Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Sameena Khan
After Charles Leclerc had dominated Round Three at Albert Park, Australia, taking his first Grand Chelem, or Grand Slam (pole position, fastest lap, race win by leading every lap) in the sport, many were looking at the prospect of the Monegasque bringing back silverware to Maranello at the end of the season. And why not, as he was leading the standings by 34 points from Mercedes driver George Russell and was 46 ahead of fifth-placed Max Verstappen. It looked like silverware would return to Maranello after 15 long years.
Red Bull was struggling with reliability issues, with Verstappen retiring from second place in the season opener at Bahrain and then at Australia, costing him a large chunk of points. His teammate Sergio Perez too, retired from the season opener, highlighting a chink in Red Bull’s armour. However, between these two was the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, a race Verstappen had won following an exciting battle for the lead with Leclerc. Perez shone that weekend, taking his first pole position in 215 race starts. At this point, one fact was affirmed - Red Bull had a fast car, albeit an unreliable one.
And once they improved on the reliability side of things, it was one-way traffic. The next round at Imola could be seen as a sign of things to come. For the first sprint race weekend of the season, Verstappen took pole position in a rain-affected session ahead of Leclerc, and he backed up his pace with a magnificent Sprint Race win, one that saw him make a late race overtake on Leclerc. A dominant victory followed in a race of changing conditions on Sunday, to the tune of 16 seconds from Perez. This was Red Bull’s first 1-2 finish in six years, and Verstappen’s second Grand Slam in the sport, capping off a weekend of great dominance for the Austrian team.
Another win followed in the next round at Miami, as Verstappen overhauled Leclerc early in the race and kept him at bay post a late-race Safety Car period. A defining moment was in the next round at Spain, as Leclerc suffered an engine failure while leading. Verstappen, despite having a spin at Turn Four early in the race, took the lead as a result of a team order and victory. The swing of 25 points, following Leclerc’s non-finish, saw him move to the head of the standings for the first time in the season with a six-point lead.
After another podium finish at Monaco, the next big swing came at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Leclerc led the race from Verstappen and Perez until lap 21, when his engine suffered a failure, smoke billowing from the rear of the Ferrari. He was out of the race. Once again, Verstappen took the victory and another 25-point swing in the standings. Another strong showing followed in the subsequent round at Canada, as the Dutchman took pole position in a rain-affected session by over 0.6 seconds before holding off Sainz in the latter stages of the race to take yet another win. It was a masterclass from Verstappen, a dominant one at that.
However, the next two rounds would see Verstappen have a couple of races without wins. The Dutchman started on the front row alongside Carlos Sainz and kept him honest in the race's early stages following a red flag period. Having taken the lead following a little off-track excursion by Sainz, Verstappen appeared to have run over a piece of debris from an AlphaTauri car lying on the track, causing him to make an early pit stop. The part of debris stuck in the vehicle affected the downforce on the Red Bull, causing him to finish seventh in an eventful race, just finishing ahead of Mick Schumacher in the Haas. Verstappen then took the pole position at Red Bull’s home race in Austria and followed it up with a sprint race win the next day. However, he had to settle for second on Sunday, as the tyres looked to have worked better on Leclerc’s Ferrari, who went on to win the race. His championship lead had been cut to 38 points, and with 11 rounds left in the season, it looked like a fight that could go all the way.
Yet, Verstappen would go on to show his class when his rivals stuttered during the European period. A run of five race victories from France till the last European round, at Italy, saw him assert his position at the top of the standings and one hand on a second World Championship. Following pole-sitter Leclerc crashing into the barriers at the long right-hander of Le Beausset in France, Verstappen drove to victory unchallenged. The next round at Hungary saw one of the Dutchman’s best drives in the sport. Starting tenth after a power unit issue in qualifying, Verstappen made it up to sixth before the first round of pit stops. Timely pit stops by his team saw him undercut the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, and he made it past Leclerc, who was struggling on the white-walled hard tyres. Despite a spin shortly after, the Dutchman found his way into the race's lead and managed to win by seven seconds from Hamilton. He was seen praising his team’s strategist Hannah Schmitz for the perfect race strategy.
A dominant victory at Belgium, by 17 seconds, despite starting 14th after a power-unit component penalty, was followed up by another peerless performance in his home race at Zandvoort. Finally, Verstappen broke Red Bull’s Monza duck, taking the team’s first victory at the Temple of Speed since 2013, after having started seventh due to another penalty, having taken another power unit component. His championship lead had now swelled to 116 points, and he had a chance to snap up the title at Singapore. He was also eyeing up more records, most consecutive race wins (9), and most wins in a season (13), sitting on 11 wins and five in a row at that point.
However, Verstappen endured a frustrating Singapore Grand Prix. Looking set to take pole position in a wet/dry qualifying session, Verstappen was ordered to enter the pits by his team, as he seemingly didn’t have enough fuel to finish the lap and return to the holes. He started the race seventh. Verstappen made his way up to fifth before a mid-race Safety Car levelled proceedings. As he looked to overtake Lando Norris on the restart, he experienced a massive lock-up at Turn Seven, going into the run-off area. Following a pit stop onto fresh soft tyres, dropping him to 14th and last, Verstappen recovered to seventh following a last-lap pass on Sebastian Vettel. Perez and Leclerc, the Dutchman’s only challengers in the championship, finished in the top two, carrying the battle to Japan.
In Japan, another dominant drive saw Verstappen seal his second world championship. Having taken pole position by the slender margin of 0.01 seconds from Leclerc, the Dutchman showed why he is one of the best wet-weather drivers on the grid as he pulled out a lead of 27 seconds in a shortened 28-lap race over Leclerc. Following a penalty for Leclerc on the last lap, he sealed the world championship in typically dominant fashion.
Victories in Austin and Mexico City saw the sport’s newest Double World Champion achieve new highs: Most wins in a season, following his 14th win at Mexico, and the record for the most points scored in a season, eclipsing Lewis Hamilton’s tally of 413 points in a season from 2019. Verstappen’s season was going from strength to strength.
A blip in form occurred in the penultimate round of the season in Brazil. Qualifying second for the weekend’s sprint race behind Kevin Magnussen, he gained the race's lead on lap three. However, starting on the slower, medium tyres saw him concede the lead to Russell and then fall back to fourth, having run over a piece of debris on the track. An eventful race, which saw him cop a five-second penalty for an unsuccessful overtake on Hamilton, saw him outside the top ten for most of the race. A strong recovery drive and “that” controversial surpass of his teammate Perez saw him finish a respectable sixth, although a lot of respect had been lost, having not returned sixth to Perez.
Nonetheless, nothing could stop Verstappen, as another unrivalled drive in the season finale at Abu Dhabi saw him rack up his 15th win, setting a new benchmark for the rest to chase. A typically dominant performance saw him take pole position, his seventh of the season, by just over 0.2 seconds from his teammate Perez, and a lights-to-flag win by 8.7 seconds from Leclerc, only relinquishing the lead when he pitted. It summed up his best season in the sport, as he broke records and surpassed the win tallies of many world champions. Fifteen wins, seventeen podiums, seven pole positions, and 454 points saw him set substantial benchmarks in the sport.
It only puts forward an image of a driver in his prime and one who will be challenging to reel in come the future. His opponents will have to up their game should they stop the Dutchman from taking a hat-trick of championships in 2023.