New Formula 1 Season, Same Old Max Verstappen

To start the 2023 Formula 1 season, Max Verstappen won the Bahrain Grand Prix by about 12 seconds. He would then go on to win all but three races that season en route to breaking all sorts of records and winning his third championship, turning the rest of the field into the dreaded “Formula 1.5” league. Heading into this year’s campaign, there was not a lot of hope that things would turn out differently, and instead there was a general feeling that this would be more of the same from Verstappen.

Well, that feeling was wrong: To start the 2024 Formula 1 season, Max Verstappen won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but this time by about 22 seconds.

Yes, after just one race it already feels like the championship has been decided. This isn’t a shock: Thanks to Red Bull Racing nailing the technical regulations that came into play in 2022, Verstappen, already one of the best drivers ever, also has the best car, and that combination is enough to leave everyone, including his teammate Sergio Pérez, in the dust.

This time around in Bahrain, the Dutch defending champion won pole on Friday—the race weekend was moved up one day from the usual Friday-Sunday cadence to accommodate Ramadan, which begins on March 10—and cruised for a wire-to-wire win from the front on Saturday. The race, or at least the fight for first, was over on the first lap, as Verstappen quickly built a lead of over a second from Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, so even the new rule allowing the Drag Reduction System to come online on lap two didn’t affect the matter.

Races aren’t solely about who finishes first, of course, and the battle behind Verstappen provided plenty of intrigue. But how much can that intrigue survive when the winner feels preordained every week? That’s the question that this F1 season will have to answer, because it will take an act of god or some major, uncharacteristic Verstappen mistakes to prevent him from bettering last season by doing a clean sweep of the 24-race calendar, the busiest in F1 history. In 2023, those acts of god came from Pérez (who won two races early in the season before forgetting how to qualify) and Carlos Sainz, who rode a great individual strategy and Verstappen’s shocking qualifying performance to win in Singapore.

There are race-winning cars elsewhere on the field, so a repeat of those blips could happen, but Bahrain was not a great showing for most everyone else. Let’s start with Leclerc. Ferrari’s Monegasque star actually put in the fastest lap in qualifying, with his 1:29.165 lap in the second phase just barely beating out what would be Verstappen’s pole time in the third (1:29.179), and so there might have been some hope that he could compete with Verstappen on Saturday. However, the Ferrari car failed him; thanks to an air intake of the left front brake that was changed right before the race, Leclerc’s car was running with a severe imbalance from the start, costing him braking time and dropping him from his starting spot of second all the way down to a fourth place finish, well behind his teammate Sainz in the last podium spot. Leclerc was, as is tradition, not all too happy with that development:

Elsewhere, somehow Lewis Hamilton’s seat broke, and he finished seventh. Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate George Russell showed some pace early on, but his engine had severe problems with overheating and battery deployment, and he ended up fifth. Pérez didn’t have mechanical issues of his own, but his radio did stop working well early in the race, which is funny enough to note. Lower down the field, Williams had issues with a new steering wheel; Alex Albon complained that it was too bright, especially during a night race, while his teammate Logan Sargeant’s wheel randomly changed settings on the car, which is not at all what you want. (Sargeant’s wheel had to be replaced mid-race.)

These are all issues that can happen with a complex machine, and F1 cars are among the most complex and delicate of them all. That all these mechanical mishaps happened in the first race is especially understandable, since the teams have not had a lot of time with the new cars coming out of the off-season; I’d bet that most of these problems are fixed by the time the drivers take the track in Jeddah on Thursday. However, that they all happened at once while Verstappen had a perfectly working vehicle and an untouchable lead is a perfect summation of how the last two seasons have gone, and it doesn’t give much hope that he will be challenged this time around.

Red Bull’s rig is, to put it bluntly, as perfect as it can be. The car has had few reliability issues since the new regulations came into play, as Verstappen has now finished 42 races in a row since a DNF in Australia back in April of 2022. That it’s reliable and fast is a deadly combo, and add in the fact that it manages tires well compared to some rivals—Ferrari’s car last year was fast, but it burned through tires so fast that it couldn’t compete for long enough on race days—and this feels like an unbeatable situation.

There will be plenty of drama throughout the grid, even if Verstappen spends most of the season so far ahead in first that he could afford to turn off his team radio and listen to some podcasts like he’s on a Sunday drive. The race for second in the constructors’ championship will likely be another showdown between Mercedes and Ferrari, and one of those four drivers will hope to challenge Pérez for second in the drivers’ standings. Similarly, the race for fourth between McLaren and Aston Martin could end up spicy, as it did last year. Further down the grid, I will be interested to see if Alpine really did build the worst car relative to team quality that I’ve seen in my time watching F1, and the new Sauber livery is so stunning that even if Valtteri Bottas has another 54-second pit stop, it will look badass doing so.

These are the hopes that the F1 brain trust will have for its season, one with a title race that already feels like a snoozer, before next season brings the excitement of Lewis Hamilton at Ferrari, as well as what looks to be a busy summer season full of driver moves thanks to expiring contracts, and the arrival of new regulations in 2026. Given how much money has been pumped into the sport over the last few years, thanks to its Netflix-aided rise in popularity in the United States especially, it has to be a disappointment that the current season has so little to offer. At the end of the day, the qualities of F1 that made it ripe for converting fans—a heated 2021 title race, as well as the back-and-forth start to 2022, when Ferrari looked to have a shot at the titles—have faded in Verstappen’s rear view mirror. The 2024 season has so many races to go, but it’s hard to look at how Bahrain went and not feel like there’s little there to hook, or keep, those fans who might be tuning in for the first time. Title races make for exciting watching, but the only race that Verstappen will be running this season appears to be against himself.

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