Formula One's 2023 season has reached its European phase after an opening act sprawling the world that has given a taster of the upcoming year. With only a traditional hop over to Canada punctuating the 10 scheduled races in the middle of the championship, there's a bit of familiarity coming back to the sport and a perfect time to reflect on what we've had so far.
Out front, only one team can take wins in regular races across 2023; Red Bull Racing. The reigning World Constructors' champions stepped up their already impressive game with the RB19, a car looking destined to topple Mercedes for the "Most wins in a season" award — the German outfit triumphed 19 times from 21 races in 2016. Love it or hate it, you must applaud the team at Milton Keynes for creating a vehicle so adept in a sport full of the brightest engineering minds.
Nonetheless, F1 is facing a problem with the domination by Red Bull as their two drivers are not operating on the same level. Much like Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas or Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, one driver in the team is far greater than the other. Max Verstappen is gliding through the season, claiming P1 or P2 in all rounds. Sergio Perez, the only man to challenge Verstappen's supremacy, is faltering and slipping up and has effectively lost the title already.
Image: Red bull Racing
As we saw in those Hamilton and Schumacher years, one-horse races are not beneficial to viewing figures outside the home nations of the winning driver. F1 is at a nexus with its highest interest levels and (probably) the most successful car when history shows that the two cannot co-exist.
Should the remaining 15 races continue as the first seven, expect some wing-clipping rule change announcements for 2024 before the Abu Dhabi finale to hinder Red Bull and keep those newly acquired fans.
Currently, you don't need to be a prophet to accurately predict the race winner; unless there's a reliability issue or on-track incident, Verstappen will lead Perez. In cases where the Dutch driver qualifies lower, Perez has a 50/50 chance of leading Verstappen in a 1-2 victory instead. Any F1 fan knows that, as does any casual sports fan who only takes a cursory look at the results.
Image: Red Bull Racing
However, taking Red Bull out of the equation, the racing is far better than it has been for many years. The issue with an overwhelmingly dominant single car is that it's far too easy to forget what's happening behind the leader when the result feels predetermined.
Looking further back, identifying the drivers who will finish P3 and P4 becomes impossible. Fernando Alonso, with his Aston Martin, is a 2023 wildcard. The British constructor has entered the frontrunning spots with the best driver to shake things up against Ferrari and Mercedes.
With Ferrari, Charles Leclerc's qualifying runs set him high in the starting grid to challenge for silverware. And, as the Spanish GP established, you can't discount Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, especially after the Silver Arrows abandoned the zero sidepod philosophy.
Image: Mercedes AMG F1
The racing is tight, the drivers are mostly well-behaved, and the points-paying positions often have Alpine and McLaren among them, with the remaining four teams each having at least one top-10 finish to their name. Without Red Bull, F1 would have a championship fight like the classic 2012 season when any of four drivers from three constructors could be the champion in the final round.
One of the other problems F1 faces in keeping an audience engaged is the season length. There are 22 rounds for 2023, not including the Chinese GP that stood very little chance of happening, and the rained-off Emilia Romagna GP.
Seven races represented about halfway through the season back in my younger F1-watching years, and now it's not even a third of an already-shortened calendar. Fatigue will likely set in, even among the die-hard fans with too much of a good thing, and 2023 often feels like too much of a mediocre thing.
Image: Aston Martin F1
That being said, the Spanish GP represented the first race at a dedicated track made for motor racing, with grass run-off areas and gravel. F1's recent tendency to prefer city locations where barriers not only punish mistakes but anonymize a venue had the opening rounds feel more IndyCar than they do F1.
In one way, I'm glad to get through them so soon as it gives more to look forward to, with Silverstone, Spa, Monza, and Spielberg all in close proximity in the coming months. Still, I know I'm not the only one with lower enthusiasm levels than three months ago.
Nonetheless, with Aston Martin's resurgence, Ferrari's frequent fumbles, Mercedes admitting mistakes, and a midfield devoid of bonafide backmarkers, there is much to relish from 2023: wondering if Alonso can reach the top step once more; whether Leclerc can stay patient with his team; and seeing how much public frustration the Mercedes duo vent are subplots that are keeping me going. Whether that's enough for those running out of room for Red Bull's relentless run of riches is something only the viewing figures will tell.