Max Verstappen’s Abu Dhabi sign-off exposes the challenge facing his F1 rivals

Max Verstappen’s Abu Dhabi sign-off exposes the challenge facing his F1 rivals

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — There was only one way Max Verstappen and Red Bull were going to end their record-breaking 2023 Formula One season.

In the year during which the team and driver have redefined what a dominant campaign looks like — Verstappen setting single-season wins and points records, even before coming to Abu Dhabi — to finish 2023 off with anything but a victory felt unthinkable.

It looked like there could be a challenge for a brief moment at the start of Sunday’s season finale at Yas Marina. From second place on the grid, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc made a better getaway when the lights went out, giving him a run up the inside into the first corner. Verstappen hung his car to the outside, carried more speed through the corner, and pulled back ahead.

Leclerc tried again a few corners later, tucking into Verstappen’s slipstream down the back straight and diving up the inside at Turn 6. Verstappen responded by again holding the outside, taking the inside through the chicane, then pulling clear under braking into Turn 9.

“The first lap, you cannot take it easy,” Verstappen said. “It was good; he raced well. I didn’t expect Charles to go on the left into Turn 6, but it was a good move. I enjoyed that.”

It was the season summed up in a single lap. Whatever rivals threw at Verstappen in 2023, he always had an answer, fueled by his supreme confidence in the RB19 car with which he has delivered the greatest statistical season in F1 history. The outcome was inevitable.

Leclerc admitted after the race he knew even if he’d got ahead, Verstappen would have passed him back within a few laps.

A landmark drive

When Verstappen crossed the line for his 19th victory of the year, his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner both hopped on the radio to send their usual congratulations. But their tone held a greater sense of reflection. This wasn’t just another win. It was the one to cap off a remarkable season, surpassing even Red Bull’s wildest dreams going into the year.

Nineteen wins. To put that into context, only eight seasons in F1 history have had more than 19 races.

Horner told Verstappen to “enjoy this last bit of the RB19,” a car that will surely go down as one of the greatest in F1 history. It fell one race short of achieving a perfect season, Red Bull’s only defeat coming in Singapore. There’s still something left for the team to achieve if, somehow, it can replicate its dominance from 2023 in the future.

Verstappen has never been one to dwell on statistics or records. But even he went into Sunday’s race aware that one rather significant landmark was within reach: becoming the first driver to lead 1,000 laps in a season. The team even planned Verstappen’s strategy accordingly, avoiding early stops that could give up track position. It was also why Verstappen suggested the team pit teammate Sergio Pérez before him at the final round of stops, allowing him to end the year on 1,003 laps led — 264 more than Sebastian Vettel’s previous record.

“To try and achieve that was maybe not always the fastest strategy, but I wanted to stay in the lead to get the laps in,” Verstappen said. Even with seemingly so little to play for in Abu Dhabi, the win secure, Verstappen and Red Bull found ways to climb to new heights.

One might have forgiven Verstappen for taking his foot off the gas since he clinched his third world title in the Qatar sprint race with six grands prix to spare. Through such an intense year, and for a driver who has raised concerns about F1’s direction with the number of races and structure of weekends, why not dial things back?

As long as Verstappen and the Red Bull team operate as smoothly as they have in 2023, their dominance will likely go unchecked. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

It simply isn’t in his nature. “I do think that is just how I grew up,” Verstappen explained. “I can’t just come into a weekend not giving it all. I get annoyed with myself, and I know people around me get annoyed with me if I would be like that.

“My mindset doesn’t really change after winning the championship. I come to the race weekends, and I, of course, try to do the best I can.”

Put simply: “Winning is great. Why would I not want to win?”

What has meant even more to Verstappen than the records he has felled this year is the team spirit and unity at Red Bull. The group has never been tighter, and they are having more fun than ever through their success. “Whatever you do in motor racing, I think it never will top that,” he said.

Horner noted on Friday that Verstappen had “not lifted off at all” since clinching the title in Qatar, allowing him to end the year with such remarkable records. The 54th victory of his career means only Lewis Hamilton (103) and Michael Schumacher (91) stand ahead of him in the all-time win standings.

“(With) everything that he’s done, you have to start to talk about him amongst some of the greatest names in the sport, and I think he’s earned his position there,” Horner said. “And what’s phenomenal is that he’s done it at 26 years of age. He’s got a lot of racing still ahead of him.”

The road ahead

In reflecting on Verstappen’s success this season, there is one question every rival driver and team will ponder: Where does this all end? What will it take to stop another 2023-esque season from unfolding next year?

Hamilton, Verstappen’s fierce rival for the championship in 2021, was especially downbeat after the race in Abu Dhabi, in which he finished ninth. He said his mood was “not great” and that his year had ended with “two really bad races.” He then noted the gap at the very front.

“Red Bull won by 17 seconds, and they’ve not touched the car since August or July,” Hamilton added. “So you can pretty much guess where they’re going to be next year.” His assessment is one shared by most. Overcoming that deficit will be a huge ask, no matter how sizeable changes are made to cars over the winter.

Red Bull will naturally be more skeptical (at least publicly) of its advantage going into the new season. Horner pointed to Mercedes’ dominant 2020 being followed by a far closer 2021, when Verstappen pipped Hamilton to the title, as an example of how quickly things can turn in F1.

“Nothing stands still, and we had competitors coming closer at different venues,” Horner said. “I’m sure concepts will converge. Stable regulations always concertina, so I don’t think we will ever be able to repeat the season we’ve had.

“Hopefully, we can take the lessons from RB19 and apply them into RB20 and come up with a car that we can defend these titles with.”

As signoffs go for a championship year, Verstappen’s Abu Dhabi victory was a warning shot to the rest of the field. So long as he is performing at such a high level and, importantly, having so much fun within a team operating as slickly as Red Bull is right now, the ceiling feels limitless.

(Lead photo of Max Verstappen celebrating his Abu Dhabi GP win: Peter Fox/Getty Images)

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