Sport is a fascinating form of entertainment that can produce incredible human feats that are captivating to behold. Think about the power of Pete Sampras' serve at the height of his tennis career or the relentless 1996 Chicago Bulls NBA team that swept away any competition. These were phenomenal performances to witness, but there's no question that those who weren't fans of the Bulls or Sampras had little to relish during their domination.
Red Bull Dominance
Add Formula One's 2023 season to that collection. Max Verstappen's efforts over the year saw him topple multiple records for points scored, victories claimed, laps led, and generally being an untouchable F1 figurehead. The level the Dutchman operated was so high so often that there were only a couple of races from 23 where he looked like a second-best figure. We may never see a year like 2023 again, and that's a good thing.
As impressive as Verstappen's year was, the foregone conclusion of who would take victory after 305 km of Sunday racing took a lot of magic away from each Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher also enjoyed championships where they were head and shoulders above the competition, but neither ever looked as invincible or peerless as Verstappen's 2023. To think that the Dutch driver's latest title surpasses anything the two seven-time champions managed in a 12-month period is a testament to Verstappen's achievements.
Nonetheless, Verstappen isn't the only story for 2023, although any future reflections on this year will have him as the only thing people remember. Red Bull, of course, should take some plaudits for creating the RB19, statistically the most dominant car in the sport's history, too. Yet nine other teams and 21 drivers appeared on the grid over the year. The plots weaved by these also-rans became worth watching the races for, even if you knew who'd win.
What about the other teams that make up 'The Big Three'?
Mercedes and Ferrari were the closest two teams to Red Bull, battling it out for the vice-champion constructor title until the last lap at Abu Dhabi. The Silver Arrows took that P2 position and the millions in prize money that comes with it, but the Scuderia had bragging rights about snatching a win. Singapore was a glimpse of what the season might've been like had Adrian Newey not designed a rocket ship in the RB19, with Carlos Sainz victorious in the year's best race.
Image: Scuderia Ferrari
Charles Leclerc might've been the Ferrari driver to take the most poles in 2023, but it was his teammate Sainz who showed the intelligence and speed to defeat British trio Lando Norris, Lewis Hamilton, and George Russell that evening. If you didn't watch any race this year, the one worth watching is the Singapore GP, with unpredictability and edge-of-the-seat drama until the very last lap. It was the Sunday F1 needed to remind wavering fans why they watched.
The Best of the Rest.
Away from the frontrunners, the field was far closer in 2023 than ever before, with the tight-run qualifying sessions repeatedly seeing a single second covering all drivers. Although that tightness didn't always carry across to the race, to have a missed apex potentially costing someone five or more positions on the grid is the definition of marginal gains. 2023 was the only year I can remember without any team being an explicit backmarker, and it should be applauded for that.
Image: Aston Martin F1
Car developments were more important than ever, with Aston Martin showing how long a season is by falling back as the weekends went by. Fernando Alonso spearheaded Aston Martin's early-season success, being the act to remind motorsport how Lawrence Stroll's investment in the Silverstone-based squad could break apart the 'big three' teams. He defied the years with repeat podiums and would've made predecessor Sebastian Vettel question his retirement, but the subsequent post-summer freefall saw all his hard work disappear.
Inverse to Aston Martin's slide was the incredible reverse fortunes for McLaren. The pre-season test indicated that Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri would suffer a long, slow year. That was initially true, but perhaps the most season-changing development we've seen for years came to the fore at Silverstone. This 'b-spec' McLaren rocketed the Woking outfit from mid-pack strugglers to silverware fighters, repeatedly battling the otherwise unstoppable Verstappen for the lead. Their efforts were rewarded with a victory in Qatar for rookie sensation Piastri, albeit only in Saturday's Sprint, to light the fire of optimism for McLaren's future.
Piastri wasn't the only Australian racing in 2023, with Daniel Ricciardo's career stuttering back to life. Nyck de Vries finally got his F1 chance after finding Formula E success, but it was a short-lived delight as he couldn't show signs of progression at AlphaTauri. Ruthless as ever, Red Bull parachuted in Ricciardo to replace De Vries, but an injury in Zandvoort meant the replacement needed replacing, and another young hopeful, Liam Lawson, stepped up. Like Piastri, Lawson quickly impressed many, but not enough to warrant a full-time drive, and Ricciardo returned once he recovered from his injury. There wasn't a silly season this year, but the merry-go-round of AlphaTauri drivers, not to mention speculation over Sergio Perez's future, provided plenty of off-track drama nonetheless.
Image: Williams F1
At the back, Williams had Alex Albon to thank for taking their biggest step in half a decade by not finishing in the bottom two places. The Red Bull reject turned into a hero for the historic British team and delivered some momentous drives, with his Canadian defense being the highlight. F1 newcomer Logan Sargeant eventually scored a point, the first for an American driver since Mario Andretti in 1993, but his contributions paled compared to his Thai counterpart.
A Long Season
As bombastic as the Las Vegas GP was, the human cost of the sport seemed apparent as weariness set in. The late-night sessions combined with a 22-race season, left the personnel involved looking exhausted.
Image: Mercedes-AMG F1
Yet 2024 will be even longer. Perhaps more races in a hotly contested championship year would be a mouthwatering prospect, but very few people are thrilled at an even longer campaign.
A 24-race calendar with the same driver lineup that we leave 2023 with means there's every chance we'll have more of the same domination next season. There are no new tracks (Imola and Shanghai will return), no new drivers, and no new team lineups to introduce unknown variables. Instead, it's down to the engineers and designers to bring all ten teams, not just nine of them, closer than we had this year.
The undeniable truth is Formula One lost some of its magic in 2023 after such a long season coincided with Red Bull domination. With the unforgettable 2021 season still in such recent memory and the benchmark for many new fans as to what F1 can be, 2023 fell well short of that potential. Max Verstappen was a massive winner this year, but Formula 1 may be the loser in the long run if this is a sign of things to come. Sport, after all, is a competition, and there was a distinct lack of anyone competing for victory for much of this season.