Sainz. “We exactly improved the car in the places that we wanted to improve it, and Suzuka proves it. Still, places like Suzuka, we are not as quick as the Red Bull, which is the target. But as soon as we bring a good upgrade to the car that goes in the right direction, hopefully it can get us closer.

“We’ve improved everywhere, and especially in the race pace. It also allows us to have more strategic flexibility, that last year we didn’t have.

“I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that makes us fight them more consistently.

“But by that time maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage that they might have in the championship.”

The effect of team principal Frederic Vasseur, employed to clean up the mess the team was in at the end of 2022, is plain to see, and there appears to be a positive forward momentum at Maranello.

Vasseur said: “We made a huge step on the high-speed [corners] compared to last year and Suzuka is a good example and on the tyre management. But now we have other weaknesses. It is always a compromise; you improve somewhere and you lose somewhere else.

“Overall, if you compare with Red Bull on the last four races of last year to this year, to the first four events this season, we have made a decent step forward.

“For sure they are still a little bit ahead. The target is to be be able to put them under pressure and with pressure you do more mistakes. It was not the case today but I hope it will be the case in the future.”

‘Facts are facts,’ says realistic Norris

McLaren were the team that made the most progress in 2023, with an impressive leap from close to the back to close to the front. But while Lando Norris scored more points than anyone other than Verstappen in the second half of last year, their forward progress has stalled somewhat this year.

Norris and team-mate Oscar Piastri finished second and third behind Verstappen in Japan last year; this time around they were fifth and eighth. So much for closing on Red Bull at the start of this season.

“Seventeen seconds behind the win last year and today I am 29,” Norris said. “Facts are facts.”

Like Ferrari, though, McLaren can see better things on the horizon. Team principal Andrea Stella said after Japan that he was pleased that they had consolidated their position as the third best team. And the first of a series of upgrades is due in Miami in two races’ time.

Stella, though, also offers little prospect of McLaren catching Verstappen.

George Russell and Lewis Hamilton

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‘Really bad – but where our car is’

For Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari’s progress may well be underlining the wisdom of his decision to leave Mercedes for Italy at the end of this season. But that is little consolation to the seven-time world champion or team-mate George Russell right now.

Seventh and ninth in qualifying – with Hamilton ahead – became seventh and ninth in the race – with Russell ahead.

“To finish ninth was really bad,” said Hamilton. “It’s where our car is at the moment. I don’t know if you can take many positives from the weekend.”

After qualifying, Hamilton had professed himself happier with the balance of the Mercedes than at any point since the start of 2022. But any hope that this car can be what Mercedes wanted it to be – a strong baseline on to which they can pile more performance over time – is tempered by the fact they are still publicly admitting they are a little bit lost.

Wolff said: “We are measuring with our sensors and pressure table and it is saying we have 70 points more downforce in a particular corner in Melbourne, but on the lap time it is not 1km/h faster. So it doesn’t make any sense. And we wanted to tick a few boxes to understand – ‘Is there a limitation we haven’t spotted?’ And I think there is.

“The downforce is there but we are not able to extract the lap time that we should and the simulations show us. I see you looking at us, like, ‘What the hell?’ Imagine what we think.”

Alonso ‘is a little bit special’

Do Mercedes have a better car than Aston Martin? The average qualifying lap times say no – the Aston is 0.036secs quicker over four races so far.

Mercedes are one point ahead of Aston in the constructors’, which also points to the green car being faster. For whatever your position on the relative merits of Hamilton, Russell and Alonso as drivers, few would put the Spaniard’s team-mate Lance Stroll in their bracket, and he has just one point fewer than Hamilton so far.

Alonso, though, said after finishing sixth in Japan, ahead of both Mercedes drivers, that he believes he is outperforming his car.

“My best weekend – or in the top five – ever for me,” said Alonso. “P5 yesterday in qualifying, that lap, and P6 in the race is completely out of position.

“I think we are the fifth fastest team by a good margin to the fourth and a good margin to the sixth. We are quite established there, there is no way to compare us to the Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes.

“So that’s why to finish P5 and P6 is completely unusual. We did it in Australia as well, we finished P6 again. We are executing very well the races and the others are experimenting a little bit with strategy and so on. “

Many will see this as what some see as typical Alonso self-mythologising. Except that Stella happens to share his view.

“If you look at the order it goes in the order of car competitiveness,” said Stella, who worked with the two-time champion for nine years at Ferrari and McLaren.

“Considering that Fernando, he has done a very good job, like he normally does. He is a little special in that respect and outdoes a little bit the potential of the cars.”

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