Barcelona is a more significant track on F1’s calendar than you may realise. It’s the first traditional, fast and flowing European track the sport has visited this season, and Max Verstappen dominated the 2023 Spanish Grand Prix, beating Lewis Hamilton by 24 seconds. It was almost double the margin of victory he enjoyed there last year, and removing the two outlier races we’ve had so far – Australia finishing under yellow, and Monaco in the rain – it was a bigger winning margin than Bahrain and Miami combined. You’d have to go back to Lap 46 in Miami for the last time anyone other than Max has led a lap.
Of course it helped that Sergio Perez was buried in the pack in Spain, but all of Red Bull’s major rivals: Mercedes, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Alpine brought their first major upgrade packages in recent rounds and yet couldn’t get anywhere close to putting Max under pressure. If Spain was a sign of things to come given there are many similar tracks upcoming on the calendar, there might be little hope left for Red Bull’s rivals as we get further into the 2023 season.
The rest of the field have feared Red Bull’s current dominance for some time. Just one race into 2023’s campaign in Bahrain, George Russell was adamant the Bulls would win every single race this season. “I don’t think anyone will be fighting with them this year. They should win every single race, that’s my bet.”, he said. Lando Norris agreed, saying that Red Bull had “embarrassed everyone”..
To put into perspective just how much the landscape within F1 has changed, roll back the clock to last year. In the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc qualified on pole by three-tenths of a second over Verstappen. Leclerc was dominating the race, 13 seconds in front of Max when his engine failed. This year, Ferrari was nowhere near Red Bull in terms of pace. George Russell briefly challenged Max in the 2022 race, but both last year and this year he ultimately finished 32 seconds off the win.
Lewis Hamilton finished a bit closer – and Max didn’t go off this year either – so that might look as though Mercedes has closed in a bit, but the track was reprofiled for this year’s race, making the lap shorter and faster, so for the gap to be similar suggests Red Bull has actually pulled further away, leaving their rivals looking lost by comparison.
Much has been made about Mercedes ditching its now infamous “zeropod” design for a new layout similar to Red Bull’s, as well as a new floor and suspension layout. A driver error denied Russell a possible podium in Monaco but both he and Hamilton got on the podium in Spain. While results have genuinely been promising so far, they are still far away from challenging for the title.
Ferrari unveiled their first major upgrade package in Spain this year, bringing a new sidepod design, floor layout and rear wing. But it was a package brought forward from later in the season out of desperation, due to their horrible start to 2023. And their weekend was a complete disaster. Leclerc struggled with Catalunya’s left-handers and trying to get heat into his tyres, suffering a shock elimination in Q1, and only managing 11th in the race.
Carlos Sainz did well to qualify on the front row, but was outclassed by both Mercedes as Ferrari’s SF-23 still struggles with tyre wear during races; finishing 5th, almost 46 seconds behind Verstappen.
When Carlos is saying it’s “difficult to tell” if their upgrades worked, it’s another sign that Maranello is once again in BIG trouble.
Sainz said: “I spent the whole race managing tyres because we know we are very hard on them. I couldn’t push, we know it’s a weakness of our car and coming to a high-deg circuit and a two-stop race we were just managing the whole way. It also shows yesterday we must have done a pretty good lap, today was back to where the car is in race pace. This sort of track is not great for us.”
Aston Martin’s massive leap in performance going into 2023 has been seen by many fans as a breath of fresh air, arguably the biggest surprise of the season so far. Spain also marked a year since the debut of their “Green Bull” concept, and the accusations they were copying Red Bull. Last year, Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll finished 11th and 14th respectively, a lap down on Max’s winning car. This year, Stroll and Fernando Alonso were on the lead lap in 6th and 7th, but still over a minute off the win.
There’s little doubt that Aston Martin have made big gains relative to the Red Bull concept they’ve cloned… but how much of these gains are heightened by enjoying a greater allowance under F1’s Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions – plus the struggles of Mercedes and Ferrari?
Since 2022, both Brackley and Maranello have had high-profile management and technical reshuffles, and tried and failed alternative technical concepts to challenge Red Bull. These were the huge billion-dollar factories that we’ve become accustomed to seeing win. Aston Martin has definitely come closest to beating Red Bull in 2023, dropping a golden chance in Monaco when the rain came down, but this team are still closer to the pack than they are to the front.
Verstappen won the Spanish Grand Prix without really trying. He qualified almost half a second faster than everyone and was on an even quicker lap at the end of Q3, but backed off once he knew no one could beat his time. Max also used harder compound tyres than his rivals for the majority of the race, but was still making time on them. He set the fastest lap of the race while on his final warning for track limits. All clear signs the reigning World Champion was far from driving all-out. But he didn’t need to, and that’s the point.
And with Max recovering well in the wet conditions to win at Monaco, an outlier race where Red Bull’s obvious strengths like its aerodynamic efficiency and incredible top speed were muted, it’s genuinely difficult to see a race on the calendar where Red Bull could lose if Spain provided a blueprint.
Is the perfect season genuinely on for Red Bull? Is there any hope in their rivals’ developments? Let us know in the comments, and if you liked the video, be sure to Subscribe!