Max Verstappen and his operationally brilliant Red Bull team have blown Charles Leclerc and Ferrari away this season
How times change, huh? Last season’s championship battle kept us guessing until the very last lap; this year’s… won’t. And although there are still eight races (and a sprint) to go, only a Black Knight-level optimist would argue that the title is still up for grabs.
Nope, the arrival of Max Verstappen’s second successive F1 crown has become a matter of if, not when. Fresh from winning the Hungarian Grand Prix from tenth on the grid before the summer break, the flying Dutchman went four better this weekend with victory in Belgium from P14.
The nature of his rise through the field was spectacular too: eighth by the end of lap one, the de facto leader by lap 12, and the outright leader by lap 18. At the chequered flag teammate Sergio Perez – who’d started a dozen positions higher on the front row – was 17 seconds behind. Yikes.
As a result his main rival is no longer his main rival: Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is now 98 points adrift, having also slipped behind Perez in the standings. Verstappen’s nine wins plays Leclerc’s three; eleven podiums versus five. And that’s staggering when you consider it’s Leclerc who’s started on pole at half the grands prix so far in 2022.
So how has Verstappen dominated when things looked so close early on? Much can be put down to the 24-year-old’s individual brilliance, the guy never has an off day. Seriously, can you remember a time in the last couple of years when he didn’t get the maximum amount of pace out of the car? Arguably only Monaco back in May. And even then he beat polesitter Leclerc to the line.
Then you’ve got Red Bull itself, which stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best team in F1 right now. Okay so Mercedes has built faster cars for much of the last decade, but operationally they are the benchmark: tough team orders are never shirked, they frequently deliver the fastest pit stops, communication is always on point.
And don’t forget the pit wall: TG caught up with Principal Strategy Engineer Hannah Schmitz a few weeks ago, and if you want to understand why Red Bull’s calls hardly ever go wrong, you need only read what she had to say.
It’s a case of the best individual performing for the best team, a la Cristiano Ronaldo at his peak for Real Madrid, or Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. And yes, a certain Michael Schumacher at a certain Italian team.
Compare and contrast that with the Ferrari of today. Although Leclerc has twice crashed and lost points this season – most damagingly from the race lead in France – it’s the Scuderia that has been far more culpable for the capitulation over the last few months.
The Belgian Grand Prix *will* return in 2023
Let’s recap: wins lost to reliability in Spain and Azerbaijan, another thrown away to horrific pit calls in Monaco, a grid demotion in Canada, the team orders fiasco in Britain, that mad decision to use the hard tyre in Hungary and now another grid penalty in Belgium, where, let’s not forget, a failed bid for the fastest lap bonus point led to a pit lane speeding infringement and a demotion from P5 to P6.
Incredibly, team principal Mattia Binotto was still insisting after Hungary that Ferrari didn’t need to change to improve its fortunes. ‘It’s just a flesh wound!’ etcetera, etcetera.
Meanwhile that wait for a constructors’ title looks set to enter a 15th year, as Red Bull close in on their fifth in that period. It’s 2022 and excellence in F1 looks like an energy drink, not a Ferrari. How times change, huh?