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Fourteen races. Twelve wins. Ten in a row. A presumed third Formula One world championship, probably arriving in three races’ time, in Qatar. It’s time to start planning Max Verstappen’s coronation.
It’s been an incredible year of performances by Verstappen and Red Bull. The team and driver deserve enormous credit for all they have achieved, rewriting F1 history.
But let’s face it: What we really want to see in F1 is a back-and-forth title fight.
A large chunk of the ‘newer’ F1 fans would’ve come to the sport around 2021, a season that offered an all-time classic championship battle. Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went toe-to-toe in a grueling, year-long fight where tensions spilled over on- and off-track on multiple occasions and was only decided — controversially — on the final lap of the season’s final race.
Not every season can be like that, and F1 has not reached such heights since, as Red Bull has surged ahead as the dominant team. The rivalry with Mercedes that once existed with a ferocity fueled by the certainty they’d be fighting each other for the win every weekend has cooled simply because they are no longer direct competitive rivals.
That does not mean there is any love lost between the two sides, especially when comparing their achievements – something that came into the spotlight over the Italian Grand Prix weekend.
Stoking old fires
Last year’s battleground between Red Bull and Mercedes was F1’s rulebook and the proposed car changes to combat porpoising. The bouncing phenomenon resulting from the updated car designs for 2022 hurt Mercedes more than most.
The political sparring peaked in Canada when Netflix’s “Drive To Survive” cameras captured a meeting about the problem and a spat between Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. Their exchange where Horner told Wolff to “change your f—ing car!” has become a firm part of F1 fandom’s lexicon.
But this year’s Italian Grand Prix pointed to a new point of contention between the two sides: the significance and quality of F1 records.
In response to a question on Sky Sports after the race about Verstappen’s new record for the most consecutive grands prix victories, something Mercedes never accomplished, Wolff said: “Our situation was maybe a little bit different because we had two guys fighting against each other within the team.
“I don’t know whether (Verstappen) cares about the record. It’s not something that would be important for me, any of those numbers. It’s for Wikipedia. Nobody reads that anyway.”
Wolff’s point about Verstappen’s teammates is more up for debate than the popularity of Wikipedia, which, according to Similar Web, is the seventh most-visited website in the world.
Such comments are all part of the theater of F1. The toxicity of 2021 went too far, but the fierceness with which teams go racing against each other, particularly at the very top, means it’s hard for relations to stay totally cordial. There is always gamesmanship at play.
As Horner put it in the depths of the 2021 fight: “You don’t have to be best mates with your opponents. How can you be? I think that would be dishonest in many respects to fake a façade when you are competing against each other.”
On Sunday, Horner refrained from commenting when asked if the war of words with Mercedes was starting up again, instead shifting focus back to Verstappen. “We shouldn’t detract from that in any way,” Horner said. “In sport, very rarely do things like this happen.”
The teammate comparison
The reason Verstappen’s dominance this year has felt so different from previous eras of one team leading the way is the lack of sustained challenge from within the team. The only other driver with a Red Bull RB19 at his disposal, Sergio Pérez, hasn’t been able to put up a true fight.
Wolff said at Zandvoort he found the margin between Verstappen and Pérez in qualifying “odd” and “bizarre” and pondered if it was down to the design of the RB19 being focused around Verstappen’s strengths.
Although the development of the car has led to more characteristics that Pérez doesn’t handle so well — the sharp front end on corner entry that Verstappen can better handle — both Verstappen and Red Bull knocked back suggestions that this was to play in Verstappen’s favor. The Dutchman said he simply adapted to whatever car he was given, while Horner claimed the comments from Wolff showed a “total lack of understanding of how a race car and team develop.”
Hamilton also talked at Monza about the teammate comparison in relation to Verstappen’s record, telling Sky Sports he thought “all of my teammates have been stronger than the teammates Max has had” in F1.
“Jenson (Button), Fernando (Alonso), George (Russell), Valtteri (Bottas), Nico (Rosberg), I’ve had so many,” Hamilton said. “These guys have all been very, very strong, very consistent, and Max has not raced against anyone like that.”
Verstappen said he thought Hamilton made the argument possibly because “he’s a little bit jealous of our current success” and “maybe he thinks there is something to win or defend with comments like that.”
One statistic that may illustrate how both drivers have fared against their teammates is the number of racing laps they’ve spent ahead of the sister car. Hamilton has been in front of his teammate 63.9% – or 11,089 laps – of the time. Verstappen has been in front of his teammate 76.4% of the time.
Post-race at Monza, Hamilton didn’t have a lot to say when asked if Verstappen’s achievement was just a statistic. “I don’t care about statistics in general,” Hamilton said. “But good for him.”
Do people care about records?
Much of this comes down to the value people place on records. Some drivers throughout F1 history have been sticklers for these yardsticks, knowing precisely where each win, pole, or fastest lap put them in the record books. Sebastian Vettel is one example that comes to mind. His ability to name every F1 world champion since 1950 in reverse order on F1’s “Grill the Grid” YouTube series is proof of that.
Not everyone is wired that way, and that’s OK. Wolff said he found it difficult to comment on an achievement that “never played a role in my whole life,” meaning he found such records to be “completely irrelevant” even at the height of Mercedes’ success. He added that he didn’t know how many races Mercedes won in a row through its dominant periods. A quick look at Wikipedia says it won 10 in a row on three occasions between 2015 and 2019. (Red Bull broke the record, long held by McLaren at 11, for that one earlier this season.)
Verstappen doesn’t seem to obsess over records, either. Whenever they fall his way, it’s never something he brings up as a point of discussion. He’ll politely answer questions, admit he never thought of such heady achievements as 10 consecutive wins when he was younger and respect the names of greats whom he leapfrogs in the statistical rankings.
But the focus always comes back to the efforts and performance of the entire Red Bull team in making it happen. “I’m just very proud of the whole team effort, the whole year already,” Verstappen said. “What we are doing at the moment, winning every race this year, is something that we definitely are enjoying because I don’t think these kind of seasons come around very often. And that’s the same, of course, with winning 10 in a row.”
Yet there was one record that Wolff admitted after the race he thought would be good: winning every race in an F1 season.
Mercedes got close in 2016, winning 19 out of 21. The win streak was lost early, at race five in Spain, when teammates Hamilton and Rosberg crashed into each other on the opening lap, with a second defeat coming in Malaysia (race 16) after an engine failure for Hamilton. Wolff said it would be “perfection” for a team to sweep the calendar.
With 14 from 14, Red Bull is eight races away from doing exactly that. That will not only serve as motivation to Verstappen, Pérez and the rest of the Red Bull team but also to Mercedes as it works to pose a threat at the very front once again.
It’s clear that when that does happen, the dormant rivalry won’t need much to wake back up.
(Lead photo of Toto Wolff: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto)