Max Verstappen’s approval in Abu Dhabi 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 in which the team and driver redefined what a dominant campaign looks like (Verstappen set wins and points records in a single season even before coming to Abu Dhabi), ending 2023 with anything but a victory seemed unthinkable.

It looked like there might be a challenge for a brief moment at the start of Sunday’s season finale at Yas Marina. From second on the grid, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc made a better getaway as the lights went out, allowing him to run around the inside into the first corner. Verstappen hung his car out, picked up more speed into the corner and pulled ahead again.

Leclerc tried again a few corners later, taking advantage of Verstappen’s slipstream on the backstretch and darting to the inside into Turn 6. Verstappen responded by again keeping the outside, taking the inside through the chicane and then pulling away under braking at the curve 9.

“You can’t take it easy on the first lap,” Verstappen said. “He was good; he ran well. I didn’t expect Charles to go left in Turn 6, but it was a good move. I enjoyed it.”

It was the season summed up in a single lap. Regardless of what his rivals threw at Verstappen in 2023, he always had a response, fueled by his supreme confidence in the RB19 car with which he has achieved the greatest statistical season in F1 history. The result was inevitable.

Leclerc admitted after the race that he knew that even if he had been ahead, Verstappen would have passed him after just a few laps.

An emblematic trip

As Verstappen crossed the line to take his 19th win of the year, his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner jumped on the radio to send their usual congratulations. But his tone contained a greater sense of reflection. This wasn’t just another victory. It capped off a remarkable season, surpassing even Red Bull’s wildest dreams at the start of the year.

Nineteen victories. To put this in context, only eight seasons in F1 history have featured more than 19 races.

Horner told Verstappen to “enjoy this last part of the RB19”, a car that will surely go down as one of the best in F1 history. He was one race away from a perfect season and Red Bull’s only defeat came in Singapore. There is still something for the team to accomplish if they can somehow replicate their dominance from 2023 in the future.

Verstappen has never been one to dwell on statistics or records. But even he came into Sunday’s race knowing that a pretty major milestone 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 cause him to lose track position. It was also the reason why Verstappen suggested that his teammate Sergio Pérez pit before him in the final round of stops, allowing him to finish the year with 1,003 laps led, 264 more than Sebastian Vettel’s previous record. .

“Trying to achieve that was maybe not always the fastest strategy, but I wanted to stay in the lead to get the laps,” Verstappen said. Even with seemingly so little at stake in Abu Dhabi, with victory assured, Verstappen and Red Bull found ways to scale to new heights.

One could have forgiven Verstappen for taking his foot off the accelerator 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 expressed concerns about the direction of F1 with the number of races and the structure of the weekends, why not push back?

As long as Verstappen and the Red Bull team perform as well as they have in 2023, their dominance is likely to go unchecked. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

It’s just not in their nature. “I think that’s how I grew up,” Verstappen explained. “I can’t just show up on a weekend without giving it my all. I get angry with myself and I know that people around me would be angry with me if I were like that.

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

Bottom line: “Winning is great. Why wouldn’t I want to win?

What has meant even more to Verstappen than the records he has achieved this year is the team spirit and unity at Red Bull. The group has never been closer and they are having more fun than ever thanks to their success. “Whatever you do in motorsport, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to top it,” he said.

Horner noted on Friday that Verstappen had “not taken off at all” since taking the title in Qatar, allowing him to finish the year with such remarkable records. His 54th career win means only Lewis Hamilton (103) and Michael Schumacher (91) surpass him in the all-time wins rankings.

“(With) everything he’s done, you have to start talking about him surrounded by some of the biggest names in the sport, and I think he’s earned his spot there,” Horner said. “And what’s phenomenal is that he did it at 26 years old. He still has many races ahead of him.”

The road ahead

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

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

“Red Bull won by 17 seconds and they haven’t touched the car since August or July,” Hamilton added. “So you can guess where they will be next year.” His assessment is shared by the majority. Overcoming that deficit will be a huge task, no matter how significant the changes are made to the cars over the winter.

Naturally, Red Bull will be more skeptical (at least publicly) about their lead heading into the new season. Horner pointed to Mercedes’ dominant 2020 being followed by a much closer 2021, when Verstappen overtook Hamilton for the title, as an example of how quickly things can change in F1.

“Nothing stops and we had competitors coming at us in different places,” Horner said. “I am sure that the concepts will converge. Stable regulations are always consistent, so I don’t think we can repeat the season we have had.

“Hopefully, we can take the lessons from the RB19 and apply them to the RB20 and create a car with which we can defend these titles.”

In signs of a championship year, Verstappen’s victory in Abu Dhabi was a warning sign for the rest of the field. As long as he performs at such a high level and, more importantly, has so much fun within a team that operates as ably as Red Bull is at the moment, the ceiling seems limitless.

(Feature photo of Max Verstappen celebrating his victory at the Abu Dhabi GP: Peter Fox/Getty Images)