Remember when there were question marks over Max Verstappen’s legitimacy as a Formula 1® world champion? The queries were nothing to do with his talent, and everything to do with how he became the sport’s kingpin for the first time … which leads us nicely to this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (November 24-26) to wrap up the 2023 season.
It's hard to think of Abu Dhabi and not think of the 2021 season finale between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, the reigning champion doing all he could to keep the challenger at bay in an utterly compelling championship run-in that, in the end, didn’t have a final act worthy of its titanic nature. But if there were questions over Verstappen’s credentials, the past two years have blown them into the weeds.
Including Abu Dhabi 2021, and since, there have been 44 Grands Prix – and Verstappen has won a staggering 34 of them. Or, if you prefer, two more than Fernando Alonso’s entire career, which stretches back to 2001. Other winners in that span: Sergio Perez (four victories), Charles Leclerc (three), Carlos Sainz (two) and George Russell (one) – and zero for Hamilton, who comes to Yas Marina this weekend facing an unthinkable second straight winless campaign.
As the final laps tick down on a logistically exhausting end to the season – the final five races have been crammed into just six weeks – here’s what we’re watching.
Best ever? Not yet
Most wins in a season by a team and a driver, most points, most laps led, 1-2 for its drivers in the championship for the first time … Red Bull Racing has ticked so many boxes this year that the ink has probably run out of its pen, but there’s still one race left for one more achievement, and you know they’ll be pushing for it in Abu Dhabi.
Verstappen’s victory last weekend in Las Vegas was his 18th and the team’s 20th of the season, beating Mercedes’ 2016 benchmark of 19 wins shared between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
So is 2023 now the most dominant season ever? By so many metrics, yes – but not in terms of winning percentage. McLaren’s 1988 season has always been held up as the sport’s holy grail, and between them, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 of 16 races, 93.8 per cent of that season.
Another win for Verstappen or – less likely, Perez – in Abu Dhabi this weekend? That’ll be 21 from 22, or 95.4 per cent. The way Verstappen is wired, you know he knows the numbers – and you know he’ll be aiming at them this Sunday.
Something worth fighting for
What else is there to play for, given the top three in the drivers’ championship (Verstappen, Perez, Hamilton) were confirmed in Las Vegas? Plenty, even if the contests aren’t for the biggest prizes on offer.
There’s just five points separating three drivers for fourth in the standings, Sainz and Alonso level on 200 points after Sainz overcame a 10-place grid penalty in Vegas to finish sixth, while Lando Norris didn’t add to his 195 points in Sin City after his first DNF of the season. A longer shot is Leclerc, 12 points behind the Spanish duo in seventh despite regularly seeming like the sport’s fastest driver not named Verstappen, and coming to Abu Dhabi off a pole and second place last week.
It's even tastier in the teams’ race, Mercedes (second, 392 points) hanging on by four points over Ferrari after its second-worst weekend of the year in Vegas, and the Prancing Horse outscoring the Silver Arrows for the past four events. Elsewhere, Aston Martin’s late-season resurgence – the team has scored 37 points in the past two races after managing 21 in the previous six – has the green team within 11 points of McLaren for fourth.
Logan’s last chance
Abu Dhabi this year is unusual in that it’s not a farewell tour for drivers with their existing teams – 19 of the 20 drivers on this year’s grid will go around with their current employers again in 2024. The odd man out? Logan Sargeant, who gets one more chance to impress for Williams in a rookie season where he’s shown flashes, but only belatedly.
Nobody has expected Williams to be a front-runner this season, but seventh in the constructors’ standings represents a step up from recent years – and Sargeant has had next to nothing to do with it. The American has been outscored 27-1 by teammate Alex Albon and outqualified 21-0 – and while it’s a set of stats that comes with context, it’s not a great look.
Has Sargeant done enough to stay? Lately, maybe – his first points (well, point) came in Austin in round 18, while seventh on the grid in Las Vegas was a season-best by some distance. He might be saved by the lack of viable alternatives pushing up from Formula 2, and his passport and backing doesn’t hurt either.
With three US races now on the calendar, it’s hard to imagine the sport would want to lose its only American driver, and there’s an argument that his arrow has been pointing in the right direction of late. Avoiding being shut out in qualifying over an entire season by Albon – who was on the receiving end of a 17-0 mauling by Verstappen at Red Bull in 2020 – has to be Sargeant’s more immediate concern.