Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Max Verstappen, Red Bull and Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Yas Marina, 2023

Verstappen’s nearest challengers are focused on other rivals in finale

2023 Abu Dhabi GP pre-race analysis

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Formula 1 has never been the most popular market when it comes to sports betting.

After all, there are too many outcomes, too many variables that can come into play. Even when a driver is looking especially strong, all it takes is one misjudgement, one small piece of debris or a slight mechanical problem and an almost guaranteed victory suddenly devolves into no points.

But there’s been nothing as close to a sure bet in Formula 1 history perhaps like Max Verstappen and Red Bull in 2023. A total of 18 wins from 21 rounds – an unparalleled level of sustained victory over such a long calendar of racing.

Which is why it was so surprising to hear Red Bull team principal Christian Horner informing Verstappen after he had stormed to the final pole position of the 2023 season that team adviser Helmut Marko had lost €500 to him in a friendly wager by betting he would fail to qualify on the front row of the grid. After all, who would bet against Max Verstappen in 2023?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Yas Marina, 2023
Leclerc joins Verstappen on the front row again
The reality is, heading into qualifying, there were valid reasons to be cautious about putting money on the world champion. After a disrupted Friday with only a limited level of running, Verstappen had complained about the balance of his car being anything but balanced. After an evening to go over the little data they had, Red Bull made changes to the car but the end result seemed the same.

However, come qualifying, whatever settings changes race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase and his team made to car number one did the trick. Verstappen found the balance he needed from his car and successfully took pole position with the first of his two attempts in Q3 to deny Charles Leclerc, Oscar Piastri and all other contenders who may have dared to dream of securing the top spot on the grid.

“It definitely shows that it’s details that can make a massive difference,” Verstappen said after qualifying. “Because today, I was not so happy up until qualifying and then in qualifying it turns into normal behaviour.”

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Now, Verstappen and Red Bull have the chance to finish off the single most successful season any team and driver have ever enjoyed in the history of the sport in the best fashion possible – by converting pole position into their 19th win of the season.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Yas Marina, 2023
Disrupted practice left Red Bull’s race pace uncertain
But it might not be quite as straightforward as it seems.

By Verstappen’s own admission, the lack of any meaningful long-run data generated in practice is going to leave him slightly in the dark as to how their car and tyres will perform over a long race stint on high fuel. While it’s easy to assume that he will simply control the race from the front as he has on so many occasions in 2023, Verstappen insists he has “no clue” how his car will go over the 58 laps of the race and that even the data the team have from last year’s race here will only have limited use.

“It will help a little bit,” Verstappen said. “But, of course, every year, your balance, or issues that you have to go faster, are a little bit different, so you can’t always relate fully to what you have done in the past. But it does help you understand a few things.”

Starting alongside him on the front row of the grid is Charles Leclerc, who has looked strong from the moment he first got strapped into his Ferrari for the second practice session after lending it to Robert Shwartzman early on Friday. While he couldn’t deny Verstappen pole position, Leclerc was sure he had maximised his car’s potential with second. But after fighting Verstappen for victory last weekend in Las Vegas, Leclerc does not expect to be able to push the Red Bull so hard on Sunday.

“On a track like this, with hot conditions like this, I expect us to struggle a bit more than Las Vegas on race pace,” Leclerc admitted. “But let’s see. In FP3, I had quite a good feeling during the race simulations, so I hope we can reproduce that tomorrow.”

But while Leclerc would love to end the year in the highest possible fashion by beating Verstappen and taking his first victory of 2023, there’s a bigger goal for he and Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr.

“The only thing that matters to me is that we challenge the Mercedes and that we take the second place in the constructors’ championship,” Leclerc said. “So we just need to beat the Mercedes, but of course if there’s an opportunity to beat Max tomorrow, I’ll take it.”

Ferrari’s battle with Mercedes could well come down to Leclerc versus George Russell, who will line up directly behind him in fourth on the grid. Lewis Hamilton’s Q2 exit leaves him down in 11th on the grid, with Sainz even further back in 16th after a torrid weekend so far. But after setting the pace in two of the three practice sessions, Russell was left feeling that he could and should have managed better than fourth.

George Russell, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2023
Mercedes should be in better shape on race day
“That was a little disappointing,” he admitted. “I want to end the season on a high, so ultimately my goal is to be on the podium and get the most out of the points for the team in the constructors’ championship, so let’s see what tomorrow holds for us. Although Lewis had a tricky session today, I am sure he will move forward tomorrow.”

Hamilton himself insisted that his car was inconsistent almost on a corner-by-corner basis and offered little prediction for whether he would be able to make his way up into the top half of the top ten during the race. Starting down in 16th, Sainz was at least a little more hopeful of getting into the fight for points.

“The long runs haven’t looked bad,” Sainz said. “So we just know what we need to do tomorrow, which is a good recovery and see if we can get back in the points and score points and see where we might end up.”

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While Ferrari and Mercedes will be fighting the most meaningful battle on the track, McLaren will be hoping to upset the pair of them and return to being Red Bull’s closest rivals as they have been so many times in the latter part of the season. While Lando Norris looked like the biggest threat to Verstappen in the early phases of qualifying, a mistake at turn 14 for Norris ultimately cost him two positions on the grid and possibly a front row start.

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Yas Marina, 2023
Piastri will lead McLaren’s charge from third on the grid
After kicking himself for failing to make the most of his potential, Norris said he had “no idea” whether he could offer any stronger challenge in the race itself.

“I [only] did FP2, there was two red flags – I’ve not done more than one lap in a row this weekend,” he said. “I’ve not done one lap with more than 50 kilos of fuel, so I don’t know. It was a terrible day for me today, but the car’s been very good all weekend with the few laps I’ve done so. We’ll find out.”

Starting third, Oscar Piastri says he’s just as clueless as anyone about what to expect from the field during the final grand prix of the season.

“For everyone, I think it’s going to be the same story,” he said. “I think the most anyone’s done is probably five laps in a row this weekend. It’s going to be interested to see how everyone pans out tomorrow.”

But in much the same way Leclerc is eyeing the Mercedes, McLaren are preoccupied with another rival. They only scored two points in Las Vegas, which allowed Aston Martin to draw within 11 points of them, and a late slip on Sunday could cost them fourth in the championship.

With only a handful of teams having run anything like a meaningful long run in practice, strategy is going to be an educated guess at best. Last year, with the same suite of compounds, the vast majority of drivers started on the medium tyres but while most of the field ran a two stop strategy, the top two drivers – coincidentally Verstappen and Leclerc – were the only drivers in the top eight finishers who made just one stop, switching to the hards around lap 20.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Yas Marina, 2023
Hamilton will start from the midfield again
Pirelli expect that to be the fastest approach to the race tomorrow, but a mid-race Safety Car or VSC could force many to switch onto a two-stop. Like last year, the soft compound is only expected to be considered in very rare situations.

Yas Marina’s long straights and hard braking zones are tailor-made for DRS passes, it does not seem worth going overly aggressive at the start of the race to get track position if you must then fight to try and keep rivals behind. But with Leclerc and Piastri behind him and Russell and Norris all looking to snatch a win at the final opportunity, Verstappen may have to look in his mirrors a little more than usual.

But even though the competition is sure to be fierce, it will take a brave person to bet against Verstappen adding a 19th win to close out 2023. Or maybe just Helmut Marko.

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Qualifying times in full

P.DriverTeamQ1Q2 (v Q1)Q3 (v Q2)
1Max VerstappenRed Bull1’24.1601’23.740 (-0.420s)1’23.445 (-0.295s)
2Charles LeclercFerrari1’24.4591’23.969 (-0.490s)1’23.584 (-0.385s)
3Oscar PiastriMcLaren1’24.4871’24.278 (-0.209s)1’23.782 (-0.496s)
4George RussellMercedes1’24.3371’24.013 (-0.324s)1’23.788 (-0.225s)
5Lando NorrisMcLaren1’24.3681’23.920 (-0.448s)1’23.816 (-0.104s)
6Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri1’24.2861’24.207 (-0.079s)1’23.968 (-0.239s)
7Fernando AlonsoAston Martin1’24.5011’24.131 (-0.370s)1’24.084 (-0.047s)
8Nico HulkenbergHaas1’24.4251’24.213 (-0.212s)1’24.108 (-0.105s)
9Sergio PerezRed Bull1’24.2091’24.116 (-0.093s)1’24.171 (+0.055s)
10Pierre GaslyAlpine1’24.6001’24.078 (-0.522s)1’24.548 (+0.470s)
11Lewis HamiltonMercedes1’24.4371’24.359 (-0.078s)Missed by 0.081s
12Esteban OconAlpine1’24.5651’24.391 (-0.174s)Missed by 0.113s
13Lance StrollAston Martin1’24.4051’24.422 (+0.017s)Missed by 0.144s
14Alexander AlbonWilliams1’24.2981’24.439 (+0.141s)Missed by 0.161s
15Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauri1’24.4611’24.442 (-0.019s)Missed by 0.164s
16Carlos Sainz JnrFerrari1’24.738Missed by 0.138s
17Kevin MagnussenHaas1’24.764Missed by 0.164s
18Valtteri BottasAlfa Romeo1’24.788Missed by 0.188s
19Zhou GuanyuAlfa Romeo1’25.159Missed by 0.559s
20Logan SargeantWilliams

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Sector times

P.#DriverS1S2S3Ultimate lap (deficit)
11Max Verstappen17.078 (2)35.894 (1)30.4 (3)1’23.372 (+0.073)
216Charles Leclerc17.188 (10)35.986 (2)30.385 (2)1’23.559 (+0.025)
34Lando Norris17.076 (1)36.087 (3)30.412 (4)1’23.575 (+0.241)
463George Russell17.097 (3)36.206 (9)30.365 (1)1’23.668 (+0.120)
581Oscar Piastri17.101 (4)36.093 (5)30.497 (5)1’23.691 (+0.091)
611Sergio Perez17.144 (5)36.206 (9)30.518 (8)1’23.868 (+0.248)
722Yuki Tsunoda17.222 (13)36.131 (6)30.569 (10)1’23.922 (+0.046)
814Fernando Alonso17.157 (6)36.31 (15)30.546 (9)1’24.013 (+0.071)
927Nico Hulkenberg17.243 (14)36.26 (12)30.514 (6)1’24.017 (+0.091)
1044Lewis Hamilton17.278 (15)36.258 (11)30.514 (6)1’24.050 (+0.309)
1110Pierre Gasly17.202 (12)36.091 (4)30.785 (12)1’24.078
1223Alexander Albon17.18 (8)36.175 (7)30.834 (16)1’24.189 (+0.109)
1318Lance Stroll17.182 (9)36.277 (14)30.809 (14)1’24.268 (+0.137)
1431Esteban Ocon17.197 (11)36.26 (12)30.923 (18)1’24.380 (+0.011)
153Daniel Ricciardo17.305 (16)36.399 (16)30.69 (11)1’24.394 (+0.048)
162Logan Sargeant17.177 (7)36.185 (8)31.17 (20)1’24.532
1755Carlos Sainz Jnr17.355 (19)36.484 (18)30.802 (13)1’24.641 (+0.097)
1820Kevin Magnussen17.326 (17)36.424 (17)30.993 (19)1’24.743 (+0.021)
1924Zhou Guanyu17.332 (18)36.594 (20)30.819 (15)1’24.745 (+0.414)
2077Valtteri Bottas17.401 (20)36.54 (19)30.847 (17)1’24.788

Speed trap

P.#DriverCarEngineModelMax kph (mph)
123Alexander AlbonWilliamsMercedesFW45333.6 (207.3)
211Sergio PerezRed BullHonda RBPTRB19332.8 (206.8)
31Max VerstappenRed BullHonda RBPTRB19331.7 (206.1)
42Logan SargeantWilliamsMercedesFW45329.4 (204.7)
516Charles LeclercFerrariFerrariSF-23329.3 (204.6)
627Nico HulkenbergHaasFerrariVF-23329.2 (204.6)
731Esteban OconAlpineRenaultA523328.9 (204.4)
820Kevin MagnussenHaasFerrariVF-23328.2 (203.9)
955Carlos Sainz JnrFerrariFerrariSF-23328.2 (203.9)
1077Valtteri BottasAlfa RomeoFerrariC43327.9 (203.7)
1110Pierre GaslyAlpineRenaultA523327.3 (203.4)
1244Lewis HamiltonMercedesMercedesW14326.9 (203.1)
1324Zhou GuanyuAlfa RomeoFerrariC43326.2 (202.7)
1481Oscar PiastriMcLarenMercedesMCL60326.1 (202.6)
1563George RussellMercedesMercedesW14325.0 (201.9)
163Daniel RicciardoAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04324.6 (201.7)
1718Lance StrollAston MartinMercedesAMR23324.3 (201.5)
1814Fernando AlonsoAston MartinMercedesAMR23323.7 (201.1)
1922Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauriHonda RBPTAT04323.6 (201.1)
204Lando NorrisMcLarenMercedesMCL60323.1 (200.8)

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Over to you

Will Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren take the fight to Verstappen – or is their focus elsewhere? Share your views on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the comments.

2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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3 comments on “Verstappen’s nearest challengers are focused on other rivals in finale”

  1. Season well done by Red Bull and VER. Max wins by 30 seconds or more after stopping with 3 laps to go for fresh tires and fastest lap.

  2. Will Ferrari, Mercedes or McLaren take the fight to Verstappen – or is their focus elsewhere?
    – No & elsewhere indeed, i.e., the former two against each other & Mclaren against AMR.

  3. I believe this is long story is simply mitigated by all cars struggling with the same issues. So should be pretty straight forward race.

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