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Battles Across the Board: F1 2023 Was Far from Boring

Written by Meghana Sree, Edited by Sharifah Zaqreeztrina

A deep-dive into three rivalries in the Constructors’ Championship that shaped the season, and a verdict on the best of these. 

Image Credits: Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

The winter break blues have started to settle in, and as we all eagerly anticipate the 2024 season, it’s worth reflecting on the season gone by. Out of all the adjectives used to describe the 2023 season, the popular ones seem to be ‘dominated’, ‘predictable’, or ‘boring’. On the surface, these adjectives may appear to ring true, but if we scratch a little deeper, it’s evident that this season is one of the most competitive ones we’ve had in a while.

As Red Bull and Max Verstappen were racing off into the distance, collecting trophies and records along the way, not far behind them were nine teams battling it out with each other to finish at the highest position possible. By the time we reached the final race at Abu Dhabi, all eyes were not on P1, but on P2, P4, and P7.

The Lead-Up to Abu Dhabi

Mercedes vs Ferrari – A Two-Way Tussle for P2

When Ferrari arrived at Bahrain for the 2023 season, they were expecting a chance to finally take the fight to Red Bull for both championships, after coming close during the first half of the 2022 season. But the opening rounds quickly confirmed that while Red Bull was in a league of its own, the Italian team would have to fight its way up to any chances of second place in the standings.

Both Ferrari and Mercedes had a subpar start to the season, being upstaged by the newly improved Aston Martin. The Spanish Grand Prix became the first turning point in their battle, with Mercedes coming away with 33 points to inherit P2 from Aston Martin, while Ferrari held on to P4.

Increasingly, it was shaping out to become a fight between Mercedes and Aston Martin at the top, with just three points separating them after the Austrian Grand Prix. 

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The next race at Silverstone saw Mercedes bag a strong haul of points – Lewis Hamilton was on the podium for a fourth time in 2023 and George Russell finished P5, ahead of both Ferraris.

However at their home Grand Prix, Ferrari proved that they were still in the race for P2, by passing Aston Martin for P3 in the standings. After claiming Ferrari’s third pole position of the season, Carlos Sainz bravely defended from the charging Verstappen, but eventually lost position after a lock-up on Lap 15. 

From then on, the race saw Sergio Perez claim second place, while Sainz and Charles Leclerc gave the Tifosi some heart-racing action on the final lap. Eventually, the two Ferrari drivers finished P3 and P4 respectively, ahead of the Mercedes duo in P5 and P6. 

Ferrari’s momentum continued into the next round at Singapore, which became one of their strongest races of the season. With the Red Bulls far off the pace, it was down to the rest of the grid to make the most out of this weekend, which Ferrari did by becoming the only team to win a race in 2023 aside from Red Bull. 

Sainz started on pole, with Russell right behind him. Leclerc, starting P3 on softs, made light work of Russell in Turn One, but a Virtual Safety Car later on saw both Mercedes drivers cruise ahead of him on fresh mediums. 

The strong pace of Russell and Hamilton soon became an imminent threat to Sainz, who only had Lando Norris’ McLaren separating him from the speedy Silver Arrows. But a dramatic last-lap crash from Russell coupled with Sainz’s tactical brilliance saw the Scuderia secure a storming victory, and their highest points haul of the season.

Image Credits: Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images

The subsequent races saw Ferrari inching towards Mercedes, with a gap of not more than 30 points being maintained over the next five races, up until Las Vegas. The third American Grand Prix was pivotal in their battle, as Leclerc was able to clinch P2, leaving just four points between his team and Mercedes. Their advantage of points was aided by Russell’s five-second penalty, which led to him tumbling down the finishing order to P8.

With just one race to go, the competition was now truly on. 

McLaren vs Aston Martin – The Tables Turned

Over the course of the season, it seems as though McLaren and Aston Martin executed an elaborate switcheroo. While the first half of 2023 was in favour of the Astons, McLaren shocked everyone by tearing through the field in the latter half, consistently challenging the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari for positions, and even Red Bull for wins. 

Aston Martin’s comeback from last year’s poor form was welcomed with jubilance, none more happier than the team’s newest driver, Fernando Alonso. With just one top-three finish to their name coming into 2023, the Silverstone-based team left the season with no less than eight podiums.

Six of these podiums were secured before the summer break – in other words, before a series of misjudged upgrades stained their almost perfect run of form until that point.

As their rivals were catching up to them with significant upgrades during the Spanish Grand Prix, Aston Martin was desperate to extend their advantage in the development race. 

At the next round in Canada, they brought major changes to their car, but they would soon find out that these upgrades were far from much needed improvements. 

With each race, their points plummeted relative to their competitors, and just as it seemed like they’d have to settle for P4 in the standings, a new threat emerged.

Image Credits: Peter Fox/Getty Images

Just before the Canadian Grand Prix, Mika Häkkinen made a then outlandish prediction: “The only surprise I think we’ll see is McLaren’s possible progress during the next two months, I think they will surprise us massively. Just in terms of the speed of the car, they will probably challenge Red Bull.

His comments were dismissed as absurd, as at the time, McLaren had a disheartening sum of 17 points after seven races. However, a game-changing upgrade to MCL60’s sidepods and floor implemented at Austria and Silverstone saw a monumental surge in McLaren’s performance.

For the first time in 2023, McLaren was at the forefront, as Norris led the opening laps of the British Grand Prix, eventually finishing P2. This marked the beginning of Norris’ top-notch performance during the next few races, mirroring the results of pre-Canada Alonso. 

At this point, McLaren not only had one of the fastest cars on the grid, but also arguably the strongest driver-pairing; a department in which Aston Martin was lacking. While Lance Stroll was struggling to extract the most from the Aston Martin, Oscar Piastri was making a strong case for himself as one of the best rookies the sport has seen in years. His steady points-finishes, a Sprint win in Belgium, and back-to-back podiums in Japan and Qatar bolstered McLaren’s efforts. 

Piastri’s consistency and Norris’ streak of four podiums in a row from Singapore to Austin led to the inevitable juxtaposition of a failing Aston Martin and the flourishing McLaren. This contrast was made sharper by the fact that McLaren were over 100 points clear of Aston Martin in terms of gains between the Dutch and Mexican Grands Prix. 

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During this time, McLaren had surpassed their rival for P4 in the standings, but a return of Aston Martin’s form in Brazil saw Alonso on the podium again. Come Abu Dhabi, 11 points stood between the two P4 contenders, and with both teams determined to finish on a high, all was to play for.  

Williams vs AlphaTauri vs Alfa Romeo vs Haas – Battle of the Backmarkers

While fans focused on the clashes up front, these teams had a keener eye on the fight for P7. These four teams were left scraping at the bottom, not only for position, but also for money. With a staggering difference of about $35 million between P7 and P10, it’s understandable why these relatively financially unstable teams would want that spot. 

While Alfa Romeo and Haas started the season on good footing, Williams soon caught up to them after a valiant drive from Alex Albon in Canada. 

Image Credits: Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images

AlphaTauri would soon join the scuffle, after some chaotic driver changes. To much surprise and acclaim, Liam Lawson scored the team’s highest points-finish thus far at Singapore, with two points to his name after taking part in just two Formula 1 races.

Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo’s positive weekend at Qatar helped them lift off from the bottom of the board with 16 points, while Haas fell to P10 with 12 points. Both teams failed to finish in the points at any of the last five races, leaving them out of contention for P7.

Red Bull’s sister team was slowly closing the gap to Williams, and after Daniel Ricciardo’s P7 in Mexico and Yuki Tsunoda’s P9 at the following race, they were just seven points away from P7 in the Constructors’ Championship. 

The Final Showdown

Looking back, the last race of the season was rather uneventful, if considered in isolation. Save for Tsunoda leading five whole laps, the various incidents between drivers, as well as Leclerc’s excellent presence of mind during the closing laps, the race didn’t see as much action as some of the others this season.

But with the context of the events leading up to it, a lot was resting on this final round.

Image Credits: Edmund So/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

After qualifying, Ferrari and Mercedes were almost level in advantage, with Leclerc and Russell starting on the first two rows and Hamilton and Sainz further down the order. Hamilton’s lack of pace after his contact with Pierre Gasly meant that there were hopes of Ferrari clinching P2, but the Italian team botched their strategy with Sainz, electing to let him stay out on the hard compound for two consecutive stints. 

This meant that he had to pit again for a change of compounds, and as Leclerc tried to salvage the situation up front, the Spanish driver dropped down the order to P18. Despite Leclerc’s P2, Russell’s P3 and Hamilton’s P9 were enough to let Mercedes hang on to second in the Constructors’ Championship by just three points. 

One could argue that if not for Ferrari’s choice of strategy, or if not for Sainz’s tough luck during the second free practice session, the battle could have unfolded much differently.

Right behind these two teams, Aston Martin were desperate for any opportunity that they could capitalise on, in order to reclaim their position in the standings. But Stroll was starting P13 on the alternate strategy, and while Alonso tried his best to keep up with Norris and Piastri, the Papaya team eventually outscored Aston Martin by 22 points.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Aston Martin could’ve had the dream season if only they had a better understanding of their upgrades, and a stronger driver pairing. While Stroll did have decent qualifying sessions scattered throughout the year, he failed to convert his starting positions into points-finishes. Moreover, even on Aston Martin’s good days, he was nowhere near the raw pace of Alonso.

On the other hand, McLaren had two drivers who challenged each other, and when one was lacking, the other was ready to pick up the slack. This strength combined with a promising car became the reason for their massive leaps this year.

Further down the order, AlphaTauri were prepared to claim P7 after an impressive qualifying session from Tsunoda, who bagged P6, a career-best for the Japanese driver. 

On race day, while Tsunoda continued to impress on track, Williams’ Logan Sargeant did his best to hold up Ricciardo. This meant that whilst Tsunoda finished in the top ten, it wasn’t enough to surpass Williams for P7. Although AlphaTauri had a clean weekend with points, Williams was the team that breathed a sigh of relief as despite not scoring at all, they had managed to defend their position in the standings.

While the 2023 season was peppered with scuffles between multiple teams at different weekends during the year, these three battles formed the overarching rivalries that everyone was betting on. 

Image Credits: Jared C. Tilton - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

While each were interesting in their own right, the Mercedes vs Ferrari competition tops the battle of the battles. Not simply because it was for a higher position than others, but because it was slippery to predict, engaging to watch, and truly put both teams to the test from the get-go.

What do you think? Which battle in the Constructors’ Championship did you enjoy the most this year? Let us know in the comments below!

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