Max vs Lewis in 2023: will fiery rivalry take them out of title race?— MPH


Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton look set to resume their fight for the F1 title in 2023. But with a resurgent Ferrari and two capable team-mates, their no-compromise approach could punish both, writes Mark Hughes


Hamilton and Verstappen only had on major battle in 2022... and this is what happened

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The season ahead always looks potentially fantastic at this stage, with the first race still several weeks away and not even a glimpse of the new cars yet. So the scenario I’m about to outline here could very easily be rendered obsolete by the end of the opening test. But… given that the radically new aero regulations of last year increased the possibility of one team getting it much more right and the others much more wrong, there should logically be a big closing up now that everyone has a better understanding of the ground effect cars. The ‘23 tweaks to the regulations concerning the floor edges will have a significant effect but will be nothing like the gamechanger of last year’s regs.

Last year Red Bull – and to a lesser extent Ferrari – came up with a very aerodynamically effective interpretation of the regulations. Mercedes was badly caught out with a fundamentally flawed design, the aerodynamic limitations of which were locked in by a rear suspension designed around a very different aero map to what was possible in reality. Given that the various handicaps of the W13 could be traced to one primary limitation, logically it should be expected that a lot of the performance shortfall should dissolve away with the opportunity provided by a new car. The rear suspension’s combination of dynamics, travel and packaging should be relatively easy to optimise now that the aero traits are fully understood and they begin with a clean sheet.

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Ferrari fell away from Red Bull in the second half of the year but with a power unit detuned for reliability after Baku. With many months now to have found a solution to the ERS-H reliability problem, the assumption is that the Ferrari PU will revert to being the most potent of all, just as it was for the first few races of ’22.

Red Bull of course is bound to find further performance during the off-season, but the others would seem on paper to have more low-hanging fruit to pick. So if we assume a more closely-matched Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes in ’23 – a big ‘if’ but not an unreasonable one at this stage – the dynamics between the six drivers of those teams becomes potentially fascinating.

Red Bull has a clear lead driver and number two in Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. Ferrari has a nominal leader in Charles Leclerc but Carlos Sainz can – and does – compete with him. Mercedes has absolute parity and George Russell has not been hired as a support, but as succession, to Lewis Hamilton. That is the loose driver hierarchy structure between each of those teams.

Red Bull of Max Verstappen is lifted into the air after hitting Lewis Hamilton Mercedes at Monza

Verstappen and Hamilton weren’t known for backing down in 2021. They could once again be vying for the title in 2023

Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Brazil last year was the one occasion that Verstappen and Hamilton had of reprising their contentious ’21 battle and immediately they came to blows again. In their comments afterwards, they each came close to acknowledging that they expected contact. In a 50/50 situation, neither of them were prepared to yield and accepted the inevitability of contact as preferable to that. In the imagined ’23 scenario of three equally-matched teams, when there would inevitably be moments of close racing between Verstappen and Hamilton, would they both continue with that attitude? If they did, Russell and Leclerc in particular would surely be rubbing their hands in glee. How would the approaches of everyone evolve in such a season?

This is all far too theoretical at the moment given that we cannot know how competitive the three teams are going to be relative to each other. But it’s not an outrageous possibility that they are closely-matched and if they are, a renewed Verstappen-Hamilton niggle would be a more complex equation than in ’21.