The 2023 Formula 1 season will go down in the history books as being all about Red Bull, which set the standard from the first race of the season to the last.
Or at least, Max Verstappen did. The most impressive thing about him is that he never rested on his laurels and no matter what the result, he pushed to do better the next time he sat in the car.
For Red Bull, 2023 was a continuation of 2022. Only it was even more dominant, mainly because what should have been its main rivals, Mercedes and Ferrari, both fell away as opposed to improving. Ferrari did fight back, but it was too little too late - and Mercedes more or less stood still.
Red Bull’s main competition early on came from Aston Martin, which made a major step in performance for the first half of the season. As Aston Martin fell away, so McLaren came alive, but neither was able to keep Verstappen honest.
The Red Bull RB19 was a car for every occasion - good over one lap, brilliant over race stints. Be it wet, dry, windy or whatever, Verstappen had the confidence to extract the maximum from the machinery.
The statistics are impressive. As usual, I’ve converted the fastest single lap for each driver into a percentage of the outright fastest lap of each weekend. This is then averaged out over the whole 22-race season, meaning if you were quickest every single weekend your ‘supertime’ would be 100.000%. We've then created tables covering full-season performance and also focusing only on the final six races, showing the trend heading towards 2024.
There were some strange weekends during 2023 and anomalous performances, but over that full sample set it all evens out to give a fair representation of the competitive order.
The list below is ranked by performance percentage, because if you have the fastest car you are well on the way to success and everything else should fall into place.
The numbers say it all. Verstappen scored over twice the points of his team-mate Sergio Perez, who is driving the same car, and would have won the constructors’ championship single-handedly. In reality, that makes him Red Bull’s biggest asset.
That said, he has a car that suits his driving style. The technical team at Red Bull, headed by chief technical officer Adrian Newey and technical director Pierre Wache, had a better grasp on these ground effect rules than any other team. Verstappen's job is to make the best of what Red Bull provides, which he certainly does, and the engineers have responded to his demands for sharper front-end response wherever practical. I don’t think anyone can blame them for that.
It won’t always be like this and you have to make the most of the success when it comes. Other teams will close the gap and the competition will get tougher, but the big question is whether any of them can get ahead. Red Bull and Verstappen will welcome this challenge and want to win on track knowing they have beaten the rest in a racing fight and not just because the car was, as it was this year, head and shoulders better than the rest.
The hard work for 2024 has long since started and the form of the teams and drivers over the final six grands prix, and three sprints, of the season is a good guide to how the teams head into the winter.
And Red Bull's performance over that span - isolated in the graphic above - is certainly not a bad finish to the season for a team that had long since turned its attention to work on the 2024 car.
As Lewis Hamilton pointed out in Abu Dhabi last month, Red Bull “won by 17 seconds and have not touched the car since August”, save for a few minor upgrades.
Yet Red Bull will have a long list of improvements that will increase the performance of the car. One of those will be weight management because with these high-g cars, making sure you are well below the weight limit to be able to put ballast low down will be advantageous in improving cornering speed and tyre degradation.
Ferrari was second on the ultimate performance ranking and third in the constructors’ championship, which proves there’s more to success than outright speed.
It must still tighten up operationally in many areas. Fred Vasseur only started there as team principal at the beginning of 2023 so will leave no stone unturned over the winter to allow it to start 2024 at a competitive level.
There were already signs of improvement in the latter part of 2023 so Ferrari needs to maintain that momentum.
The car itself was better on one lap than over a race stint. Up until late in the season, it used the tyres far more aggressively than the Red Bull - but it did improve in that area.
The Ferrari also seemed very nervous to drive, which meant that the drivers made more mistakes than they should. Again, this seemed to improve later in the season and Ferrari's final six races graphic shows some positive trends.
In reality, the problems of a nervous car and accelerated tyre degradation go hand in hand. If you have peaky aerodynamics, this will put extra peak loads into the tyres and when the grip level drops off then the laptime will drop off with it.
The big question once the championships were decided was: how much was Verstappen toying with Ferrari while he saved his tyres?
Next year, a more consistent aerodynamic platform will reap rewards. Ferrari didn’t have the extreme levels of anti-dive or anti-lift characteristics of the Red Bull suspension, so incorporating that into a reasonable aerodynamic package would be my first step. Also, better efficiency wouldn’t go amiss, especially when the DRS is activated.
Ferrari has planned a brand-new car with major architectural changes. The question is whether it will be a big enough step to be able to challenge Red Bull on race day.
It’s difficult to judge Mercedes because its performance is so erratic.
Perhaps if the team simply bought into the fact it doesn’t have a winning car and took the best from what it has, there would be a much better baseline understanding of its problems. It’s very confusing if you keep chopping and changing and every weekend is a new set of problems and you don’t have time to get on top of them.
Over the season, Mercedes managed one pole position. For a team that won eight consecutive constructors’ titles from 2014-21 that is a major downturn, but sometimes you have to just stand still for a while and regroup.
Mercedes seems to be just throwing whatever it can cobble up onto the car. Recognising the problems and focusing on fixing them is the only way out of this sort of a situation.
In the early part of the season, Mercedes seemed to be the opposite to Ferrari. The Mercedes W14 usually raced better than it qualified and there were times when it brought home good race results through being better on the tyres than those immediately around it.
The updates for Austin in October were supposed to give some direction for next season, but from what I see all they have done is made the car worse over longer runs without any real benefit to one-lap performance - see the team's supertime average from the final six races relative to Red Bull and Ferrari in the graphic below.
At Austin, before he was disqualified for excess plank wear, Hamilton said that this was the best car he had driven in the ground effect era. But since then, he has said it’s the most inconsistent car he has ever driven - from lap to lap, even corner to corner is a new experience. That means there’s not the consistency to allow him or team-mate George Russell to build any confidence.
Part of the problem is those at Mercedes are not being honest with themselves. We heard Toto Wolff on the radio to Hamilton in Abu Dhabi about how he was the second-fastest car and then the fastest car on track at that point in time. Sorry, but that is just rubbish and if the team principal is feeding that sort of information to their ‘team’, including the driver, then it’s an example of telling yourself that everything is fine just so you can sleep at night.
Race fastest laps are no real comparison as it is down to where in the field you are racing, but the simple facts from Yas Marina are that Verstappen got the fastest lap on lap 45 with a 1m26.993s, and Hamilton was 10th in that ranking with a laptime of 1m28.327s on lap 52. That’s a difference of 1.334 seconds with eight other drivers between them. When you look at the closing stages of the season, the Mercedes trend doesn’t really promise much for next year.
Like Ferrari, Mercedes promises a brand new car for next year - new architecture, new aerodynamics, new load distribution, new parts - but that will only work if everyone in the technical team has really looked at themselves and accepted where Mercedes is. That’s what needs to happen to really understand why the performance has been so inconsistent and to rectify it.
It’s not simply about adding more downforce, it’s about creating a confidence-inducing aerodynamic platform. Mercedes is a long way off doing that as it only finished second in the constructors’ championship because Ferrari, Aston Martin and McLaren all had weak parts of their season.
You can’t keep relying on the others having bad days.
McLaren paid a heavy price for starting the season so poorly. On the positive side, the direction it needed to take was well-understood and big gains were made once the major upgrade was introduced at the Austrian Grand Prix mid-season. This is an approach that Mercedes could do with taking on board.
Since McLaren started to introduce its upgrades, the performance improved dramatically to a point where it had spells as Red Bull’s closest challenger, albeit never able to win a grand prix. Both drivers took a sprint pole and Oscar Piastri won the Qatar sprint, showing McLaren has the driver line-up it needs to take the fight to whoever is on top.
When Piastri really found his feet, Lando Norris started to make a few more mistakes. Was that the pressure of a hungry and competitive team-mate or did the developments put the car that bit more on a knife edge? I suppose it’s a bit of both but, as he was incredibly self-critical over those mistakes, Norris needs to reflect on how to correct that situation over the winter.
McLaren still has some work to do. Late in the season, it seemed the developments created a more peaky downforce profile. This needs to be understood and it might be part of its long-standing problem of not being as fast in slow-speed corners as others.
We always hear about one car or another not generating as much low-speed downforce as another car, but it’s not really low-speed downforce, it’s more high-ride-height downforce. By definition, the car is going to be higher at low speeds than it is at high speed. You need to be very careful because it’s quite easy to gain downforce at these higher ride heights but suffer the consequences when the car is lower and airflow separation problems start to rear their ugly head.
Overall performance is a compromise right through the ride height range, which in effect is actually the speed range. Improve in one area and it can create problems in other areas.
Aston Martin was the opposite of McLaren, starting the season as the one most likely to burst the Red bull bubble but then struggling later. It nearly won in Monaco with Fernando Alonso during a very positive first half of the season, but then the performance dropped away.
The problem was that mid-season developments didn’t seem to produce the desired effect and as further new parts were introduced the problems seemed to get worse. It’s never easy to step backwards, but that was what was necessary before Aston Martin could start to go forward again.
But the danger is you miss out on valuable time to push forward while you regroup. If we look at how Aston Martin finished the season, it never got back to where it was at early on despite the improvement that was made.
Aston Martin must fully understand where the problems that interrupted its progress came from. For 2023 the car was a bit of a clone of the 2022 Red Bull, but now Aston Martin needs to stand on its own two feet and introduce its own design philosophy.
In understanding where it went wrong in 2023 it can identify the tools needed to analyse its development approach to make sure the team doesn't trip up again in 2024.
When you consider that Alpine is a works team, it’s clear it should be doing much better. Its theoretical potential given that it is responsible for everything - chassis and power unit - is in line with Mercedes and Ferrari (you could also add Red Bull to that ‘works’ list given its close ties with Honda).
We’ve become used to Alpine, and previously Renault, struggling to be competitive. It lags behind in both ultimate performance and the actual championship. Some major personnel changes mid-season told some home truths about its ambition, so it’s no wonder that long-term planning seems to fall apart just when it should be bringing progress.
We have seen the odd glimmer of light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel, but it has just as quickly been extinguished. Now Alpine has brought in financial partners to shore up the operation, which suggests that money has not been as plentiful as it needs to be to put together a competitive F1 team.
Alpine’s performance improved slightly as the season progressed, but it was a case of too little, too late. It needs to focus on starting the season strongly and also settle its drivers down given that there seems to be some politics at play from time to time. Both Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon need to understand the team comes before either of them and they need to eliminate their petty squabbles.
Once again, it’s about Alpine understanding where the deficit is. Most of it will be chassis but some of it is from the power unit. When you are the only team using that power unit, it is very difficult to gauge where you are in the power, electrical harvesting, deployment and driveability stakes.
Even looking at some of the details of the car you can see problems. I have never been a fan of front wing flap assemblies that try to generate crossflow. That’s all good as long as it’s consistent, but when you have a front tyre that is changing position when steered across that front wing then it doesn’t help with the overall airflow structure consistency. That’s one thing Alpine must look at.
Is it by accident that the frontrunning teams - Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Aston Martin and to some extent Mercedes - all have fairly uniform wing-profile reduction as they go outboard?
For Haas it has been another season of going nowhere. The car was quick over a lap from the start to the end of the season - hence why it's all the way up in seventh in this order based on pure pace - but in the races it was like watching someone who had put their car in reverse at the traffic lights. If anything, that problem got worse as the season progressed.
For both drivers this must have been incredibly frustrating. You do your job on the Saturday, and on Sunday you are a sitting duck. Nico Hulkenberg seemed to keep his head up with good qualifying performances, but every weekend it was the same story. Kevin Magnussen seemed to be just going through the motions, except with his occasional good weekends on street tracks.
Haas has two drivers very capable of scoring points - it’s down to the team to give them the car to achieve that.
At Austin in October, a major aerodynamic package was introduced that represented a change in concept, but it was the same old story and seemed to make the car worse in fast corners, meaning that over the final two races Haas split strategies: running the old package with Hulkenberg and the new one with Magnussen.
So what’s the problem? The tyre-degradation problem in the race is the major thing that needs attention. The Haas can easily warm up the tyres better than most for one lap but then suffers quicker degradation than the rest.
Aerodynamic instability plays a major part, so controlling the aerodynamic platform better under braking will be a big help. Ferrari will be exploiting this to the full so using the same gearbox and suspension will be a positive for Haas.
However, it’s very concerning to hear that Haas was not able to find upgrades around the original concept, having made no progress in the windtunnel. That raises big questions about the design team and that needs to change for next year or it risks being left behind again.
The trouble is, Haas also needs grow and be able to tackle the deficiencies itself. I haven’t really seen that from Haas since it came into F1.
Finishing seventh in the constructors’ championship was a big payday for Williams, with the prize money around $30million more than for being last.
It’s no easy task to turn around a team that has struggled for many seasons to climb the order, but let’s remember this isn't the Williams we all knew from the past. This is, in effect, a new team operating from the same premises under completely different ownership, so needs to be judged relative to how it currently progresses.
Since James Vowles joined at the beginning of this season as team principal, Williams appears to be a team with purpose and direction. He comes from a long career at Mercedes, meaning some of its ways of working will have rubbed off on him. Creating the structure and culture required to be successful should come fairly naturally, and that is what is required.
It will not be a short-term turnaround, it will take time. The extra dollars from finishing seventh will need to be wisely spent.
Driver-wise, it was one-sided. In Alex Albon, Williams has a driver that was probably the only one of the few that could have developed to take the fight to Verstappen. Unfortunately, Red Bull threw the towel in on Albon far too early. However, if Williams can give Albon the tools, he has shown on many occasions he can and will race with anyone.
Williams put a great deal of focus very early on into its 2024 car, meaning there weren’t many upgrades in the second half of the season but it was still able to pick up the occasional good result.
The Williams was always a very efficient package. Even back when the hybrid engine regulations came into play in 2014, it had a much faster car in a straight line than Mercedes. That’s great at some circuits, but you pay the price at others.
Most of that efficiency comes from a lack of downforce, so Williams needs to step up its ability to find that downforce while hanging onto the efficiency. That’s not easy.
This was a wasted season for AlphaTauri because finishing eighth in the constructors' championship when the mothership dominated is not desired or expected. Its original mission of bringing on up-and-coming stars has been diluted recently, with the focus briefly on Nyck de Vries before he was discarded after being given little time in favour of the experienced Daniel Ricciardo.
Ricciardo's comeback confused me a little. He is far from a new boy in town and when it was Verstappen and Ricciardo at Red Bull there were sparks, so where is bringing him back going to take Red Bull? Yes, he is a nice guy and very marketable, but it’s a Verstappen successor Red Bull needs to be looking for.
When Ricciardo broke his wrist, Liam Lawson then had a shot. That was a good decision I thought, and back to the old mission of finding that next hotshoe, but a contract extension for Ricciardo put that potential on hold for now.
This suggests the team was a bit lost and was looking for a step in performance from the driver and not accepting that the car was miles away from where it should be considering the close relationship with Red Bull.
Some big progress was made late in the season thanks to the Singapore floor upgrade and incorporating some Red Bull rear suspension parts, but that was only enough to climb to eighth in the standings.
That strong finish was encouraging, and some rivals questioned whether there was a little too much Red Bull influence there.
AlphaTauri, or whatever it will be called next year, is now building on that partnership for 2024 but still saying it wants to develop its own concept.
Yuki Tsunoda is a bit of a wildcard. We hear him and his tantrums on the radio fairly often, so he needs to settle down and stabilise his performance before we really know how good he is. As for Ricciardo, well my opinion is again that the jury is out. Is he back to his old Red Bull level or is he still in that McLaren era where he just couldn’t get on with the characteristics of the car?
In my opinion, while the team finds its feet for 2024, it should take every nut and bolt permitted within the regulations from Red Bull. On top of that, as many other teams will do, it must also study the countless pictures that exist of the 2023 Red Bull and not deviate far from that direction. From there, AlphaTauri - or whatever it'll be called - might just have the right baseline to develop from.
It might be Alfa Romeo on the cars - or it was until the end of 2023 - but it’s still Sauber over the factory door. Having Valtteri Bottas, a proven winner, in the car should have brought some direction and focus, but no. Scoring 16 points over a 22-race season was not good enough.
With all the fanfare of Andreas Seidl leaving McLaren and heading up Sauber’s gradual transformation into Audi, everyone expected signs of progress in 2023 and a marked improvement. But it seemed to be an invisible change to the management structure and nothing more.
There was potential for improvement in the closing stages of the season but it fell away on race day with some fairly strange strategy calls.
James Key has come in as technical director and I think his influence on the later part of the season was evident. I know it was after he departed from McLaren that McLaren started to make a big improvement in performance, but as we have said often it is never the work of one person, and I’m pretty sure much of McLaren's big development steps were already well in the works before James departed.
For Sauber, it’s time for a major regroup and time to show Audi what it is really getting into.
Formula 1 is tough and as with any sport on a given day there can only be one winner. However, I think we would all like to see more winners over a season. That is entirely possible and I think 2024 might just bring us some of that.
For all the teams, it’s about having an efficient downforce platform that produces good levels of downforce at high ride heights (slow speed), a centre of pressure that moves rearwards as that ride height decreases (high speed) and a DRS design that incorporates the airflow of the beam wing and diffuser into its flow structure, giving you a larger drag reduction when it is operational.
On top of that, you need the centre of pressure moving forward with increasing steering lock to help reduce understeer in the slower, high-steering-lock corners.
If you can achieve this then it is about controlling that platform with anti-dive and anti-lift characteristics built into the car’s suspension geometry.
This all helps with driver confidence on corner entry. If that part of the corner achieves that driver confidence, then the driver will be able to use their talent to carry more speed into and out of the corner.
An unpredictable or inconsistent car is a slow car - it means the driver has no confidence and they will also make more mistakes. Sometimes, to give a driver confidence it means a little less downforce is actually better.
Everyone can look to the example of the Red Bull RB19 to understand what they need to do and roughly how to achieve it. The problem is, the fine detail is what matters and you can only master that if you really understand what you are trying to achieve in depth.
None of Red Bull’s rivals showed themselves capable of that in 2023. Let’s hope they can in 2024 for the sake of competition.