This Formula 1 season has turned into something of a ‘Challenge Max Verstappen’ show – pick a grid position for the Red Bull driver and see if he can win. The answer became, invariably, yes.
In Hungary, at the beginning of August, Verstappen started 10th, and won. In Belgium, after the summer break, he was 15th on the grid, and won. At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday, he started seventh.
It’s a measure of Verstappen and Red Bull’s superiority that almost everyone thought he would win from there, even with Charles Leclerc on pole for Ferrari in their home race. Mercedes driver George Russell, second behind Leclerc, said: “You’d have to be stupid enough to bet against it.”
Verstappen was third a few yards after crossing the line to start lap three, and second two laps later. As he sat there over the next few laps, getting closer and closer to Leclerc, it was only a matter of time before the Dutchman was in front.
Ferrari bet on strategy, but the reality was that it made no difference.
“I don’t think they made the wrong choice strategically,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “We just had a faster package and we would have won the race irrelevant.”
Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto agreed.
“It’s not hard to beat a faster car,” said Binotto. “It’s impossible. He was faster. Whatever the strategy, he would have won.”
From a shard to an abyss
It wasn’t always like this. The season quickly turned. There was a period when Red Bull was engaged in a very tough battle with Ferrari.
Ferrari’s mistakes and mishaps eased Verstappen’s path for a while, but as late as late July there was little to choose between the two teams performance-wise.
Not anymore – and the Italian Grand Prix was a perfect demonstration of how the margin between the teams has grown in just a month or two, from a sliver to a chasm.
Red Bull, said Horner, compromised its qualifying performance by running more downforce, knowing it would suffer a five-place grid penalty for using too many engine parts.
This meant their usual straight-line speed advantage was reduced – on the track where it is most important of all on the calendar in determining lap time. Yet Verstappen lost pole to Leclerc by just 0.145 seconds after one of the last-minute stages on the edge of the Monaco mark.
Ferrari, Red Bull believed by looking at GPS data, was also running its engines in a higher mode than usual; they assumed in order to better watch their home run.
But with just a few laps to go, it became clear that not only was Verstappen faster than Leclerc, but his car was wearing less tyres.
If Leclerc had stayed under the first virtual safety car, Verstappen would have stopped. Ferrari went there instead. They gave up track position, locking themselves into a slower two-stop strategy, hoping to at least try to get back to Verstappen with more grippy tires at the end of the race.
But when Leclerc made his second save, he was no faster than Verstappen on his exit. And his resigned attitude after the race told its own story.
Verstappen now leads Leclerc by 116 points. If he exits the next race at Singapore 138 ahead, the title is his. Maybe that’s too much to ask – Verstappen would have to win and Leclerc not score. But it will come soon enough, no matter what.
How is Red Bull so far ahead?
Monza was Verstappen’s fifth consecutive victory and his 11th in 16 races. He is on track to break the record for most wins in a season – held, at 13, by Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel – and the latter’s achievement of nine straight wins set in 2013.
On average, the Red Bull is still not the fastest car this season over one lap. But for a long time it seemed to be the best racing car, although Ferrari had its moments of dominance and many missed opportunities. Now, however, the Red Bull is not only the best, it is on another planet.
“We perfected the car,” said Horner. “We managed to figure it out pretty well.”
According to Verstappen, the key change was a weight reduction. The car started the year overweight, and Verstappen found it sluggish and lacking front-end grip. He hates understeer.
Slimming it gave it life, allowed it to express all its talent.
“It’s amazing what we’re going through in the team,” Verstappen said. “We’re having an incredible year. And it’s important to enjoy it as well. I think we’ve had a lot of different challenges on different types of tracks and now the car really seems to work on every track. And yes, we’re extremely happy. .”
This left Ferrari struggling to find answers.
Earlier this year, Leclerc and Binotto expressed confidence that Ferrari could follow in the development race. After all, they said, it would be the same people developing the car who built Ferrari’s first competition machine since 2018. But they were wrong.
“In the last races, Red Bull’s performance has been better than ours,” said Binotto. “Not in qualifying. We still have a good pace in qualifying, so the pure performance is still there. But in race pace we experience tire degradation and in that respect the Red Bull is a better car.
“They were able to develop the car for better balance and better tire degradation which we haven’t. We are looking at the reasons because we need to fix it – if not for this season then for the next.”
FIA Safety Car finish review
The race ended controversially as one of the recurring themes of the season returned – the jurisdiction of the FIA.
Monza was not a good weekend for F1’s governing body. There was mystification after qualifying when it took nearly four hours for officials to issue the provisional grid order.
Normally it doesn’t matter, but this weekend it was very important. Verstappen was one of nine drivers to take grid penalties, including Ferrari’s Lewis Hamilton and Carlos Sainz, and it’s not unreasonable that people want to know where they would start.
Even the teams disagreed – some thought Verstappen would be fourth (wrong); other seventh (right).
“The regulations must clarify how we count in this regard,” Binotto said. “The reason it took so long is that there are definitely different interpretations and the regulations are not clear enough. This is something we need to sort out in the future.”
The FIA’s argument was that the publication of the grid should wait until after scrutineering. However, on Sunday, the provisional result of the race is published immediately.
Then, on Sunday, there was a controversy over the race ending under a safety car.
It wasn’t a drama on the scale of whoever decided the title in Verstappen’s favor last year, but it’s clear mistakes were made. And the crowd made their feelings known, booing under the podium, though some of that was also almost certainly for Verstappen beating a Ferrari.
“It is what it is,” he said. “It’s not going to ruin my day. I’m just enjoying the moment.”
The safety car picked up the wrong car – Russell, not Verstappen – and that delayed the process. Even when Russell passed, taking most of the rest of the field with him, the wrong lights were on on the car.
And although he was only deployed to collect Daniel Ricciardo’s broken-down McLaren, not an accident, and with six laps to go, officials ran out of time to restart the race.
An FIA spokesman said Ricciardo’s car was stuck at speed, delaying his withdrawal. “As the safety of the recovery operation is our only priority,” a statement read, “and the incident was not significant enough to require a red flag, the race was completed under the safety car according to procedures agreed between the FIA and all competitors.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was optimistic about it, stressing that the problem in Abu Dhabi was that the rules were not being followed, which was not the case on Sunday.
“Whether I was traumatized by Abu Dhabi or not, the rules were followed to the letter today,” Wolff said. “There were marshals on the track, a crane there, that’s why they didn’t let anyone overtake, and then there wasn’t enough time to let everyone overtake.
“If someone isn’t happy with the regulations and you want to have a big show and two laps of racing then chaos, I’m in. But then you have to change the regulations. So I don’t think we should complaining about everything that happened because those are the rules.”
Horner and Binotto, however, disagreed. Horner said he was “disappointed”. It was a “relatively commonplace incident”, he said.
“The principle of what we’ve always discussed is that nobody wants to see a race end under a safety car like that,” Horner said, “and it seemed like there was enough time to start the race. race.
“Although there was a risk that everything would be grouped together, we would have preferred to win the race in racing conditions. And you could hear the displeasure of the crowd, because it was as if everyone had been deprived of this arrival.”
Binotto was even more outspoken.
“We don’t understand why it took them so long to make up their minds,” he said. “They didn’t do a good job today and they just have to do a better job in the future because it’s not good for F1.”
FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem has made his presence felt this year – in areas such as the dispute over the driver’s jewelry and underwear earlier in the season, a delay in the publication of regulations on engines and its handling of the hassle over “bouncing” cars.
Disenchantment with the way the FIA is handling F1 has been bubbling among teams for much of the season and is growing.
Ben Sulayem called a meeting on Monday to discuss “a range of sporting issues” with the team’s sporting directors. “This follows,” according to a statement, “a series of separate meetings held at Monza between the FIA President and a number of Formula 1 drivers.
“This is the first such meeting since 2013 and forms part of the President’s ongoing mission to raise the standards of the sport, bringing together drivers, teams, stewards, officials in a collaborative way.”
Horner said he was “sure” that handling the end of the Italian Grand Prix “will now be at the top of the list”.