In 2023, nobody will, or can, stop Max Verstappen. The reigning two-time F1 world champion is quite simply racing on his own.
Last year, after an initial challenge from Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, the 25-year-old Dutchman blew the opposition away, coasting to a second consecutive championship with four races left in the season.
There was no need for the drama and controversy that surrounded his maiden title a year earlier in Abu Dhabi.
Having seized that opportunity at Yas Marina Circuit in 2021 to overcome habitual winner Lewis Hamilton, Verstappen has since gone from strength to strength, showing little inclination in letting any of his rivals get so much as a glimpse of the Formula One championship.
The best driver, in the best, car, is a devastating proposition, as Hamilton and Mercedes will attest after years of dominance.
In Bahrain two weeks ago, Verstappen ignored any drama going on behind him and raced confidently to his first ever win in Sakhir. With Ferrari and Mercedes seemingly beset by performance issues, it was an ideal start for Red Bull and bodes well for the rest of the season, although an unexpected challenge from Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso could add spice to the fight for the podium places once Leclerc and Carols Sainz, and maybe Hamilton and George Russell, get their act together.
For Verstappen, it has been more of the same so far at the second Grand Prix of the season in Saudi Arabia.
At Jeddah Corniche Circuit over the last two days, it has been business as usual as he notched up the fastest time in the first, second and third practice sessions.
He had arrived a day a day late on Friday, having suffered from a stomach bug on Thursday. If this is the champion distracted, God help the rest of the field.
The truth is, short of supernatural interventions, the challengers seem to lack the technical capabilities to stop him on the track.
The Mercedes and Ferrari cars, in comparison to Red Bull’s, seem to have regressed during the winter break.
Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff on Friday night admitted that the spending cap makes it all but impossible to make any significant changes to the chassis, leaving improved aerodynamic changes to the body as the main way of squeezing extra speed out of the car.
There is a feeling that Ferrari have played their cards close to their chest and there is more to come from their car, but their performances in Bahrain and in the practice round in Jeddah hardly inspire confidence.
That leaves this season’s surprise package: Aston Martin and their Mercedes engine. Alonso finished third behind the two Red Bulls in Bahrain, while teammate Lance Stroll took a remarkable sixth less than two weeks after a bike accident left him in hospital with several injuries.
But even with the best will in the world, Aston Martin’s leap from midfield to potential challenger is unlikely to be enough to trouble the champion.
Verstappen is at this point in his career a supreme champion at the absolute peak of his powers.
This is Muhammad Ali pummeling the heavyweight division in the mid-60s. A young Tiger Woods claiming one major after another. Roger Federer at his unbeatable best.
What’s more — for those who claim Verstappen has rarely been tested in recent times — it should not be forgotten that he has taken the fight to arguably the greatest driver of all time, Hamilton, first as a challenger and then as champion, and seems to have left him receding in his rear view mirror.
Will Ferrari’s performances and decision making improve? Will Hamilton be a winner again, as he has recently claimed? And can Alonso roll back the years? It remains to be seen.
But can Verstappen be stopped this season? Not a chance.
Make no bones about it, Red Bull are way ahead of the rest of the field.
Some in the media are filling column inches with evidence for claiming the reigning Constructors’ Champion could win every single race this season — a feat never achieved in Formula One history.
Overhauling Red Bull is going to take a monumental effort from one team — and fast.
The fact that fans who do not support the Austrian team, or have much of a liking for their talismanic reigning Driver’s Champion, Max Verstappen, will see their best shot at a desired outcome with Aston Martin and the evergreen Fernando Alonso, speaks volumes.
The two-time world champion Spanish driver has been in scintillating form since the beginning of the season, securing a podium finish behind the Red Bell duo of Verstappen and Sergio Perez — well ahead of Ferrari and Mercedes.
And even more galling for the German juggernaut is that the Aston Martin engine, gearbox and rear suspension is supplied by … yes, you guessed it: Mercedes.
After their disastrous season last year, Aston Martin’s car concept this season borrows a lot more from the Red Bull than its parent company’s model, and that will be the key for any other team attempting to get close to the front-runners.
Both Ferrari and Mercedes have only made minor changes to their car concept, and have clearly been found lacking in relation to the work done on car performance during the winter break by Red Bull and Aston Martin.
The responses to the poor performance in Bahrain from the Mercedes and Ferrari team principals, Toto Wolff and Fred Vasseur, will have a big say in which team — if any — will make a battle of the 2023 season.
Wolff admitted his team’s shortcomings and seems determined to make the changes needed to make their car more competitive. Vasseur, on the other hand, remained convinced that his car just had an off day and is much closer to the Red Bull vehicle than many think.
Only time will tell, but the results or improvement will need to bear fruit instantaneously before the Red Bull lead becomes uncatchable.
Another glimmer of hope for the Silver Arrows and the Prancing Horse is the caliber of drivers behind the wheels. If given a functioning car, there is nobody more experienced in battling it out with Verstappen than seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
And in George Russell on the other side of the garage, and Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in the Ferraris, the two teams have some of the best young talent F1 has seen in years. If car and driver can combine in time, then one of them has the real potential of bringing a challenge to Verstappen.
There are not many chinks in the Red Bull armor, but one that might be targeted and prised open by other teams is Red Bull’s so-called “second driver,” Perez. Pushing him as far down the grid as possible puts more pressure on Verstappen, who can cruise off the line ahead of the pack knowing he has got his teammate protecting behind him.
The Dutchman is at the peak of his powers, but rarely faced any genuine challenge last year, thanks in no small part to brilliant backup drives by Perez, who contributed with two wins last year in Monaco and Singapore.
If Verstappen can be flapped, he may make mistakes on enough occasions throughout the season to give the rest a chance.
But, no doubt about it, much like this author with this column, early signs are the rest of the paddock may well be clutching at straws.