Nobody was surprised that Formula One world champion Max Verstappen made it a record 19 victories out of 22 races, with a win in the season-ending finale in Abu Dhabi.
Starting from pole position, he was only briefly challenged by the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, before racing away to take yet another trouble-free victory.
Last year Verstappen set a new record of 15 wins in one season, a record he has now smashed, setting two other records as well, an 86.3 per cent winning percentage and over 1000 laps led.
His latest win was career number 54, surpassing the total owned by former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, who retired last year with four world titles.
Verstapppen has now won three consecutive world titles and is still only 26 years old. His Red Bull contract doesn’t expire until the end of 2028.
How many wins and championships he might have by then, is anyone’s guess, but if he maintains his current winning level, together with the reliability and performance he is able to extract from his Red Bull car,
Michael Schumacher’s winning total of 91 will eventually come under threat, not to mention his seven world titles.
Lewis Hamilton is the holder of the record for race wins, with 103, an unbelievable total that seems beyond any driver ever beating, but if anyone is to do it, Verstappen is the one.
Of course, Hamilton is set to continue with Mercedes for another two years at least and could extend his winning total, and add an eighth world title that he thought was his with three laps to go in that dramatic season-ending finale in Abu Dhabi in 2021.
The outcome of that race went in favour of Verstappen, with the FIA race director allowing one lap of racing instead of finishing the race under a safety car, giving Verstappen, who was on much fresher tyres, the opportunity to pounce and overtake Hamilton on that last lap to claim his first title.
Hamilton and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff have never really got over that loss. The last two seasons, with George Russell becoming Hamilton’s teammate, has produced just one race win, for Russell in Brazil last year.
Hamilton had won at least one grand prix every year since joining F1 in 2007, through to 2021. But after finishing ninth in last Sunday’s race, Hamilton has now gone two seasons without a win. And judging from his post-race comments in Abu Dhabi, he is not confident the situation will change in 2024.
Mercedes did finish second behind Red Bull in the Constructor’s championship, albeit 451 points in arrears. The real interest in the race was whether Ferrari could finish ahead after starting the race four points behind Mercedes.
But when Carlos Sainz didn’t get out of Q3, the task ahead became more difficult. Sergio Perez was given a five-second penalty for forcing Lando Norris off the track, something he argued was not warranted long after the race finished. He called the steward’s decision a “joke” resulting in a post-race reprimand for Perez for “personal insults”.
During the race, he was charging forward, and Leclerc decided with a lap to go, to let Perez take second place on the track, in the forlorn hope Perez might finish five seconds clear of Russell, running fourth, meaning Ferrari would finish ahead of Mercedes on points. It didn’t work, and to some, it may have seemed unsportsmanlike to give up a place.
But classily, Leclerc didn’t try to back himself into Russell’s path to hold him up, even though team boss Fred Vasseur said Leclerc “could have been a bit more aggressive and try to slow down Russell.”
In 2016, Hamilton, leading the last race but not the championship, slowed down to try to back his Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg, who had to finish second to win the championship, into the path of Vettel in the Ferrari, with the clear aim of hoping Vettel would overtake Rosberg.
The Mercedes team had to tell an unhappy Hamilton that it wasn’t acceptable for him to try and sabotage his teammates’ title prospects, so he abandoned his idea that was in Hamilton’s interests, not the team’s. Those who continue to argue that Hamilton was robbed of an eighth title in 2021, conveniently forget that Hamilton is not above driving in an unsporting manner in his quest to win and is not the team player some think he is. What happened in 2021 was not of course Verstappen’s fault.
Hamilton has cut an unhappy figure for much of the last two seasons, and despite finishing third in the drivers’ championship this year, he is not exactly exuding confidence for 2024. Given Mercedes had finished “best of the rest” he was asked if he had any thoughts on that achievement.
“Not too much really,” he said.
“It’s not been a great year in general, so there’s not a lot to take from the year in general. It’s the fact that I survived it, probably that’s about it.”
Questioned about what the team could do over winter testing, to change things around, Hamilton was still rather negative.
“At this moment, I don’t really know.” he replied.
”For Red Bull to win by 17 seconds in the end, and they haven’t developed their car since August is definitely a concern. But we’ve learned a lot about the car and it’s just down to the team now.”
Hamilton also tried to accuse Fernando Alonso of brake testing him, after the latter came out of the pits in his Aston Martin and went defensive as Hamilton bore down on him.
“Well, we were flat out at 400 metres, 300 metres before the corner and doing 180 miles an hour and the guy all of a sudden slowed down drastically ahead of me,” Hamilton complained.
The race stewards briefly investigated whether Alonso had driven erratically but then dismissed the issue, while Alonso equally dismissed Hamilton’s complaint, when asked if he had anything to say.
“Nothing,” he initially replied before adding: “Lewis obviously is very clever, understands the sport really, really good and has a lot of experience, but I have more,” he added with a smile. He can probably cross himself off Hamilton’s Christmas card list, if he was ever on it.
Former F1 driver and Sky Sports analyst Ant Davidson believes Alonso was slowing down just before the DRS line, hoping Hamilton would pass him before the corner so Alonso would have DRS down the straight.
Hamilton waited for the straight to use DRS to pass Alonso, but two laps later that position was reversed and Alonso no doubt got great satisfaction in passing his nemesis. At 42 years old, he’s not considered a wily old fox for nothing. His overtake of Yuki Tsunoda, who was named driver of the day after finishing 8th in the Alpha Tauri, meant Alonso finished 4th in the driver’s championship. He finished on the same points as Leclerc but is ahead on countback due to more podium finishes.
Verstappen celebrated his victory by doing doughnuts, before neatly taking his spot in front of the number I sign, having done that nineteen times. When Leclerc asked his race engineer if he could do a doughnut, the response was swift and dismissive.
“No burnouts please. Straight to the grid,” Marcos Pardos said.
“Leclerc: “Arghhhh, not even this for f*** sake.”
It is unlikely Verstappen even asked his team if doughnuts were okay, which may indicate a key difference between the two teams., and why Verstappen likes where he is, apart from having a car that has finished all 22 races this year. He is an extraordinarily great driver, but he gives much praise to the mechanics and engineers, when asked what he will take away from this season.
“I think just the team spirit,” he replied. “Not so much the wins or poles or laps lead. I think just the enjoyment we had as a team. Because the wins are great of course but I think it’s also very important to have a good atmosphere in the team and have a lot of fun with the people you work with, there’s a lot of smart people in the team.”
“My mindset also didn’t change after winning the championship. I come to the race weekends and always try to do the best I can. Why would I not want to win, you know?”
“So, when you have the opportunity to win, I will always try to do the best I can and also for the team when you have such a good car you want to try and extend the records and do well.”
It has been a remarkable season for Red Bull, taking 21 of the 22 races, 19 to Verstappen and two to Checo Perez. Only Sainz’s victory in Singapore prevented a Red Bull clean sweep.
Christian Horner described the team’s success as coming from the “unrelenting desire and spirit in the team.”
“I think particularly Max this year, he’s been outstanding the way he’s been on top of the car, the strategy, the tyres,” Horner added.
As for that one loss in Singapore, ominously said, “it leaves you humble that there’s still something to strive for.”
Based on the team’s outstanding record, there is not much leeway for improvement, but it is likely Red Bull will find some.