Two races down in the 2023 Formula 1 season and already it’s tough to even place a bet on Max Verstappen winning the drivers’ championship. A quick check of the odds on mainstream outlets suggest the best you can get are 1/5 – or for every £1 you are willing to bet you’d receive £1.20 in return.
Sergio Perez might feel that’s a little harsh after his highly impressive performance in Jeddah – where he did have the measure of Verstappen once the pair were running first and second on the same age of tyre with half the race to go – but the reality is even at the above odds you’re likely to be making money.
It really is so difficult to see anything but a Verstappen championship at this point, even with 21 races remaining, after Red Bull’s utter dominance in Bahrain was repeated on a very different type of circuit in Saudi Arabia. And it’s a situation we haven’t faced for a few years.
Rewind 12 months and two epic fights between Verstappen and Charles Leclerc had seen the pair take a win apiece. Then Leclerc won in Australia while Verstappen retired for the second time in three races and it felt like if anyone was going to run away with it then it was going to be the Monégasque. How wrong that was.
I’d love to say that’s the catalyst for hope that this season’s picture so far is deceiving, but while a year ago it was tough to believe Ferrari would go through the year without some sort of drama (admittedly, not quite the rapid falling away that we saw), the opposite is true now as Red Bull just looks like a team that will not slip up.
A year like 2021 is even more special because it’s not what is delivered every season
So we have to go back to 2020 for a season when it quickly became obvious that there was one clear favourite to take the title, as Hamilton wrapped up his seventh, and fourth in a row.
In many ways, 2021 spoiled us. It provided an epic battle between two of the finest drivers the sport has ever seen, and one that went right down to the wire with them locked on points heading into the final race. But perhaps that final race is one of the reasons there appears to be even more apathy than usual when it comes to seeing Verstappen set for a tilt at a third consecutive championship that is unlikely to have much of an outside threat.
I’m not here to go over the events of that night in Abu Dhabi again, but one of the further disappointments since has been the lack of a proper battle between Verstappen and Hamilton. They’ve had their moments – Brazil in 2022 springs to mind – but what could have been an incredible rivalry hasn’t had the chance to develop because of the difference in car performance.
That might be disappointing, but it isn’t wrong. In fact, despite all of that, Formula 1 needs to see dominance like Red Bull is showing right now. Honestly.
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And I say that because it’s the awareness that one team can get it so right compared to the others and walk away with a championship that makes the close fights that much more exciting. A year like 2021 is even more special because it’s not what is delivered every season, and it’s not completely contrived by giving all of the drivers exactly the same car.
F1 is so special because of the differences in machinery, ability for teams to develop and push the boundaries, and the drivers that then get to thrash those brilliant machines. When all of the ingredients come together at the same time, we get treated to something epic just as was the case in 2021, but that’s appreciated by the fact that it’s just as possible for a race or championship to be much more on the boring side.
Am I saying I want boring races? Of course not, but you need them to appreciate what is a great one every now and then. Another reason 2021 was so special – and it was talked about as one of F1’s greatest seasons ever, let’s not forget – is because it finally saw a proper challenge to, and the end of, Mercedes’ dominance.
Especially with the cloud the cost cap breach created last year – another topic that could have increased the levels of frustration that it’s Red Bull so far out in front – you’d maybe expect Toto Wolff to be calling for changes right now to try and get his team back into the fight, but instead he acknowledges just how impressive what Red Bull is doing is.
2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix analysis: Midfield battles provided most of the entertainment as Sergio Perez led Max Verstappen to a Red Bull 1-2. On current form there’s no other way they’ll be beaten, writes Mark Hughes
“We have had those years where we were as strong, but it is a meritocracy,” Wolff said. “We shouldn’t talk it down because I remember hearing voices like that between 2014 and 2020. What makes the sport so special is that you need to work hard to win, and you deserve it, and that is matter of fact.
“Even if it is not great for the show that the same guys win all the time, it is because they have done a good job and we haven’t. We all hope for good entertainment and it is our duty to catch up and fight these guys. We will do everything in our power to fight back and we will look at areas of weakness that they may have.
“Entertainment follows sport and [Red Bull’s dominance] is maybe not good for the commercial side but it is what makes Formula 1 so special.”
As was the case for the first three years of Mercedes’ dominant period, having two drivers in the title fight and fighting each other closely certainly helps maintain a level of excitement when a team has such an advantage, but as strong as Perez was in Saudi Arabia it would constitute a major shock if he put up such opposition all season long.
It’s not just the betting odds that are heavily in Verstappen’s favour, but all that’s happening right now is a new benchmark is being set that others will eventually match, and when they do we’ll get some more amazing battles that will be made all the more thrilling by the knowledge of what a job has been done to get back on terms.