The 74th Formula One championship ended in Abu Dhabi last week, with Max Verstappen finishing the season in style with another dominant show. Though the Dutchman faced no real challenge as he wrapped up his third straight driver’s title, there were some exceptional performances across the grid, with drivers in less competitive machinery shining.
In contrast, some drivers in strong cars failed to realise the full potential of what was available to them. The Hindu takes a look at drivers who stood out and those who came out with damaged reputations.
The best of the class of 2023
Max Verstappen (1st): Formula One is well and truly in the Verstappen era. With 19 out of 22 races, including ten consecutive race wins, the third world championship title was never in doubt during the season. After winning a close title in 2021 shrouded in controversy, Verstappen had an easier path last year, but not before battling Charles Leclerc in the first half of the season. This year, though, Verstappen’s battle was more with the record books than his competitors. With a Red Bull machinery that had no real competition on the grid, Verstappen only needed to beat his teammate Sergio Perez, which he did devastatingly. His 575-point haul was more than what Mercedes (409), which finished second in the championship, managed.
Fernando Alonso (4th): If there is a living example of the adage Old is Gold, it will be the 42-year-old Spaniard. Last year, the two-time champion caused a flutter when he moved to Aston Martin from Alpine, which triggered a churn in the driver’s market. In the first half, Aston Martin was the second-quickest car on the grid, and Alonso was metronomic in his consistency, taking six podiums from the first eight races. Though the team’s form nosedived in the later part of the season before stabilising towards the end, Alonso finished fourth in the drivers’ standings with 206 points.
Alexander Albon (13th): At the end of the 2020 season, Albon’s career was at a crossroads after a tough season in Red Bull. He couldn’t adapt to the car’s characteristics, which is engineered to suit Verstappen’s driving style and Red Bull dropped him in favour of Perez. After a year on the sidelines as a reserve driver for the same team, Albon joined Williams in 2022 and came of age as a driver this year. Williams was not the most competitive car, but on select tracks it was good enough to fight for points, and the British-Thai driver delivered, scoring 27 of the 28 points and helping his team finish seventh in the constructors’ standings. It is the team’s best finish since 2017, and having taken the wooden spoon in four out of the last five years, it marks a change of tide and, more importantly, worth tens of millions of dollars in extra prize money for the former champions.
Yuki Tsunoda (14th): It was the third season for the Japanese driver, and he needed to show he could lead the team after Pierre Gasly moved to Alpine. Unfortunately, the AlphaTauri came up with the slowest car on the grid, and it was a tough first two-thirds of the year for the Red Bull sister team. A late-season upgrade helped the team target points more regularly, and Tsunoda delivered. In the first half, he comfortably shaded Nyck de Vries, who was booted out mid-season in favour of eight-time Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo. Tsunoda then outscored the Australian as well and got his team to eighth in the constructor’s standings, just three points behind Williams.
Oscar Piastri (9th): No driver had more pressure to deliver in his rookie year than Piastri. The Australian was Alpine’s reserve driver in 2022’ and was caught in a contractual dispute last year when the team unilaterally announced him as a driver to replace Alonso, only for him to rebuke them. He had already signed for McLaren to replace the underperforming Ricciardo. He was subject to unfair attacks, and other team bosses questioned his loyalty with knives sharpened and ready to attack if he failed. To make things worse, McLaren, too, had a poor car until a mid-season upgrade transformed its fortunes dramatically. Once he got the hang of the vehicle, Piastri was among the most impressive drivers in the year’s second half. Though the 22-year-old scored less than 50% of his teammate Lando Norris’ tally, the Aussie had more misfortunes. His two podiums and one sprint win showed his capability, and he started out-qualifying Norris more regularly in the last part of the campaign. The fact that McLaren quickly locked him down till 2026 is an indication of his long-term potential.
Battered and bruised
Sergio Perez (2nd): It might seem ludicrous to state the driver who finished second in the championship is coming out as damaged goods. However, Perez squarely fits into this category as he underperformed massively. The Mexican driver was the only one who had a chance to make the title fight interesting. When he won two of the first four races, there was hope he could give the Dutchman a run for his money. But his implosion since the fifth race in Miami killed any interest in the season. The fact that Red Bull would have won the constructor’s title without Perez’s efforts showed two things: how good the Verstappen-Red Bull combo is and how bad a season Perez has had! The 33-year-old is lucky to have kept his seat in the best team on the grid for 2024.
Lance Stroll (10th): Like Perez, Stroll also had an underwhelming campaign and failed to match what Alonso did in the early part of the season. Granted, he suffered a fracture in his wrists before pre-season testing and showed remarkable grit and determination to make the grid in Bahrain. But over the year, the Canadian went missing, especially when Aston Martin lost its early-season pace advantage, and he struggled with listless performances. Aston finished fifth in the standings, 22 points behind McLaren which started with one of the slowest cars on the grid before turning things around. Stroll managed just 74 points to Alonso’s 206, costing the team a place in the standings. If not for the fact his father dad owns the team, Stroll’s position on the grid would not be a given.
Logan Sargeant (21st): The first American F1 driver to compete in the sport since 2015, Sergeant had a baptism by fire in his rookie season going against Albon in the Williams. While his inexperience was an important factor in his underwhelming race performances, there were too many crashes and missed opportunities. He got only one point to Albon’s 27. More importantly, he was the only driver to have not beaten his teammate even once over 22 races in qualifying, showing a general lack of raw pace. The American, though, has managed to get a contract extension for 2024 and will need to find a way to repay the faith shown by a team that is once again trying to move up the grid.
George Russell (8th): After beating teammate Lewis Hamilton last year, Russell had a far more challenging year in 2023. The Mercedes was a tricky car, and the young gun had a sub-par season, scoring just 175 points to Hamitlon’s 234. While it was nip and tuck in qualifying, Hamilton beat Russell comprehensively in races. Russell was also clumsy in wheel-to-wheel battles and made mistakes, like his crash in Singapore on the last lap that cost him a podium. Next year, Russell would need to return to the level he operated in 2022 to be considered an elite driver among the new generation.