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When did you last watch a Formula One race where you watched the final lap begin without knowing who would win?
Actually, let me correct that.
When did you last watch an F1 race where you watched the first lap and didn’t know who would win?
Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But at times, it’s felt like that through Max Verstappen’s record-breaking, spectacular domination of F1, winning 10 races in a row and 12 of the first 14 this year. Practice on Friday, qualify on Saturday, and watch Max win on Sunday. Rinse, repeat.
Singapore tore up the script. As Red Bull went off the boil, it opened the door for one of the chasing pack to scoop up a rare victory.
Any team rupturing Red Bull’s perfect season would have been a big story. But Singapore’s thrilling, open fight for victory was a needed tonic for F1. With five laps to go, four cars from three teams were covered by two seconds — and no one knew who would win it, even entering the very last lap.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz had McLaren’s Lando Norris and the Mercedes pair of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton filling his mirrors in the dying embers of the race, meaning the slightest mistake would have enormous consequences. It was something Russell, who set up the late fight by gambling on strategy with a second pit stop to go on a late charge with fresh tires, found out to his cost after a glance of the wall caused him to crash on the last lap. Sainz, meanwhile, reaped the rewards of a tactical, clever drive to become F1’s first non-Red Bull winner since November last year, soaking up the late pressure to cross the line 0.8 seconds ahead of Norris.
Singapore’s finish provided an intensity that’s been missing for most of F1’s season. Verstappen and Red Bull have done a remarkable job. Still, when you have a team — and, importantly, a driver within said team — operating on a higher level, it skews the competitive picture. Nobody can get close.
It has meant the race for the win has rarely gone down to the last five laps. We had the late chaos in Australia and the rain in Monaco that nearly caught out Red Bull, but otherwise, Verstappen has been able to cruise home at most races, often leading by 20 seconds or more.
It has denied us the late jeopardy that can make sport so compelling. Seeing a game go down to the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or the bottom of the ninth keeps us on the edge of our seats. It also lends itself to moments of brilliance or drama.
The same is true in F1. Fans fondly recall Kimi Raikkonen’s last-lap pass on Giancarlo Fisichella at Suzuka in 2005 to clinch victory from 17th on the grid, Hamilton’s move on Timo Glock at the final corner on the final lap of the final race of the season to win his maiden F1 title in 2008, or Daniel Ricciardo’s late charge in China five years ago. Those are the moments that, while rare, remained etched on F1 history.
Realistically, we know things will return to normal at Suzuka this weekend. Red Bull’s struggles on Singapore’s street track are unlikely to translate to a more permanent circuit that should bring out the best of the RB19 car once again. Plans for Verstappen’s coronation as a three-time world champion, on course to take place in Qatar, can continue.
But Sunday can give us hope that one day, the close, multi-team battle that made Singapore such a thrilling race will be what we get every time in F1.
F1 lives in cycles of dominance. Before Red Bull, it was Mercedes; before that, it was Red Bull again. It’s rare to get proper competition between multiple teams that is long-lasting.
F1’s new regulations for 2022 were always intended to bring the field closer together by being more prescriptive in the technical designs of the cars. Looking at the fine margins that have separated Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin this year, there’s a good argument to say it did precisely that — Red Bull is simply an outlier, just out of reach. Take the team’s advantage away, and F1 has the close competition it has yearned for.
“If Red Bull weren’t here, I would have had two race wins already!” joked Norris after Sunday’s race. “The battles for the rest of the positions, I think, would have been incredible: many different winners every season.”
Sainz said if the four chasing teams — Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin — could find the handful of tenths missing to Red Bull, “the racing this year would be incredible, and it would be eight drivers fighting for wins, a bit like we saw today with four or five guys out there fighting for a win around a street track.
“So it just shows the potential F1 has to create an incredible show,” he continued. “But it’s true that if Red Bull have nailed the car this year, and they were doing such an amazing job, they deserve to win everything that they’re winning.
“Obviously (I’m) dreaming a bit about what F1 could be if we would all catch them up a bit.”
As a cycle of F1 car regulations matures, and teams work out the best designs, there is always a natural convergence. We’re seeing that happen already in 2023 as most teams follow Red Bull’s downwash sidepod concept, with Ferrari and Mercedes abandoning their own design routes earlier this year. That can lead to significant steps forward, like the ones made by Aston Martin over the winter into this year or McLaren through this season.
Add the effect of the cost cap, which limits the spending of all teams on their cars, plus the sliding scale of aerodynamic test time in the wind tunnel depending on championship position. The field should close up over time.
How long will it take? That’s harder to know. Charles Leclerc said at Zandvoort that he feared it might not happen until 2026, when F1 will overhaul the regulations again, and new power units will be introduced. And as we often see at the start of a new rule cycle, the team that gets it right can lock in an advantage that is hard to whittle away. Hamilton has noted for a few months that Red Bull is likely to be a long way ahead with its car design for 2024, its advantage allowing it to shift development focus earlier than its rivals.
For a couple of hours in Singapore, we got an exciting look at what F1’s future could be: multiple drivers and teams battling at the front right to the end of the race. We want to see the aggressive overtakes, the clever DRS tactics, and the bold strategies to try and win the race while risking going bust.
There’s no guarantee we’ll get that more regularly next year or even the year after. But Sunday was a refreshing reminder of F1 at its very best. The more of that, the better.
(Lead photo of Carlos Sainz: Clive Mason/Getty Images)