If this Formula 1 season was a whodunnit, the publishers would be demanding a fresh draft given that the killer has already been unveiled less than a quarter of the way through. The extrapolation of what we have seen in five races so far this season is that Max Verstappen will be the 2023 champion with Sergio Perez runner-up and the rest only visible in the distance with a space telescope.
The Red Bulls are operating in a different league which is good for them but bad for F1. It is all very well admiring brilliance – of design and of driving – but what makes sport gripping is competition and the occupants of the RB19 currently do not have any.
What this story needs – as the circus arrives in Europe – is a twist, which is why so much attention will be on the upgrade promised by Mercedes for Imola. Will something be unveiled which will stop the rampage of the Red Bulls?
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff has played down suggestions that they will be able to wipe out the gap in Imola but George Russell and Lewis Hamilton – and plenty of neutrals – will be desperately hoping they have come up with something. Hamilton knows from personal experience that while the magic upgrade is rare it is possible.
In 2009 he was chugging around forlornly for half the season in a McLaren with all the oomph of a Trabant while Williams, Toyota and most effectively of all Brawn GP, with Jenson Button reeling off the victories, were in double diffuser heaven. After a spectacular mid-race rant from Hamilton at the Turkish Grand Prix, McLaren jumped on the downforce design bandwagon and in the upgraded car, the Brit went on to win twice and take three more podium finishes that season.
Mercedes need a similar turnaround now. If that means swallowing their pride and coming up with a car that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Red Bull and its advanced aerodynamics, so be it. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it is what they should have done at the end of last season. Hamilton asked them to.
Instead, they doubled down on their own dud design and look where it has got them – fourth and sixth in the drivers’ standings for Hamilton and Russell respectively and behind Aston Martin, with Fernando Alonso heading their charge, in the constructors’ championship. Red Bull and Christian Horner must be finding it hard to keep a straight face.
The Red Bull boss could not help himself after his team’s fourth one-two of the season in Miami last time out. “Where did Ferrari and Mercedes go?” he asked. It is not unusual in F1 for there to be a superior marque – it seems like only yesterday that everyone was bemoaning the dominance of Mercedes – but this is a different-level crushing operation. Even Perez looks like a world-beater in the Red Bull – or at least he did until Verstappen delivered a schooling to him from ninth place on the grid in Florida.
Verstappen’s DRS pace was such that it only took him 16 laps to climb to second place in that race. When the advantage is so big it renders qualifying – and any mishaps or misfortune therein – almost irrelevant. If the defending world champion had started last in Miami he would still have won. So Imola this week and the big Mercedes reveal is a major deal – if only to keep the best driver in F1 honest.
So far Red Bull have won all five races. If nothing changes, they could win the next 18 as well to become the first team in history to record a clean sweep. But much as there is a historical resonance in the perfect season, in reality, it is the last thing F1 needs.
It is all very well having scraps in the middle of the field but it is at its head which is what will be remembered.This year is resembling a procession so far. For the sake of the season, here’s hoping for a silver bullet from the Silver Arrows.