In the penultimate part of RaceFans’ mid-season driver rankings, four drivers who have performed strongly over the opening 12 rounds of the 2023 championship – just not quite enough to earn a place at the very top of the field.
8 – Oscar Piastri – McLaren
Imagine being the reigning Formula 2 champion, one of the brightest young prospects in years, and sitting out a full season of racing on the sidelines, after which you were bumping and then jumping into a race seat with an entirely new team at 22 years old. That is the difficult prospect that Oscar Piastri faced as he finally made his Formula 1 debut in 2023.
But despite all the expectation upon him and the inevitable rust of spending almost 15 months without a single race start to his name, it’s fair to say Piastri has enjoyed an impressive start to his F1 career. Although his introduction to the world championship was unexpectedly challenging.
After McLaren suffered a horrible pre-season testing programme, they entered the first round of the season knowing they were on the back foot with their car and Piastri managed just 13 laps in the Bahrain Grand Prix before an electrical problem struck, ending his debut far too early. However, he showed that his year out of racing had stunted none of his potential at the second round in Jeddah, getting through into Q3 in only his second F1 qualifying session. Then in the race, he suffered front wing damage at the start and pitted but ran the rest of the race on hard tyres, outpacing team mate Lando Norris and catching and passing fellow rookie Logan Sargeant on the final lap. He finished only 15th, but it had demonstrated how he was fully F1-ready.
Round three was a literal home race for the Melbournian but despite being knocked out in Q1 he worked his way up to the brink of points in 11th before the chaotic final restart attempt, navigating through the mess to secure his first F1 points in eighth. His first sprint weekend in Baku was also a decent performance as he finished just outside of the points in 11th, but only after spending the entire weekend battling the physical toll of food poisoning.
The performance of the McLaren fluctuated wildly over the first half of the season and was not at its best in Miami, where Piastri made a strong start to move up five places and run in 14th before a brake-by-wire problem manifested to frustrate him over the rest of the race. Piastri was unable to match Norris in qualifying the vast majority of the time but he was only 0.018s slower than him in Monaco and kept his head over the weekend to record his second points finish at the end of a mistake-free event.
McLaren were hard at work brewing up a major upgrades package for their MCL60 and rushed it to Austria, where Norris was granted use of it. But when Piastri got his hands on the revised car at Silverstone, he did an excellent job to secure a stunning top three start right behind his team mate in qualifying. He challenged Max Verstappen on the opening lap and ran comfortably in third until a badly-timed Safety Car period enabled Lewis Hamilton to finish ahead and deny Piastri a maiden podium on his tenth grand prix start.
He backed up this performance in Hungary, again sitting behind Norris on the grid and spending the first 17 laps behind Verstappen after jumping into second place at the start. Although he faded through the rest of the race to finish fifth and well behind Norris, it was revealed that he likely suffered floor damage in the race. Then at Spa-Francorchamps, he out-qualified Norris on Friday, took second in sprint qualifying and led the sprint race after pitting for intermediate tyres before being caught by Verstappen and finishing second. Sadly on Sunday, a first corner clash with Carlos Sainz Jnr ended his race.
Although he sits three places behind and with just under half the points of his team mate, Piastri has already shown McLaren that he has the ability to hold his nerve at the front of the field despite being a rookie. If McLaren can keep their newfound performance up, his best results of 2023 may be yet to come.
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7 – George Russell – Mercedes
Russell was finally promoted into a full-time Mercedes race seat last year and ended up beating his seven-times world champion team mate over the course of his first season at the front of the field. It was inevitable, then, that there would be bigger expectations for him in 2023.
While Russell has certainly delivered some excellent performances through the first half of 2023, he sits at the midpoint of the season nearly 50 points behind team mate Hamilton in the championship standings – in stark contrast to 2022. Once again, Mercedes have not been as strong as they hoped or expected to be. While Hamilton has stood on the podium four times in the opening 12 rounds, Russell has done so just once.
That result came in the Spanish Grand Prix, which was a strong recovery drive after a disappointing qualifying where he failed to follow Hamilton into Q3 after the pair clashed awkwardly on the main straight. Even if he rather cheekily gained places at the start by appearing to run off track in the opening corners, Russell’s pace in the race allowed him to get ahead of Sergio Perez into third and take the final podium spot behind his team mate. But Spain was far from Russell’s best performances of the season. In Jeddah, he secured an excellent third on the grid, then fought to keep pace with the quicker Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso and was within five seconds of him at the finish in fourth place.
His best round was in Melbourne, where he secured a front row start alongside Verstappen and muscled into the lead at the start, then pitted when the Safety Car was deployed to appear in a very strong position. Sadly, red flags put a heavy dent into his victory chances before a power unit failure ended them completely, leaving him without points from a very good weekend. He showed his skills again in Miami, easily out-qualifying Hamilton and passing multiple cars to work his way up the order and finish fourth behind the two Red Bulls and Alonso.
But despite these moments of brilliance, he also lacked the consistency to continue to deliver them regularly. He made mistakes in the wet in Monaco which cost him more points than he eventually scored in fifth, even despite a penalty, while an unforced error during the Canadian Grand Prix effectively ended his race after hitting the wall. He was solid in Austria, being one of only two drivers not to earn a single track limits strike, but was eliminated in Q1 in Hungary before recovering well enough to finish sixth. At Spa, he underperformed in both qualifying sessions and managed to get in Hamilton’s way on his final sprint qualifying run, but at least secured another top six in the grand prix.
Russell has shown he continues to have the speed to match Hamilton in the first half of the season, but he’ll want to ensure that he is more consistent over the remaining ten rounds of the year.
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6 – Charles Leclerc – Ferrari
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Having gone from championship leader just three rounds into 2022 to, a year later, sitting tenth in the standings on just six points and 63 behind Verstappen at the equivalent point of the season, it was easy to understand why Charles Leclerc turned to writing piano music to cope with his emotions.
But while Leclerc did not help himself through 2022 with some unforced errors at key moments, his poor positioning at the start of this season had little to do with his driving. He showed that over the remaining rounds until eventually bringing himself up to fifth in the standings at the summer break, level with the man directly behind him in these rankings – Russell.
He got off to a strong start in Bahrain as he qualified directly behind the two Red Bulls and bettered Perez to take second place before he was eventually caught later in the race. He had a very strong chance of a podium to start the season, but his power unit refused to finish the race, leaving him without any points for his efforts. In Jeddah, Leclerc was struck with a ten-place grid penalty for using his third control electronics in just two rounds, but took second in qualifying before recovering from 12th on the grid to finish behind his team mate Sainz in seventh.
After early frustration, Leclerc was on fire in Baku. He not only secured a stunning pole for the grand prix on Friday, he repeated that achievement in Saturday sprint qualifying before taking second place in the sprint race. There was almost nothing he could do to stop the Red Bulls from simply driving around him in the DRS zone in both races, so a podium in third was the best realistic result he could have achieved. But after brilliance in Baku, Leclerc was mediocre in Miami. He crashed out at turn seven twice in the weekend – once in practice on Friday, then in Q3 on Saturday – but in the race he made no progress from seventh on the grid and admitted he was simply trying to get to the chequered flag.
More frustration followed at home in Monaco where he lost third on the grid due to an impeding penalty after he was not warned about Norris approaching him after his final Q3 run, eventually finishing where he started in sixth. But Leclerc started to struggle in damp conditions, which quickly became a problem as drivers kept having to deal with rain. He was knocked out of Q1 in 19th in Spain in intermediate conditions, then missed Q3 at the next round in Montreal before struggling again in the wet during sprint qualifying in Austria. However, he almost snatched pole position in grand prix qualifying and drove a strong race on Sunday to finish second behind Verstappen.
He got pole position at Spa courtesy of Verstappen’s power unit grid penalty and, once again, finished third behind the two Red Bulls who reaffirmed their dominance with their 13th straight victory. But it was another example of how Leclerc is able to be best of the rest when his car was capable – and of how he seems to have the measure of his team mate too.
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5 – Alexander Albon – Williams
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Albon stormed back onto the F1 grid in style in 2022, standing out as arguably the best driver of those in the worst cars. Having re-established himself in the series, his new team Williams would have been eager to see what he could do in year two.
If anything, Albon has performed even better through the first half of 2023 than he did last year. Helped by the fact that the entire field is closer this season than last – except for the clearly dominant Red Bulls – Williams is no longer the obvious slowest team on the grid. That’s not to say the FW45 is a top-five car or even a top-seven car, but Albon’s ability to get the most out of it is becoming increasingly clear.
His season kicked off strongly in Bahrain where he reached Q2 at the first attempt but was hit with a front wing collapse that left him 15th. Despite that, he used his low-drag car set up to climb the order to tenth, holding off Yuki Tsunoda to kick off the season with a point. He was again in the scrap for a possible point in Saudi Arabia, before brake failure ended his race and his hopes of a top ten.
He looked very strong yet again in Melbourne after reaching Q3 for the first time in 2023 and running in a genuine sixth place in the early laps. But then, a mistake at turn five caused a spike in tyre temperatures which led to him crashing out of the race at the next corner – easily his sourest moment of the season so far. At least he bounced back in Baku, securing seventh on the grid in sprint qualifying and just missing out on points in ninth in the sprint race before finishing 12th in the grand prix after some unfortunate Safety Car timing worked against him.
Even when the Williams was not in the fight for points, Albon continued to put his car in the upper midfield. Spain is the only time he has crossed the finish line lower than 14th so far, but even that was a better performance than Monaco where he crashed his car at the end of practice and ran off track briefly when the rain fell in the race but still finished 14th.
But after Monaco, Albon delivered consistently solid drives. He was just outside of the points in Austria – with 15 seconds of track limits penalties not influencing his position – and in Canada he made the most of a track that suited his car and secured his best result of the season with seventh, putting on yet another defensive masterclass to hold off faster cars with his old hard compound tyres.
Perhaps his strongest weekend was Silverstone, where he was consistently in the top three positions in practice, secured eight on the grid in qualifying and then on Sunday overtook Sainz in the later laps and kept Leclerc behind him to beat both Ferraris to the finish in eighth – an excellent performance in a weekend filled with outstanding drives. His car did not suit the Hungaroring, but Albon still gained five places from his starting position to finish 11th, just missing out on yet more points.
As cars are closer in performance this season, it’s becoming clearer to see those drivers who are able to make the difference in the midfield battle. He might be only 13th in the championship, but Albon has put together more outstanding and impressive race weekends than many of those ahead of him in the standings. And, unsurprisingly, no driver has outdone their team mate so heavily in the first half of 2023 than the way Albon has dominated Sargeant.
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2023 F1 season
- Leclerc turns the tables on Sainz at last race in another close fight at Ferrari
- F1 teams banned from working on 2026 car designs until end of next year
- Strong second half of Piastri’s debut season will put Norris on alert for 2024
- Russell can’t repeat points win over Hamilton but proves a close match again
- Mercedes lost confidence in “disorientating” 2022 setback – Allison