It’s October of 2022 and Suzuka is witnessing a wet weather masterclass from Max Verstappen, who is finding buckets of time around the circuit in his Red Bull.
Despite the race distance being halved following a long delay caused by poor weather and Carlos Sainz’s opening lap shunt, Verstappen won the 28-lap ace by nearly 30 seconds.
It turned out to be the drive that clinched the drivers’ title, following a post-race penalty for Ferrari‘s Charles Leclerc which dropped him from second to third giving Red Bull a 1-2
Despite sealing the championship early, Verstappen kept his form up and dominated most of the season’s closing stages, winning the United States, Mexico City and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as Red Bull sealed the constructors title.
The 2022 season was one of triumph, but now Verstappen has a chance of doing something only four drivers have done before him. Win three consecutive Formula 1 drivers’ championships. The question is can he do it?
Only getting better season by season
Although he’s been fast since arriving in F1 at just 17, Verstappen‘s maturity and racecraft have only improved the longer he’s been driving, ironing out the mistakes which previously damaged his reputation.
In 2021 he was at times erratic and struggled to retain the form he enjoyed from the start of the season, which calumniated in a series of clumsy mistakes that nearly cost him his maiden title.
But in 2022, he was near-perfect, producing near-bulletproof performances and lap times in the dominant RB18, which became unstoppable even when Verstappen started from the midfield.
Very little of Verstappen’s driving needs improving despite the odd hiccup on rare off days, and his durability extends to winning from virtually all grid positions.
Honda power and Newey magic may strike again
Arguably one of the core elements of the Red Bull machine is Honda’s power unit which has become the engine to have in F1 after years where they were the butt of paddock jokes.
Not since Ayrton Senna have Honda had a driver they’ve been able to build around, and with the company maintaining a presence inside the team until 2026, the combination could break plenty of records.
The second ingredient to Red Bull’s success is Adrian Newey, whose involvement may be fading, but his fingerprints are still all over the team’s cars and projects such as the RB17 supercar.
Still using a pen and paper, Newey’s most recent creations have been the cars to beat in F1. However, with the RB19 similar to its predecessor, 2023 could be another long year for the competition.
Ability to dominate and adapt on all tracks and conditions
Like all great drivers, Verstappen can win on all types of circuits, and in 2022 he proved this with two very different victories.
Take example, his victory in Imola, where he dominated the meeting held in adverse chilly conditions even if he and his Red Bull team went into the weekend as the enemy and with a point to prove.
In Miami, at a new track where practice was crucial, Verstappen would spend some of Friday in the garage with technical issues. Yet come Sunday afternoon, he was cruising to another win.
Although only one new circuit has been added to the calendar, it’s hard to find a type of circuit or weather condition where Verstappen struggles to win in adding another attribute to his armour.
History stands against him
A couple of things stand in his way, not least the 20% reduction in wind tunnel time following Red Bull’s titles and the penalty it received for breaching the cost cap.
20% may seem like a light penalty to the average fan, yet Red Bull will have less wind tunnel time than Williams putting the team on the back foot.
History isn’t in his favour either, as only five drivers in the history of F1 have won three consecutive titles, with Senna and Alain Prost failing to join the club.
But in Verstappen’s defence, the last two drivers to join this club, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, have achieved this feat over the past decade, so it is feasible.
All on the RB19
Although they go into the year as the hunted and with a handicap hanging over them, Verstappen should secure title number three this year.
On paper, the Red Bull-Honda combination remains the best in F1, while Verstappen is on storming form since taking victory in Baku last year.
The competition should be closer this year, but it’s hard to see past the Dutchman if 2022 is anything to go by.
If testing times were anything to go by, Red Bull and Verstappen could be unstoppable in 2023. But he will not have it all his way with an wind tunnel penalty still hanging over him and the team.