Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top

Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top

The 2023 Formula One season concluded on Sunday in Abu Dhabi with Max Verstappen's 19th victory from the year's 22 races. As so often has been the case since March, the Red Bull RB19 was peerless at the front, fending off an early Charles Leclerc threat, before setting off down the road once the champion switched to Pirelli's hard compound tyre. Although the Grand Prix didn't have any last-race desperation or fatigue, with no crashes, retirements, or Safety Car slowdowns, many championship permutations played out throughout the 58 laps. Much like in 2021, although in far less spectacular and controversial fashion, the last lap saw the standings changing almost corner by corner in a dramatic end to an often predictable season.

November 27, 2023

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Mercedes and Ferrari locked horns for the vice-champion constructor accolade as the sun set over Yas Marina. Although it isn't the most glamourous title in F1, the millions in prize money and bragging rights kept the drivers pushing until the chequered flag. However, both teams had one arm behind their back, with Lewis Hamilton qualifying in P11 and Carlos Sainz down in P16 at a track where the 10 teams were relatively even on pace.

A Leclerc push on the opening lap had the Monegasque driver looking likely to take the lead. Verstappen's never-say-die driving kept the triple champion in P1, though, and he remained unchallenged for the race duration. Behind, Leclerc led the also-ran group of Oscar Piastri, Lando Norris, and George Russell, but the order would soon change.

Norris, who had jumped Russell off the line, had more race pace than the sister McLaren of Piastri, and the two switched places after only a handful of laps. Even though Norris sat in P3, there wasn't time for the Brit to think about tasting the podium rose water as compatriot Russell soon got by Piastri's stern defence and swiftly began closing the deficit.

Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top

Sadly for Norris, all his work in getting the better of Russell in the opening metres soon faded to nothing. The first round of pit stops had the usually rapid McLaren pit crew struggle with the left-rear wheel when putting their lead driver onto Pirelli's hard tyre. The two-second delay was all it took for Mercedes and Russell to get by and exit the pit lane in third to boost the Silver Arrows' vice-champion hopes.

Out front, Verstappen had slowly begun increasing the gap after getting fresh tyres, but he wasn't the only Red Bull driver to find pace on new Pirelli rubber. Sergio Perez also began a fight through the order from his P9 starting slot as the laps ticked down. Although it looked like Leclerc and Russell were set for silverware, the charging Mexican's late speed had him become a surprise factor in the Mercedes vs Ferrari fight.

There was a problem for Perez's hopes to end his season on a high – he and Norris had a confusing collision. During the Red Bull's surge through the pack, both drivers converged in a slow-speed incident at the chicane. The stewards deemed Perez the guilty party, handing down a five-second penalty as a punishment that would handicap how high he could reach.

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Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top

Leclerc and Russell learned of the news and factored the penalty into their defence of the closing-in Perez, with Leclerc showing incredible driving intelligence. Perez muscled by Russell, but the Ferrari driver chose not to fight any overtake, hoping that Perez would take points away from Mercedes.

Leclerc let him by on the approach to the Turn 5 hairpin and kept close to ensure he would remain P2 in the classification. A last-lap push from Perez had the Mexican reach a four-second margin over Russell, just shy of taking the podium and snatching what would've been three crucial points from Mercedes.

The fireworks erupted for Verstappen underneath the Abu Dhabi night sky as the Dutchman concluded the most dominant season by a single driver in the sport's history. Mercedes kept their P2 position in the standings despite Leclerc's late-race antics and will be thankful to rid themselves of their problematic W14. With Perez's penalty, Leclerc's P2 advanced the Ferrari driver to P5 in the drivers' championship, though, as a small solace.

Nonetheless, Leclerc and 18 other drivers will hope Verstappen and Red Bull's 2024 car are far more beatable next year when F1 returns on March 2nd for the season-opening Bahrain GP.

Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top
Verstappen ends F1’s most dominant season on top