Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have stood on a Formula 1 podium almost 400 times between them but on only three occasions have they done so together.
In another world, given Alonso’s longevity, Hamilton’s history-rewriting success and Verstappen’s prodigious ascent, that number would be vastly different. But the “iconic” podium combination, as Hamilton dubbed it in Canada, has been thwarted until recently by Alonso’s long detachment from the front of the F1 grid.
It took until Qatar 2021 for us to see this podium triple. And the circumstances were quite different – Hamilton and Verstappen were engaged in a fierce title fight while Alonso had snatched a rare top-three finish in a midfield car, something he had been trying and failing to do for the better part of a decade.
When it happened again in Australia this year it was a sign of something else. Alonso was not the interloper. His car is a bona fide top-three contender and – to the surprise of nobody paying attention – suddenly Alonso is a regular podium finisher again. If anything, the mild shock in Australia was Mercedes getting its act together enough for Hamilton to stand alongside the other two.
Now we’ve seen the same top three for the second time this season, it cements one of the few positive things to have emerged from an otherwise predictable F1 season: Verstappen, Alonso and Hamilton racing together at the front is finally realistic. Their combined podium appearance is not random.
“It’s a privilege to be up here fighting these two who’ve done incredible [things] in their careers,” said Hamilton.
“And this is quite an iconic top three. I don’t know if there’s been a top three like this ever before. I don’t believe there has.
“Hopefully there’ll be more. There’s a lot of respect between us as we were able to race so closely and trust in one another.
“I’m really hoping at some stage we have more of a level playing field in our cars, and then we’ll have a much more exciting race in the future.”
It is certainly the most decorated combination in history, if considering the number of titles the drivers had at the time they stood on the podium. And it is extremely rare. Probably the most impressive podium before this was the 2012 European Grand Prix: Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher.
But with all due respect this combination feels much more convincingly at the peak of its powers. So, it’s more reminiscent of, say, an Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost/Nigel Mansell combination.
It’s been a long time since F1 could really count on multiple titans of their era being in battle with one another. And that’s still not guaranteed now. But the potential of more fights, and harder ones, is tantalising enough to want to will a few more tenths of pace into existence for Aston Martin and Mercedes.
Imagine the outcome. While there are still scars from the Hamilton-Verstappen fight of 2021, all three can be given the benefit of the doubt that most of the racing should be hard but fair. Alonso is particularly well-placed to judge the difference given his years in the F1 wilderness.
“I really enjoy these battles and these podiums,” said Alonso.
“There is a lot of respect, a lot of talent when you fight against Max, Lewis. You know that you cannot make a mistake because they will take advantage of that, and they will not make a mistake.
“So, if you want to beat them, you need to be tenth-after-tenth, the fastest to close that gap.
“It’s a very intense battle, very fair, very respectful, even in the overtaking possibility that we had on the DRS, for me when I passed Lewis, you know that you can trust what he’s doing: he will defend hard but within the limits.
“I guess it’s the same at the start, when you start in the first two rows with these guys, you know that there’s a sense of awareness and respect that is not sometimes in other parts of the grid.”
Obviously, we saw in 2021 that problems can infiltrate racing between even the very best drivers. But the deterioration of the Hamilton/Verstappen relationship, the decline in driving standards and excessive risks both drivers took (for different reasons) was the price paid for an unusually intense and increasingly toxic fight.
And at the same time, it was box office. F1’s best season in recent memory by a long distance. Getting back to some semblance of that quality and competition, with drivers of this calibre in the mix, is the light at the end of the tunnel of Verstappen’s current dominance.
“Back in the day I was watching these two already in Formula 1 racing each other,” said Verstappen.
“So, of course, I’m very happy now that I’m in Formula 1 as well and racing them is probably the best thing out there.
“When we can share a podium together, it’s great. I think of course they want to swap positions, of course! I’m happy in the middle at the moment.”
It seems unlikely that will change too much this season, such is Red Bull’s advantage and Verstappen’s form.
But nothing is certain with two opponents of such stature, and the prospect of the three of them in regular competition is one of F1 2023’s few graces.
If they come to fight for outright victories, it may help save the season as a whole.