Looking Back At 2023 And Forward To 2024
We have asked a selection of our writers to write about the highlights of the past year and what to look forward to in 2024. Here's Graham Read's thoughts on F1...
Max Verstappen, right, receives the 2023 Drivers title trophy from FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem
Modern day Formula 1 began back on the 13th May 1950 at the UK’s Silverstone circuit and that first Drivers’ Championship consisted of just seven rounds. Fast forward 73 years to the latest season completed last month in Abu Dhabi and the contrast is immense as it comprised of 22 Grands Prix and six Sprint races, although they were all far from needed before Max Verstappen had sealed his third consecutive F1 title. A Constructors’ Championship was added in 1958 and both titles have been fought for every year since, with the Drivers’ one attracting most of the attention, but the Constructors’ final rankings earning all the related prize money.
These Championships have been administered throughout by the Paris based Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, usually referred to simply as the FIA, although the relationship between the governing body of world motorsport and the Formula 1 teams has often had a fractious element and, following recent events, this is certainly true at the moment. I’ll return to this theme later when I look ahead to what next season may bring.
Thinking back to the latest campaign, we all obviously very much enjoy Drivers’ Championships which end up being contested by at least two leading protagonists for most of the season, with the battle for team superiority undecided for as long as possible too. This was something which was clearly absent in 2023 though. However, a glance at F1’s record books will confirm that driver and team success has often tended to be cyclical, with a single outfit often having its glory years before dropping back into the pack. Think of McLaren with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, Williams with Nigel Mansell and then Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher leading Benetton and Ferrari to seven titles. Throw in a young Fernando Alonso at Renault and Seb Vettel at Red Bull before Mercedes claimed eight Constructors’ titles in a row and seven Drivers’ titles with Sir Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg between 2014 and 2021 and you get the picture.
As such, it was no surprise to see Red Bull starting to get the upper hand again with effect from the 2022 season and even more so this year. It would certainly have been more entertaining to have witnessed additional teams fighting regularly for victories this year, but equally it’s always important to stand back and simply appreciate the level of excellence consistently demonstrated by any repeatedly successful team. In 2023 Verstappen, his Red Bull team and its amazing RB19 race car were simply outstanding and the combination will go down in history as one of the best ever, even if Red Bull’s other driver Sergio Pérez often failed to deliver anything close to what Verstappen could in the same car and was repeatedly in danger of having his contract cancelled prematurely. Formula 1 is an absolute meritocracy where the best succeed and the others are left to falter and fail for not having done a good enough job and, unlike in some other forms of motorsport, there are no artificial balancing factors like success ballast or reverse grids introduced to help the lesser teams succeed.
Las Vegas certainly added additional glitz and glamour
It was definitely good to see that this year’s calendar included a suitable mix of traditional venues like Monaco, Silverstone and Belgium’s Spa Francorchamps alongside newer locations like Miami and of course last month’s return to Las Vegas after so many years away. Despite Verstappen’s tendency to repeatedly be simply the best, as Tina Turner might have aptly described him, he was on rare occasions challenged, with Pérez taking a couple of early wins before his title challenge withered away to nothing despite the amazing car he was privileged to drive and of course Carlos Sainz claimed a victory for Ferrari in an as usual hot and sticky Singapore. This left the record-breaking Verstappen to win all of the other 19 Grands Prix, representing a truly unprecedented success rate which neither the Dutch driver nor any other is ever likely to repeat. It was also a personal season-long highlight for me to see plenty of close racing and battling for position throughout the field well to the rear of Verstappen.
This latest season, despite Red Bull’s dominance, has left F1 still riding a wave of sporting and financial success in terms of circuit visitor numbers, viewing figures from those elsewhere around the globe and the number of high quality sponsors seeking to become involved. The knock-on effect of all this, together with the budget cap process, is that team values have been soaring and even those outfits tending to languish towards the back of the grid have a value of at least a billion pounds. Something which has not gone unnoticed by all the current owners and shareholders, who are rubbing their hands, nor on the other hand those seeking a potential opportunity to enter F1 by buying an existing outfit.
Looking ahead to next year, the calendar will include a record 24 Grands Prix and again a sextet of Sprint events to determine the ultimate victors in both Championships. Some drivers have already criticised the increased mental and physical toll they feel this will place on them, but to be honest they should perhaps remember the days in the not too distant past when F1 drivers may have raced a little less often, but also had to undertake regular testing duties between many of the Grands Prix weekends. These days there is only a single three-day official pre-season test, which will be in Bahrain between the 21st and 23rd February before the opening Grand Prix of the new season takes place at the same location on the 2nd March.
Bahrain will lead us into the 2024 season
The USA’s longstanding and highly popular NASCAR professional stock car racing Cup Series will feature 36 rounds next season and the teams employ a rotation system for some of their travelling crews to lessen the burden and fatigue. This is perhaps something which F1 should consider adopting as pit crews do spend a lot of time away from home, admittedly pursuing their chosen profession, but without the helpful element of private jet or first/business class air travel which tends to make life easier for senior management and many of the drivers.
Returning briefly to the subject of the FIA, disagreements with the commercial rights owner Liberty Media and the teams in recent years have intermittently led to the possibility of F1 looking to part company with the FIA, even if perhaps then having to operate under an alternative name. It is a moot point as to whether Liberty and the teams need the FIA more than the latter needs the former, but the FIA is clearly not the dominant force it used to be in the past and very much appreciates and needs the income stream F1 generates for it.
As we approach the new season there is almost certainly going to be a hangover from the recent spat involving the FIA and the Mercedes F1 part owner and team principal Toto Wolff and his wife Susie, who is the managing director of the all-female F1 Academy. The FIA had launched an investigation by its compliance unit into whether Susie might have been passing confidential information to her husband, something the couple vehemently denied, and just two days later, in a major U-turn, the FIA announced that the investigation was completed and closed, with no further action required. This was all something which could surely have been dealt with in private and has not reflected at all well on the FIA and its current President Mohammed Ben Sulayem.
So, what is the pecking order likely to look like in 2024? Well, Red Bull has retired its amazing RB19, but has ominously said it hopes to make its new car even better in every respect. However, team principal Christian Horner has understandably already suggested that the extent of his team’s 2023 dominance will never be repeated during his lifetime and that they expect a closer fight from some of the opposition.
Toto Wolff (centre) faces a major challenge to lead Mercedes back to winning ways
Over in the Mercedes camp Wolff has similarly declared that the team is working hard to make its new car far more competitive after two difficult seasons, during which they only won a single Grand Prix, namely George Russell’s Brazilian victory back in November 2022. The fact that his far more experienced team-mate Hamilton hasn’t won a race for over two years simply represents the extent of the recovery the Brackley based operation needs to make if it is to challenge again for title honours. After eight years of domination followed by a pair of poor campaigns, it’s understandable that Wolff has a major task ahead of him to stop heads dropping and staff leaving before leading the team back to better times. Mercedes scored less than half the number of points racked up by Red Bull in 2023, but the outfit at least edged second place in the Constructors’ Championship from Ferrari, if by a mere three points.
The Italian team from Maranello will be very much hoping that 2024 will be the year they return to being true title contenders, whilst fourth placed McLaren will no doubt target breaking into the leading trio of teams next season if it can give the highly talented Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri a car worthy of their undoubted talents. Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see how Aston Martin performs in 2024 after its promising start this year, led by Alonso, fell away. The Canadian team owner Lawrence Stroll is understandably sticking with his son Lance as the second driver, although their highly gifted reserve pedaller Felipe Drugovich is arguably more deserving of a race seat. If Stroll Senior were to decide to cash in though on the significant rise in team values mentioned above, the position may change.
Lastly, all fans of the previously highly successful Williams team will be hoping that its noticeable improvement in 2023 since the arrival of James Vowles as team principal will continue. In other news, two other teams will be changing their names. Red Bull’s sister outfit AlphaTauri will adopt an as yet to be disclosed name more directly linked to the Red Bull brand and this may well prove to be Racing Bulls. The team called Alfa Romeo in recent times is actually the Swiss based Sauber outfit and, following the conclusion of the Alfa Romeo sponsorship deal, the cars will now be known as the Kick Saubers before becoming Audi with effect from 2026 when a further major automotive manufacturer is set to join the F1 grid.
So, 2024 may be my 27th season as a motorsport reporter, but I already feel refreshed and rejuvenated and can’t wait for the new car launches, the testing and then the racing to be with us and hope many of you feel likewise. In the meantime, I wish you all a Healthy, Happy and Successful New Year.