After 6,500 kilometres of racing, 22 rounds over 1,294 laps, Max Verstappen climbed victoriously from the cockpit of his championship-winning Red Bull one last time along the Yas Marina pit straight to a rapturous ovation from the packed grandstand.
Accepting the warm congratulations of his lifelong rival, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc, who had finished second behind him, Verstappen acknowledged both the crowd and the unprecedented streak of success he had enjoyed over the previous nine months. Looking back at the scale of his accomplishments, Verstappen could’ve been forgiven for thinking that in this moment, this was as good as it was ever going to get for him in Formula 1.
“It’s been really enjoyable to work with the whole team and to be able to achieve something like this this year,” the triumphant world champion said, F1’s most successful season ever finally in the books. “I know it’s going to be hard to replicate something like this, but it’s also very good motivation to try and do well again next year.”
And with that, the 2022 world championship season had come to an end.
Just over 370 days later, Verstappen woke up for the final grand prix Sunday of 2023 looking to put the cap on a season that had outperformed that phenomenal previous season by every possible metric. What had been accomplishments the year before had become astonishments in 2023. More victories. More poles. More laps led. More complete and total domination.
But once again, there was still one more race to win. Pole position had already been acquired, naturally. Fittingly, Leclerc was the one lining up alongside him on the front row – the driver who had the most front row starts of any driver aside from Verstappen himself. The Ferrari driver had been a genuine nuisance for Verstappen and Red Bull the previous weekend in Las Vegas. Could he offer a challenge today?
As much as Leclerc would have loved to take the fight to the champion, his eyes were purely focused on a more urgent goal: beating Mercedes. A four-point swing was all Ferrari needed to take the runner-up spot in the constructors’ championship from their rivals. Leclerc was determined to come out swinging for it, and he needed to be, as his team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr had qualified well down the order in 16th. At least Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was also outside of the top 10, in 11th.
Once the anthem had been sung, the flypast had flown and the grid had cleared of dignitaries, it was time – for the final time in 2023 – to get down to the business of racing.
In that final race of 2022, Verstappen and Leclerc had both run a one-stop strategy, starting on the medium compound and moving onto the hard tyres for the final stint to the chequered flag. So it hardly a surprise when the mechanics discarded the tyre blankets on the grid to reveal the front row pair – and, indeed, the top 12 starters on the grid – had chosen mediums for the start of this year’s race too.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
The field formed up on the grid with Verstappen heading the pack for the 12th time and Logan Sargeant at the rear for the fifth and final time. Just a week prior, Verstappen had forced his way past pole-winner Leclerc into the left-hand first corner at the start and Leclerc had the chance to pay him back in kind from second on the grid. When the lights went out, the Ferrari got a better getaway than the Red Bull and drew alongside as they charged to the braking zone. Verstappen held firm, however, and knowing his key rivals lay behind him, Leclerc didn’t force the issue with the Red Bull.
Behind, Oscar Piastri in the McLaren held onto third place, while his team mate Lando Norris drove around George Russell at turn two to move up to fourth. Verstappen took a very wide line through the turn five left-hander which allowed Leclerc the chance to stalk him down the back straight. Verstappen covered the inside – or so he thought – before Leclerc cut back to the inside of the Red Bull at 316kph before hitting the brakes for turn six. But again, Verstappen jealously guarded the lead around the outside. A third attack at turn nine was also repelled, this time Verstappen keeping the lead by holding the inside.
“I tried in turn nine, but I knew that it was important for me to take care of those tyres,” Leclerc later explained.
“Even in the first lap, everything is so sensitive here that even if you push too much in the first lap then this can have a huge consequence on the rest of your run. So, at one point I just decided to settle for the second place. Anyway, if we had got that first place, I don’t think we’d have kept that for long.”
Verstappen crossed the line having survived his opening lap skirmish with Leclerc to take a 0.8-second lead over his rivals. The McLarens followed, Russell was in fifth and Yuki Tsunoda holding sixth for AlphaTauri. By the time DRS was activated at the end of the next lap, Verstappen had escaped out of range of the Ferrari. Norris was enjoying much more pace in the early laps than his team mate ahead and used DRS to drive by Piastri into third place.
Making a one stop strategy viable was always going to mean intensive tyre management, so drivers immediately began to look for ways to try and avoid unnecessarily leaning on their mediums through key areas like turns two and three. As such, Verstappen did not pull out a large lead over Leclerc in the early laps, the pair separated by around 1.4 seconds.
Back in fifth, Piastri looked as though he was about to drop another place in the early laps to Russell, who was crawling all over the rear of the McLaren. Norris was keeping up with Leclerc, who was bemused by how Norris appeared to be keeping within DRS range of him.
“He’s lucky,” Leclerc quipped when informed Norris was within a second once more on the back straight. “He always gets it just right.”
Twice in two laps, Russell attempted to pass Piastri at turn nine but twice his advances were rebuffed. Eventually, the 2018 Formula 2 champion got around the 2021 F2 winner at his favourite corner on lap 11 to take fourth. Not long afterwards McLaren called in their rookie to switch to hard tyres slightly earlier than planned. Norris and Russell both reacted to do the same on the following lap but switched places during their stops, a slow left-rear wheel change badly delaying McLaren’s crew.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Red Bull are used to leading the pack, but it was about this time when they began questioning whether it would be best for them to follow the herd. The champions pitted Verstappen at the end of lap 16 for hard tyres as Ferrari followed suit one lap later. Leclerc emerged from the underground pit exit in fifth, three seconds behind the former race leader.
“As we got into the race, we were planning on a one-stop,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained afterwards. “Then we deviated to a two because we saw the deg on the medium tyre was a little more than we were liking. I think we could have done it with Max on a one-stop because he had the pace and the ability to manage the tyre. But with Checo it just looked like he was going to run out of tyres towards the end of the race. So that’s why we put both of the cars on a two-stop.”
A handful of drivers who had started on hard tyres remained out as their rivals ahead pitted for the first time. Lance Stroll and Sainz moved up to second and third ahead of Verstappen, but Tsunoda was bravely still running on the mediums he had started on and had picked up the privilege of leading the race as a result. AlphaTauri chose not to inform their excitable young driver that he had become only the second Japanese F1 driver to lead a grand prix, but for five laps, car number 22 ran in first place before he could go no further and pitted at the end of lap 22.
Verstappen reclaimed the lead at that point, having passed Sainz and Stroll over the preceding laps. Leclerc moved back up to second with Russell now running ahead of both McLarens. With Hamilton down in ninth suffering a damaged broken front wing from contact with Pierre Gasly, and Sainz still languishing in 16th after his first stop, Mercedes knew if the race ended as it stood, they would achieve that second place in the constructors’ championship.
As the sun began to disappear over the horizon, it was as if Verstappen felt it was time for him to do the same. The top three were all lapping in the 1’29s at this stage, but only Verstappen was able to do so consistently in the low 29s. The second Red Bull of Perez also seemed to be enjoying the hard tyres in the cooler conditions. He became the next driver to dispatch Piastri at the end of the back straight, gaining fifth place as a result.
For the following four laps, Verstappen continued to gradually extend his lead. With 26 laps remaining, it was clear to many teams that making the hards last for over 40 laps was wishful thinking at best and an act of self-sabotage at worst. McLaren were the first to pull the trigger at the end of lap 33, bringing Norris in for new hards. Mercedes reacted on the next lap by bringing in Russell, getting him back out ahead of the McLaren again.
Ferrari debated whether to do the same as their rivals behind, but as Leclerc approached the penultimate corner he too got the call to come in. He emerged less than a second ahead of Russell. Piastri was the next to stop, as did Alonso.
But as the Aston Martin rejoined, he did so right in front of Hamilton. In a bid to bait his long-time rival into passing him so he could have DRS for the following straight, Alonso lifted on the approach to turn five. Hamilton refused the invitation, accusing Alonso of “brake testing” him. The stewards checked over Alonso’ “erratic driving,” but ultimately found no wrongdoing by the Aston Martin driver.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
Both Red Bulls remained out on their older hard tyres, with Verstappen 16 seconds ahead of his team mate. So at ease was Verstappen, he told his team they had his blessing to pit Perez ahead of him should they want to.
Eventually, Red Bull took up that offer and pitted Perez first for a second set of hards on lap 42, dropping him down to sixth place ahead of Piastri. Verstappen made his final pit stop of the season the next lap, fitting another set of hard tyres and retaining a slightly reduced lead.
With most pit activity seemingly over for the season (though Sainz still needed to come in again to satisfy the mandatory requirement to use both tyre compounds), Verstappen made the most of his new tyre set to post a new fastest lap of the race on his first full lap out of the pits. Leclerc, on eight lap older hards and in a car that wasn’t an RB19, had no answer for Verstappen’s pace and began dropping back.
But there was another RB19 on the track, and towards the end of the race it was threatening the cars ahead. Perez, fifth, took little time to catch Norris in fourth and was within DRS range along the back straight on lap 47. However, despite Norris surrendering the apex to the Red Bull once it was alongside, the two still made contact through turn six.
“He just turned into me!” Perez insisted, equally incensed that Norris was still in possession of fourth place having cut turn seven following their clash. Norris, unsurprisingly, saw things differently. “That’s just dangerous,” he said. “He had loads of space.”
The next lap, Perez was again in the slipstream. This time, he made the move stick free from any collision between the pair. But any relief Perez may have felt at getting by the McLaren was cut short soon after.
“Okay, we’ve been given a five-second penalty for that,” Red Bull race engineer Hugh Bird informed his driver Perez.
“For what?,” Perez spat, knowing how much harder his bid to reach the podium now was. “Why did we get the penalty? I was ahead?”
Perez’s penalty threw a new element into the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari. He was on schedule to overtake Russell and Leclerc before the end of the race with the seven laps remaining, but now he could realistically finish behind the pair of them on the results page even if he crossed the line ahead. Notwithstanding the distraction of lapping a 16-turn Formula 1 track speeds of over 300kph, professor Leclerc began to crunch the numbers in the cockpit.
“Let me know on the Russell-Perez gap,” Leclerc insisted. “And if Perez is going to fight with Russell because… wait a second, entering the corner… yeah, let me know the gap between Perez and Russell so maybe we can make them fight a bit more towards the end if we see that we are not second in the constructors’.”
With just five laps remaining, Perez was within DRS range of Russell. He closed very late on the Mercedes on the run to turn nine and dived to the inside to take third, before being encouraged to “disappear” from Russell and chase after Leclerc.
Leclerc knew that if Perez finished third with Russell fourth, Ferrari would have the points advantage they needed to beat Mercedes. Therefore, if he could allow Perez through to build up a gap of over five seconds to Russell, and keep the Mercedes at bay, he could inherit second place back after the race from the Red Bull.
“I knew Checo was behind me and his best chance was obviously to get the DRS from me and try and pull away as much as possible from George,” he explained later. “So I knew that there was quite a bit of discussion between my engineer and myself and I let him know as well that this was my plan.”
Entering the final lap of the 2023 season, Leclerc made his call. He pulled over to the inside on the run to turn five, allowing the Red Bull driver to fly by into second place. As if to return the favour, Perez pushed hard to build up as big a gap as possible, but Russell was not falling back quickly enough.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
But while one Red Bull was pushing, the other was soaking up the final kilometres of what may well have been the most dominant season in the history of the sport. Leclerc’s three half-hearted attacks on the opening lap had been all the trouble he had had to contend with over another flawless race where his victory seemed assured from the end of that first lap.
Just three laps from the end, Verstappen achieved something no driver ever has in Formula 1 by leading his 1,000th racing lap of the season. It had been checked off by race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase as “’mission A’ complete”, but at the end of a year when all Verstappen had seemed to do was win, he simply had to cross the line to wrap up his historic season with another crushing victory.
“All missions complete,” Lambiase now stated, as if what his driver had done through the weekend had been a simple admin exercise. “What a year. Well done my friend.”
For Verstappen, his season had been an exhibition of winning as a lifestyle. And one he had thoroughly enjoyed.
“Winning is great,” he said. “Why would I not want to win when you have the opportunity to win? When I see that there is the opportunity to win, I will always try to do the best I can and also for the team. When you have such a good car, you want to try and extend certain records and do well.”
Perez came across the line 16 seconds behind his team mate, but with Leclerc and Russell both well within five seconds of him, all his and Leclerc’s efforts had failed to keep him on the podium. Ferrari therefore had bad news for their second-placed driver as he was told to go into “mode slow” after crossing the line.
Advert | Become a RaceFans supporter and
“Yeah, I don’t care about mode slow,” Leclerc told engineer Xavier Marcos Padros agitatedly. “Where are we in the constructors’?”
After a delay, the news came. “P3,” Marcos Padros replied simply. “For fuck’s sake!,” Leclerc barked in frustration.
Russell could not mask his relief nor his exhaustion after coming home on the podium for only the second time in 2023 and having secured second place for the thousands of Mercedes personnel behind him.
“I’m really pleased to finish on this high because it’s been a really challenging season,” he admitted. “Lady luck was maybe on our side slightly today with Checo’s penalty, but I think that more than made up for the other races this year.”
Perez fumed after losing a podium finish once again, but he got himself a stern word from the stewards after calling them “a joke” on his post radio as he returned to the pits. The two McLarens were satisfied enough with fifth and sixth for Norris and Piastri, while Fernando Alonso capped off a very strong first year with Aston Martin with a seventh place finish.
Tsunoda converted the strong pace he’d shown all weekend into four points in eighth, but it was not enough for AlphaTauri to deny Williams seventh in the constructors’ championship. Hamilton’s two points for ninth did not ultimately win Mercedes their battle against Ferrari. Stroll at added another point to his team’s total by securing the final place in the top ten just ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who’d been delayed earlier in the race when a front brake duct ingested a visor tear off and began to overheat.
But just as it had all season, Sunday had belonged to Max Verstappen. Almost symbolically at the end of his unbelievable year, Red Bull’s most dominant driver eclipsed Red Bull’s former most dominant driver, Sebastian Vettel, and his career tally of 53 wins to move into third in the all-time rankings list behind the sport’s two ultimate achievers: Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton.
Just as he had done at the exact same spot 12 months prior, Verstappen stood on the Yas Marina grid and reflected on everything he and his team had accomplished over the last three championship winning seasons. But as he embraced his team mates, the mechanics, the strategists, and everyone else in the Red Bull team who help put him in the position to not just win but do so handsomely every single he gets into a car, he made a point to appreciate the people just as much as the achievements.
“Yeah, the wins are great, of course,” the world champion said, “but I think it’s also very important to have a good atmosphere in the team and have a lot of fun. And just the people you work with, there’s a lot of smart people in the team.
“I also know that whatever you do in motor racing, I think it never will top that.”
2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- Mercedes’ team photo shows we still have a long way to go on diversity – Hamilton
- Why luck was a factor in Perez’s penalty for “joke” comment
- Bottas and Zhou see encouraging signs from overhauled 2024 car
- Only Verstappen got the best from his car every weekend, rival team bosses admit
- How Sainz suffered the worst season finale for a driver since Schumacher in 1997
F1 race reviews
- Verstappen denies Leclerc as F1’s Las Vegas spectacular lives up to its billing
- Verstappen on song with Sao Paulo win as Alonso prevails in podium photo-finish
- Perez breaks hearts, Verstappen breaks record in Mexico
- Verstappen beats Hamilton for third year running before disqualification drama
- Victory is no sweat for champion Verstappen as McLaren turn up the heat in Qatar