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Verstappen’s dominance looms large for F1 in battle to keep audience engaged | Giles Richards
F1 Sport

Verstappen’s dominance looms large for F1 in battle to keep audience engaged | Giles Richards

Formula One will consider the new timing of the Japanese Grand Prix a success, moving from its traditional late-season slot to an earlier date amid the cherry blossom of spring. But the result in Suzuka, and reaction to it, might have senior F1 executives feeling a little more nervous about the rest of the season.

This year is scheduled to be the longest ever F1 championship, a 24-race haul that does not conclude until early December in Abu Dhabi. So it will be concerning that as early as race four, won by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the world championship is already being written off as a done deal by Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal.

“No one is going to catch Max this year,” he said bluntly after the race, where his drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell finished ninth and seventh respectively.

Even by the standards of Verstappen’s recent dominance, during which he has cantered to the last two of his three consecutive titles since the regulation changes in 2022, this is an almost undeniably accurate conclusion. The Dutchman won with controlled dominance from pole to flag on Sunday in Japan, delivering definitive notice that his fourth championship is already in his hands.

This has ominous implications, especially for the new fans the sport is immensely eager to hang on to, attracted by the success of the Netflix series Drive to Survive and what was an epic world championship fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021.

Suzuka is considered the most accurate car performance measure of the opening four races of the season, of which Verstappen has now won three, denied only in Australia by a brake failure. He won at Suzuka by more than 12 seconds from Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez and by 20 seconds from the nearest of the best of the rest, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz.

None of the chasing pack, Ferrari, McLaren or Mercedes, look like bridging that gap. Sainz, the only driver other than Verstappen to have won any of the last 22 races, also admitted in Japan that even with Ferrari going full on to try and catch them, the gap was already probably beyond them.

The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen (front) and Sergio Pérez lead the way again at the Japanese Grand PrixView image in fullscreen

“They are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that make us fight them more consistently,” he said. “But by that time maybe it’s a bit too late with the advantage that they might have in the championship.” The Spaniard too then, diplomatically accepting the writing on the wall painted in vast, baleful letters.

Wolff also indicated in Japan that his team were already considering that the next major regulation change set for 2026 might be the best chance anyone had to catch Red Bull and admitted, for perhaps the first time, that Mercedes is going through structural changes that would not be solved overnight.

“I believe we are in a rebuild phase, we need to acknowledge that now,” he said. “Three years into these regulations we have to do things differently to what we have done in the past without throwing overboard what we believe is good about how we operate.”

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It was a remarkable admission from the once all-conquering Mercedes outfit and one that suggests unless Ferrari, whom Hamilton will join in 2025, make a vast step forward next season, the Red Bull hegemony will indeed remain in place until 2026 at least.

All of which is not healthy for F1’s image. The sport needs a decent competition for obvious reasons but not least to hang on to those new fans. Even pitting Verstappen against a genuinely competitive teammate would fit the bill but there is, unsurprisingly, no indication of any will to do that at Red Bull. They are talking up the “long season ahead” angle but rightly have no reason to change anything.

F1 has a bigger picture to think of and it is not pretty. Selling a relentless Verstappen victory parade is hard but they have no real levers of change, bar perhaps backroom discussions to persuade Red Bull to take on a teammate for the 26-year-old who would put him under real pressure, which the world champion and probably Red Bull, would doubtless resist.

This is then perhaps the sport’s biggest challenge, to persuade fans that driver dominance is not only perfectly normal in F1, which it is, but something also to be embraced. It is after all still a privilege to watch a driver of Verstappen’s talent at the very top of his game. Many will accept it but for others it may be a very hard sell indeed.

Source: theguardian.com