Who can challenge Red Bull — and when? F1 mailbag, summer break edition

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School is back in session, Formula One fans.

After three weekends off when the paddock scattered to different corners of the world to recharge, the sport is back and ready for the Dutch Grand Prix. Zandvoort kicks off a grueling stretch of 10 grands prix (plus a few sprint races) in 13 or so weeks before we say goodbye to 2023.

In case you need a refresher on where things stand:

  • Max Verstappen and Red Bull are dominating. The Dutchman has won the last eight races, a streak that dates back to the Miami Grand Prix at the beginning of May.
  • After sprinting off the blocks, Aston Martin began slipping back in the race results as its competitors improved their performance.
  • McLaren made a major step forward with its upgrades for a late first-half surge; however, it came back down to earth just a tad in Belgium, the last race before the break.
  • Teams are still bringing upgrades even though we are past the halfway point of the season, but more on that later.

Before we jump feet first into the sand dunes at Zandvoort, we spent this weekend’s media day answering some of your questions from the summer break.

Questions have been edited for brevity and clarity. 

How are fans supposed to feel about Max Verstappen’s dominance, and what impact is that going to have as the sport tries to gain a stronger foothold in the US? On the one hand, what he’s doing is amazing. On the other hand, there seems to be little suspense on Sundays about the outcome. Is this good for the sport? — Sean L.

This is the big dilemma facing F1 right now, and is something that has been discussed quite a bit through Thursday’s media day ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix. Sunday could see Verstappen match the record for the most consecutive grand prix victories (nine), potentially making it a landmark race.

Yes, what Verstappen is achieving is incredible. He might be in the best car, but to so comprehensively beat the man across the garage (that would be Sergio Pérez) in the same machinery week in, week out is no small feat. There have been zero errors or mistakes, no great moments of stress or drama. To win a championship is one thing; to dominate so relentlessly takes a level of perfection we’ve rarely seen in F1.

But there is the question mark about what it all means for F1 moving forward, and whether it might turn away some of the newcomers. Those who first watched in 2021 were treated to an all-time great title fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. It got pointed at times between Mercedes and Red Bull, but it offered a sporting drama that might, unfortunately, have set expectations too high for the years to follow. It is worth noting that up to Belgium, F1’s US TV figures were in line with last year, suggesting people aren’t turning off because of Verstappen’s dominance.

F1 typically goes through cycles of domination. We saw it with Mercedes (2014-20), Red Bull before that (2010-13), Ferrari before that (2000-2004), and so on. There are flashes of a challenge, like we saw with Ferrari at the start of last year, but a regulation cycle is typically dominated by a single team.

What makes this one different is, unlike the teammate battles between Mercedes’ Hamilton and Nico Rosberg or (briefly) Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber battle, Verstappen is a long, long way clear of Pérez. It’s not just a one-team story, but a one-driver story.

How far are we from seeing some real competition for Red Bull? Or are we doomed to another year of seeing who’s second? — Paul T.

We know both championships are settled for this year, meaning the renewed hope of a proper fight at the front will only arrive once we get into the start of 2024. Through the car launches and pre-season testing, we’ll undoubtedly get all the usual talk surrounding who could topple Verstappen and Red Bull, looking to Mercedes, Aston Martin and Ferrari to mount a serious challenge.

But the margin at the front is so great that it could take a long time for that advantage to be eaten away. Hamilton has already spoken about Red Bull’s ability to shift focus to next year’s car early due to its points lead, giving it an edge over the teams still embroiled in the battle for second. It could mean a familiar story at the start of next year, barring some big breakthroughs for the chasing teams.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc said on Thursday at Zandvoort that it was “going to be very difficult to catch (Red Bull) before the change of regulations”, which is next slated for 2026. We typically see the pecking order shift whenever there’s an overhaul of the rules — see 2022 and 2014, when Red Bull and Mercedes started their dominant spells — and it might well be the best opportunity for any teams to make a big leap forward. Hamilton was inclined to agree with Leclerc, saying it was “very possible” the rule change will be the next opportunity for a proper fight at the front.

One thing that gives some confidence of a closer fight between now and 2026 is that as a ruleset matures, the field naturally converges. Look at 2021, when Red Bull managed to properly fight Mercedes and secure the drivers’ crown through Verstappen. Factoring in the reduced wind tunnel time Red Bull has under the regulations (part of its punishment for breaching the cost cap in 2021) and the fact Mercedes and co. perhaps have bigger gains to make, then all hope should not yet be lost.

Haas is among the teams expected to continue developing their cars for this year. (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Zandvoort returned to the F1 calendar somewhat recently after an extended absence. We had a similar situation with Imola a couple years before Zandvoort. Are there any other historic tracks that could return (aside from South Africa’s Kyalami, which has been covered quite a bit) after several years away from F1? Circuits like Fuji, Watkins Glen, Nurburgring and Brands Hatch could all give us great racing, but it seems they’re not options. — Clinton T.

It’s a great question. One thing to note with Zandvoort is the only reason it returned, quite simply, was because of Max Verstappen. If there wasn’t this huge swell of Dutch interest because of the success he has enjoyed since joining the grid, then there’s no chance there’d have been the same push to get Zandvoort back on the calendar. It’s a great little circuit and the facilities were upgraded quickly to make it capable of hosting F1. It’s got a real festival vibe and is very easy to get to from Amsterdam.

Right now, it doesn’t look like any other ‘historic’ tracks are on F1’s radar to potentially return. The events that have been discussed as options in the coming years include a street race in Madrid, which could replace Barcelona as the Spanish Grand Prix host. Korea has also shown an interest in a future event.

When Audi joins the F1 grid in 2026, I’d be interested to see what that could mean for a potential revival of the German Grand Prix. The Nüburgring could comfortably host F1 again — it was a stand-in race in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, remember. Fuji continues to stage top series like the World Endurance Championship and Super Formula, but so long as Suzuka (which is owned by Honda, who will be Aston Martin’s works partner from 2026) is willing to host F1, I don’t see us going anywhere else in Japan. F1 has definitely outgrown Brands Hatch, as wonderful as that track remains on the British racing scene.

There’s always a balance to be struck between going to new markets and chasing street races in ‘destination cities’ versus classic tracks. Right now, I think F1 has found a good balance.

Although no one could possibly make a jump to compete with Red Bull, who are some of the “underdog” teams to closely watch and see what kind of performance jumps they make? — Craig R. 

With a few promising drives from Alex Albon this season, how can WIlliam best finish this season and prepare for next season, especially with Sargeant struggling to fight for points? — Charlie C. 

Williams is a team to keep your eye on, not just this year but for seasons to come. Team principal James Vowles has made it clear that he’s looking at the team’s bigger picture, most recently telling motorsport.com, “My interest isn’t on this year. It’s not even on next year. My interest is putting in place structures and systems for ’25, ’26 and beyond.”

The team does have infrastructure deficits compared to its rivals, and it will take several years to do a complete overhaul. But already, Williams has produced standout results with Albon, particularly at the low-downforce circuits where the car’s straight-line speed stands out. Monza is another opportunity for them to snag a points-finish.

It may seem obvious, but finishing races and optimizing sessions are critical as they look towards future developments. Data helps teams get a better grasp on cars’ weaknesses and strengths.

Are any teams likely to do any more development this season? — Mark B. 

With 10 races to go, teams are still bringing upgrades this season, like Haas for example. The American-headquartered team is bringing updates on its front wing and brake duct, and more are expected to come. Team principal Guenther Steiner said in the team’s Dutch GP preview, “the team is working flat out to make some modifications to the car which will be coming later on in the year.”

Now you may be wondering why, especially when the 2024 car needs to be considered. Steiner said in the preview, “We keep on working, and there are two reasons for this. Firstly, to try and make the car go quicker as you always do with upgrades but also to know the direction for the VF-24, which is as important, if not more important.”

Can you give some tips to a new fan on how to take in all that goes on in a race weekend (from my couch)? If my favorite driver leaves my favorite team, what do I do?! — Kyle A. 

First off, welcome to F1! There’s plenty of ways to consume content and to watch races. For example, F1TV allows you to follow along on different drivers’ onboard cameras throughout the race if you are a fan of one specific driver. Outside of traditional media, there are also content creators on TikTok and YouTube who break down the technical aspects of the sport and major headlines/trends during the week.

Never hesitate to drop us a comment to ask a question or let us know what type of stories you’re interested in reading.

As for if your favorite driver leaves your favorite team, oof. It’s a tricky situation, but plenty of fans cheer for several drivers or different teams.

(Lead photo of Max Verstappen and Alex Albon at the Monaco Grand Prix: Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

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