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Formula 1

Are Verstappen/Red Bull’s points leads really ‘meaningless’?

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Leading the Formula 1 World Championship heading into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix marks a first for both Max Verstappen and Red Bull, but it’s largely “meaningless” at this stage.

Verstappen has never led a car racing championship before, let alone topped the F1 standings, while Red Bull finally leads Mercedes in the V6 turbo-hybrid era, courtesy of the Dutchman’s Monaco win and a nightmare event for their biggest rivals Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.

Those lofty positions can be considered trivial after just five races of a supposed 23-round season. Especially as Verstappen is only four points clear of Hamilton and Red Bull is just one point ahead of Mercedes.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Monaco Grand Prix Sunday Monte Carlo, Monaco

It’s why Verstappen shrugged it off with “if it’s there at the end of the season, that would be great”, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said Verstappen’s “deserved” position as championship leader is “meaningless in the scale of things with the volume of races still to come”.

The temptation to get carried away with Red Bull atop the standings is strong. This is still the Mercedes era, a time in F1 history in which it has won every drivers’ and constructors’ title for seven years. So seeing fresh names in the lead can seem wildly exciting.

But we have been here before in the V6 turbo-hybrid era – twice, in fact, against Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari – and both times Hamilton and Mercedes triumphed. And that was in a fight that extended well beyond the opening five races.


Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Singapore Grand Prix Race Day Singapore, Singapore

SEASON: 2017

LEAD (DRIVERS’): 7 points after 12 races (Vettel)

LEAD (TEAMS’): 17 points after 6 races (Ferrari)

FINAL DEFICIT: 46 points (Vettel), 146 points (Ferrari)

WHAT HAPPENED: Hamilton won three races in a row after break, including the Singapore Grand Prix in which the two Ferraris wiped themselves out at the start.

That was the first of two Vettel DNFs in three races (the second caused by a spark plug issue in Japan) as what looked like a season-long challenge crumbled in the final third of the season.

Ferrari’s constructors’ challenge never looked as convincing. It did lead the points early on but fell behind after race seven and, with Kimi Raikkonen having a relatively low-scoring season, never looked like fighting back – ultimately succumbing to a huge defeat.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship German Grand Prix Race Day Hockenheim, Germany

SEASON: 2018

LEAD (DRIVERS’): 8 points after 11 races

LEAD (TEAMS’): 20 points after 10 races

FINAL DEFICIT: 88 points (Vettel), 84 points (Ferrari)

WHAT HAPPENED: Vettel went off in the rain-hit German Grand Prix, sparking a Hamilton run of six wins from seven races that swung the momentum emphatically in his favour.

While Hamilton went from strength to strength, Vettel/Ferrari found their season unpicked by various errors by both the driver (spins in Italy, Japan and the United States) and the team (a bizarre tyre strategy in Japan qualifying).

A mid-season lead for both driver and team thus turned into another crushing loss.

So, the precedent is clear. Hamilton and Mercedes are often ‘accused’ of winning their titles at a canter but 50% of the last four have been earned the hard way. They have been come-from-behind victors, and not just after trailing a few races into the season – Vettel led Hamilton into the summer break one year, and at roughly halfway one year.

For reasons we’ve explored before, Verstappen and Red Bull look like they’ll be the rival Ferrari and Vettel ultimately weren’t – and Mercedes agree.

To do that, Red Bull must avoid being pummelled into submission during the third-quarter of the season.

On the balance of the first five races, the all-round performance of the W12 – especially in Hamilton’s hands – probably mark out the usual suspects as the favourites.

With that in mind, leading the points after barely 20% of the season really is meaningless.

But it also signals that Red Bull and Verstappen are serious contenders in this fight, and have offset the potential damage of early missed opportunities. That’ll galvanise the team, which could be valuable in the bid to keep the fight so finely poised.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Portuguese Grand Prix Race Day Portimao, Portugal

After all, Horner admitted in Monaco leading the championship was above expectations given the points deficit Red Bull had to Mercedes.

“It just shows how close things are and things can move around very quickly,” he says.

“We’ve just got to keep in striking distance until the back end of the championship. That’s where the pressure really comes.

“At the moment we are in, where we are running through the races, it’s important to be reliable, consistent and not lose too much ground.”

And therein lies the true value in Red Bull’s position. Leading the championship is meaningless with 18 races left to run. But it could be a vital stepping stone to being there when it actually matters.

May 31 : Our early verdict on F1's big driver moves
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