Max Verstappen Is The Fun-Killer
9:00 AM EDT on August 29, 2022
I feel like I don't ask for much. I want Ferrari to not be total failures at anything resembling strategy. (Oops.) I want off-track drama, like Fernando Alonso's shock move to Aston Martin. Most of all, though, I want fun races on each of the season's 22 Sundays. Unfortunately for me, Max Verstappen has made it his personal mission to be so dominant as to rob each race of any excitement.
The Formula 1 crazy train rolled into Belgium this past weekend for the 78th running of a Grand Prix at the historic Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, one of the fastest and longest races on the calendar. Thanks to the summer break giving teams a chance to do a lot of tweaks to their set-ups, a handful of drivers headed into Sunday's race with engine-swap penalties that made them start at the back of the grid, sorted by qualifying performance. Those drivers were, in reverse order from their eventual starting point, Mick Schumacher, Zhou Guanyu, Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, and Verstappen, who started in 15th. All of the elements were there for a wild race, with Leclerc and Verstappen especially primed to fight their way up the grid.
That's sort of what happened, except it was less of a fight for Verstappen and more of a relaxing drive in his faux-home Grand Prix (the 24-year-old Dutchman was born Hasselt, Belgium, though he flies the colors of the Netherlands). It took all of eight laps for Verstappen to move from 15th to 3rd, aided slightly by the early retirement of Lewis Hamilton after the Mercedes driver bumped into Alonso on the very first lap.
As Verstappen made his way up the grid, it looked like the drivers between him and the podium were simply letting him go by, as if they were a lap behind. That's not really those drivers' fault; at each of the practices this weekend, as well as Saturday's qualifying, Verstappen was clearly the fastest driver on the grid, driving a Red Bull rocket that is made for a fast track like Spa. Why waste any fuel and tire health to fight him when he has so many advantages, both as a driver and due to the car he's driving?
Once Verstappen got up into third a quarter of the way through the race, it was all done but the crying (for everyone else). He took the lead on lap 12, and came out ahead again after the first round of pit stops, on lap 18. Giving Verstappen the lead not even halfway through a race tuned to his exact strengths is game over, and no one ever got all that close again.
Shortly after taking the lead, Verstappen began to zoom around Spa with no resistance, opening up an eight-second lead at one early point and eventually winning the race by a whopping 18 seconds over his teammate Sergio Pérez, who used Ferrari's fuckery and weaker car to his advantage. The Mexican driver is now in second in the Driver's Championship race, a frankly silly 93 points behind Verstappen with eight races to go. Thanks to a pit penalty that I don't even want to talk about, Charles Leclerc, once the leader for the individual title, is 98 points back.
In other words, barring Verstappen retiring mid-season or the return of Red Bull's engine problems in pretty much every race from here until the end, the drivers' title race is over. Verstappen will almost certainly win his second straight championship, but unlike last year's wild and controversial ending, this one is going to be a sleepwalk to the finish line. It's disappointing as a fan to have this season be submarined by Ferrari's many problems, but more than that, it has been killed off because Verstappen is on another level right now.
In a way, this is what everyone else on the grid faced when Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were at the peak of their respective powers for nearly a decade. Just like back then, this isn't Verstappen's fault or Red Bull's. They for the most part nailed the new regulations introduced this year, and though the Ferrari design has been better on tracks where more downforce is required, the Red Bull appears to be the most versatile car, capable of hanging on in winding tracks and demolishing everyone else in straight line speed. That it has a driver at the helm that is both the best currently on the grid and one of the best young drivers in history only makes this even more of a procession.
There is still intrigue to be had for the remainder of the season. Mercedes' up-and-down season makes them the most interesting of the top teams, while Alpine is getting everything they can out of their car at the top of the midfield. There will continue to be driver market drama, now with Daniel Ricciardo announcing that he will not continue at McLaren next year. Elsewhere, the lower part of the grid has a bunch of potentially open driver seats.
There will be plenty to gossip about from here on out, and thank the racing gods for that, because the actual races at the top feel like they are all rubber-stamped for a Verstappen win. Things happen in Formula 1, and eight races is plenty of time for catastrophe to strike Red Bull, but it hasn't yet, and even if it does, Verstappen's dominance has opened up enough of a gap that it might not matter. It's thrilling to see a driver at the top of his powers doing what Verstappen is doing right now, but it sure would have been more entertaining to see anyone else put some kind of fight.