How does Red Bull's 2023 dominance compare?
I have watched Formula One for almost three decades, and there's an often overlooked inescapable truth: F1 is a team sport. For all the discussions, disagreements, and disputes about who the best driver is and the hypothetical comparisons between greats should they drive in the same car or era, it's the teams who create championship-winning cars, not the drivers.
Red Bull's 2022 RB18 was an example of a team creating a title-worthy machine, and 2023's RB19 already looks like it will take the Milton Keynes-based squad even further. The season has barely started, yet Max Verstappen effectively has one hand on his third world championship trophy. Unsurprisingly, the criticism for the sport being predictable has begun — or perhaps gotten louder than the same complaints from last year.
Fans want a championship fight with multiple protagonists, ideally racing for several teams, with a nail-biting season finale where a handful of points separate the lead contenders. It's an understandable desire, as sports are made for entertainment, but they are also a competition for the best to beat their rivals. That's what Red Bull is doing today.
Over the years, many teams have enjoyed a spell like Red Bull's current untouchable form is giving them. Most recently, that was Mercedes after the switch to turbo-hybrid engines in 2014. The Silver Arrows' eight consecutive World Constructors' Championships represent the most dominating spell for any team in F1's history. Perhaps the recency of those years exacerbates fans' frustrations.
In 2020's curtailed season, Mercedes went further ahead of the chasing pack than their crushing 2014 and 2015 titles, with their W11 wrapping the championship up 14 rounds into the 17-round season. Compare their 573 points to Red Bull's 319 - a 44% margin, far wider than last year's 27% margin Red Bull had over Ferrari (759 points to 554).
Moving back through the years while remaining on this side of the millennium, we have the Michael Schumacher years at Ferrari. The Italian team scored six constructors' titles in a row, with only two championships seeing any rival close to contending with them. The Scuderia managed to match and even exceed Mercedes by clinching their 2002 title 13 races into a 17-round season. Meanwhile, 2004 took the same number of events but in an 18-round calendar.
The dominance Ferrari had in those years made even Mercedes' 'easiest' championships look tough by comparison. 2002 was an impressive display of excellence, but 2004 had many wondering if Ferrari and Schumacher could have a 'perfect season' and win everything... with good reason. That dream stopped with a rare error for Schumacher in Monaco, but the German still took 12 wins in the first 13 races before wrapping up the title one race later.
To put that season into numbers, Ferrari's title came with 262 points in a year where the winner gained just 10 points. Nearest challenger BAR-Honda took just 119, meaning Ferrari's 143-point gap was a 54% winning margin. Amazingly, even that loses out to their 2002 season when the Italians only lost two races as Rubens Barrichello had his best winning season, meaning they took the title with a 58% margin over nearest rival Williams.
As the Russian doll of F1's past continues to open, now we find Williams themselves went even better than Ferrari. Their 1996 championship-winning season with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve at the helm had the British team beat out Ferrari by 175 points to 70. That 60% winning margin helped them take the title in race 12 of 16, making Red Bull's 2022 27% margin look like a competitive championship.
Yet it's McLaren who famously boasts the most dominant F1 season in the sport's history, back in 1988. Three of the sport's most iconic names, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, and the McLaren MP4/4, had no competition all year. McLaren won 15 of 16 races, with Senna losing the Italian Grand Prix after a collision from the lead with just two laps to go.
McLaren scored 199 points of the 240 points on offer in 1988, while Second-placed Ferrari took 65. That is a 67% winning margin, and even though it came under different point-scoring rules, such domination is something I can't imagine we'll see in F1 again. Of course, the Senna vs Prost title fight entertained more than a one-man-championship crusade like we'll have this year, but it's the MP4/4 that remains the benchmark F1 car for the 2023 Red Bull RB19 to target.
Although it may feel like a long year for non-Red Bull fans in 2023, as this whizz through history demonstrates, a single dominating manufacturer is part of how the sport works. Rose-tinted glasses may obscure the complaints of boredom in those seasons, and there's no denying those complaints existed. Yet, all these years later, the results go down as some of the best records in F1. If it makes you feel any better about the upcoming year of Red Bull triumphs, remember that you're watching history in the making.