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Autosport Top 50 of 2023: #1 Max Verstappen

1st in F1 World Championship

Top 50 2023 dotcom1

Top 50 Drivers of 2023

Autosport's team of expert journalists got together to try to assess who were the top 50 drivers of 2023. Here are the results.

Eleven laps remain of the 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Max Verstappen is 3.6 seconds behind his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez. Defeat in Baku, and a 2-2 record from the opening four races of the season, stare back from the leading RB19.

But then that gap starts to come down – quite rapidly at first – to 3.1s. And holds. It creeps up as the Red Bull pair lap Valtteri Bottas. But by lap 47 of 51 it’s on the way down again to a finishing margin of 2.1s. Verstappen has just registered what he considers the worst weekend of his 2023 Formula 1 campaign, with two defeats in the first double-race appearance for the season of the sprint format he detests, plus that ugly episode with Mercedes driver George Russell in the Saturday parc ferme.

But he’s also just made a critical breakthrough that will lead to an unprecedented run of F1 success.

Shortly after this is finally ended by Carlos Sainz’s Singapore GP victory for Ferrari, Verstappen is a triple world champion. Come season’s end, Perez has registered the biggest deficit for a drivers’ standings intra-team 1-2 in F1 history at 290 points. (The previous was Rubens Barrichello’s 67 to Michael Schumacher in 2002, which adjusted for today’s format is 159 and technically trumps the official previous record for any 1-2 gap, Fernando Alonso’s 155-point trailing to Sebastian Vettel in 2013). 

PLUS: 10 moments that won Verstappen the 2023 Formula 1 title

“It was maybe not the best stint of my life, but it was just because I was trying out a lot of tools [changes] between brake bias, diff, engine braking,” Verstappen says of the work he was doing behind Perez once he realised the Baku win was lost, which he first alluded to after winning his home race at Zandvoort in August.

“But the end of the stint was actually very strong, where I think already I’d hurt my tyres quite badly from the beginning trying to pass. When I came out, I said, ‘OK, I didn’t win the race but I actually learned a lot for the upcoming races.’” 

Verstappen is speaking to Autosport in the Red Bull hospitality tent at the Mexican GP. He’s been a triple world champion for three weeks and his place atop this list secured months before the title was won in the Qatar sprint race. Given the topic of the day is how he’ll have his irregular bodyguard presence back for the Mexico City event, following notably harsh takes on his relationship with Perez in local media, he’s notably upbeat. Perky, even. Verstappen’s mood rather reflects his 2023 saunter. 

Despite suffering defeat, the Azerbaijan GP was the turning point for Verstappen's season of domination

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Despite suffering defeat, the Azerbaijan GP was the turning point for Verstappen's season of domination

Things got pretty straightforward when Perez cracked under the pressure of trying to defeat the dominant Dutchman, starting with the Monaco Q1 crash that began a run of five events where the Mexican missed Q3 (other than for the Austria sprint). But for Verstappen, he’d combined the lessons of his Baku defeat to other areas of his game this year, then applied them to defeating Perez. 

To the outside world, this started in Miami – a race that got harder with Verstappen’s early Q3 mistake being compounded by Charles Leclerc’s crash, leaving the Red Bull racer starting ninth. But for Verstappen, he’d taken what he’d discovered late in the Baku weekend straight to his engineers in their post-race debrief. 

“I said, ‘I really liked this combination of tools that we had and I think we should really start in a similar direction for the upcoming races’,” he explains. 

"If you look at some of the races, the control that he has, the way he’s reading races, the tyre management – outstanding" Christian Horner

That meant Verstappen had a baseline for his differential and braking performances pre-set heading into the opening practice sessions for the remaining rounds. He knew the feeling he wanted to recapture, with further adjustments to these through Red Bull’s typical set-up efforts. And, critically, it gave him a reference to work around with his new performance engineer. 

Due to his regular performance engineer – focused on constant set-up adjustments and working under Gianpiero Lambiase – having to step back at the start of the 2023 season for personal reasons, Verstappen worked with substitute Richard Cooke until the Qatar round in October. 

“It also takes a bit of time to click [with a change like that],” Verstappen adds. “Once we found that click together, I think the performance also got better because he understood me, I understood him and just to get that communication. Everything is super-sensitive – that’s why the relationship is very important between me and GP, but also the people behind that.” 

An outside assessment of Verstappen’s year must include his eventual Miami triumph as the high point, given the subsequent impact of that defeat on Perez’s results. But he picks his Spa – “still a very strong weekend again” after powering back from a gearbox-change grid penalty – and Suzuka wins as his personal highlights. 

Verstappen sees his close working relationship with his Red Bull engineers, headed by Gianpiero Lambiase, as vital to his success

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Verstappen sees his close working relationship with his Red Bull engineers, headed by Gianpiero Lambiase, as vital to his success

“Japan was a very strong one – from lap one it was unbelievable to drive,” says Verstappen. “I looked on the screen [in FP1] and I was like, ‘All right, that’s a good start!’ Balance-wise, probably Japan qualifying – that was really nice to drive.” 

He selects Baku – “Not being happy with how everything was going” – as the low point of his year. There were also scruffy weekends in Australia (edged out by the Mercedes pair on lap one, plus a late off under no pressure) and Monaco (various wallstrikes in the late rain).  

Verstappen confessed that he doesn’t “really enjoy street circuits” on arrival in Miami, but of course he was still brilliant in gaining 0.3s on Alonso in the final Monaco Q3 runs that really secured his victory there. He also won in Las Vegas, but was penalised for a shades-of-2021 first-corner move on Leclerc. 

But, intriguingly, Verstappen isn’t considering Red Bull’s Singapore defeat as a personal low point. He was, after all, still mighty pace-wise late on using the contra-strategy in the mid-pack.

“Singapore we were just off and probably made a few mistakes with the set-up as well,” he points out regarding Red Bull’s floor and ride height swaps, before going on to crack a smile. “It was just messy. For me, Singapore didn’t happen in a way – I don’t count that one!” 

Of that Suzuka qualifying, Verstappen was a massive 0.581s ahead of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri. But the 2023 campaign was coloured by Red Bull’s relative weakness in qualifying compared to the rest (even though it still secured 14 poles, 12 to Verstappen!). Especially so, given how it crushed them on race day 21 times in 22 GP events, with the champion ending up with a new victory tally record of 19.

PLUS: How F1's Verstappen era compares to Schumacher's early 2000s dominance

“I do just think that other people over one lap are very competitive and that then makes it sometimes really a tight qualifying,” Verstappen explains. “But that also has to do with because when you are on low fuel, some limitations of a certain car can be masked a little bit.” 

The added grip provided by new soft Pirellis was also a boost to rival runners in 2023 qualifying – if they could find it in the dark art of tyre preparation and eking life throughout a full flier. 

Mastering the Pirelli tyres with the RB19 has also been vital to Verstappen's crushing of his rivals

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Mastering the Pirelli tyres with the RB19 has also been vital to Verstappen's crushing of his rivals

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner reckoned Verstappen’s “skill to extract that moment of grip out of a tyre” made the critical difference to Perez against the clock. This required extra emphasis because the RB19’s in-race strength came from not overheating rear tyres, but at a cost of both axles being hard to warm in qualifying. Horner reckoned Verstappen’s unwavering “confidence” was critical here, too.

“He has hit new levels,” Horner adds of Verstappen’s overall performance in 2023. “If you look at some of the races, the control that he has, the way he’s reading races, the tyre management – outstanding.  

“And he’s just using the experience that he’s gleaned from racing this year, last year, 2021. In many respects, take first corners – he’s been absolutely more reserved than in the earlier days of his career. His timing has been excellent. The way he’s played out races – he’s not rushed to get it all done in the first couple of laps, he’s built his way through a race.” 

"I wouldn’t want to have an engineer who is very monotone or just says ‘copy… check that’. You need a bit of fire. That’s how I like to operate" Max Verstappen

On this, Verstappen recognised early that the RB19’s slippery nature, allied with that tyre-preserving excellence, meant he was “quite careful in my way moving back forwards”, in the events where he had to battle back. This included his Jeddah fightback from his Q2 driveshaft issue and “because it was a lot about just collecting points”. 

But he also saw how “some drivers didn’t make it too difficult because they know that I’m coming through anyway, so it just ruins their race as well if they start fighting”. “That’s also a smart way of going about it,” Verstappen adds. 

He was also patient in his willingness to adapt his approach to whatever Red Bull needed to get that best tyre performance – such as fielding slightly bigger wings on the long straights at Monza and in Las Vegas, both where Ferrari was so close to winning. 

“It’s about being able to adapt to certain situations or what the car likes as well,” he explains. “Throughout the year, the team also applies upgrades to the car to make it faster. Not to try and follow a certain balance direction or whatever.” 

The Dutch driver also spent the year rewriting the F1 record book

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The Dutch driver also spent the year rewriting the F1 record book

Thanks to their utter superiority, the 2023 season was starved of compelling narratives by the Red Bull/Verstappen combo. Thankfully, they provided a bonus from the inside: the many withering team radio exchanges between the world champion and Lambiase. So, did Verstappen need to be cut down by his race engineer to achieve his best levels in this crushingly dominant year?

“Yes, it’s how the relationship works,” he replies. “I would be very… not upset, but I wouldn’t want to have an engineer who is very monotone or just says ‘copy… check that’. You need a bit of fire. That’s how I like to operate.” 

PLUS: The hidden joy in Verstappen's 1000 F1 laps led record

How F1 will be hoping that some outside opposition provides that fire to Verstappen in 2024.

Every F1 record Verstappen broke in 2023

Most wins in a season: 19 
Highest percentage of wins in a season: 86.4% 
Most wins in succession: 10 
Most wins from pole: 12 
Most pole, win, fastest lap hat-tricks: 6  
Most points in a season: 575 
Most GP laps led in a season: 1003 
Highest percentage of laps led in a season: 75.7% 
Most podiums in a season: 21 
Biggest points gap to second in the championship: 290 
Most GPs left when the title was sealed: 6 
Highest percentage points difference between first and second: 49.6% (Perez’s score as a percentage of Verstappen’s) 
First driver to win three world championship races in one country in one season: USA 

 
Can anyone stop Verstappen in 2024?

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

Can anyone stop Verstappen in 2024?

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