Max Verstappen is heading into the 2023 F1 season as a two-time F1 World Champion. The Dutchman has risen to prominence ever since Red Bull provided him with a car capable of fighting for the title.
The 2021 F1 season saw him fight an intense championship battle with Lewis Hamilton from the very first race. The two drivers had a public falling out after the incident at Silverstone. What followed was a retaliation of sorts from Verstappen in Monza, where the two drivers once again collided. It all came down to the wire as the championship was ultimately decided on the last lap of the season (thanks to Michael Masi!). In the eyes of many, the 2021 F1 season featured a title battle that would go down as one of the best in the history of the sport.
Then in 2022, Verstappen's season started with a stutter. Two DNFs in the first three races meant that the Red Bull driver had no margin for error. Fortunately for him, Ferrari imploded big time as it suffered from reliability and strategic issues. The Dutchman, on his part, never faltered and was able to ultimately cruise to a title.
Coming into the 2023 F1 season, Max Verstappen is looking at arguably his toughest title battle yet. Here's why:
#1 Red Bull handicapped by the penalty
We can lionize any driver we want, but at the end of the day, one key fact that does not change is the importance of the car. Max Verstappen has been in F1 since 2015 and he's been with Red Bull since 2016. It was only in 2021 that he could win or even fight for the title. This is not because the driver was just not good enough to compete for the title, but rather because he just did not have a car capable of fighting for the title.
This season, owing to the team's cost cap breach in 2021, Red Bull is on the back foot. The team already had lesser development time because it was the constructors' champion in 2022 but the further 10% reduction is going to hurt the team big time.
Neither Ferrari nor Mercedes was miles behind Red Bull at the end of the 2022 F1 season. With an added year of knowledge of the ground effect cars, and enough time for Ferrari to work on its reliability issues, the two teams can close the gap or even leapfrog Red Bull.
It doesn't matter how good you are, it's very difficult to win a title in a slower car. This is exactly the fate that might await Verstappen this season.
#2 It is going to be a 4-way battle
Looking at the development trajectory, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the trio of Red Bull, Mercedes, and Ferrari running cars that are relatively similar in terms of performance levels. If that happens, we're looking at the mouth-watering prospects of three teams and arguably four drivers (Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lewis Hamilton, and George Russell) fighting it out for the title.
Now, Max Verstappen has been involved in intense title battles, like the one against Lewis Hamilton. However, having as many as three different contenders to compete with, all of them supremely talented and not to be taken lightly, is something quite difficult.
Moreover, the fact that Red Bull might not be the best machinery on the grid, will keep Verstappen's hands full this season when it comes to defending his title.
#3 The target is on Max Verstappen's back now
For almost the entire turbo-hybrid era, Lewis Hamilton was the man to beat. He was fast, he had a great car under him, and most importantly, was the most accomplished. In the last two seasons, Max Verstappen has taken Hamilton's spot. The Red Bull driver is now clearly the best driver on the grid. He broke a ridiculous number of records last season and is the reigning F1 champion.
When you do that, all the attention turns towards you. From now on, everyone wants to beat you and become the best driver on the grid. Be it George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, or even Lewis Hamilton at this stage, they all want to take on the challenge of being a "Max Verstappen-beater". When that happens, you tend to see these drivers focusing more on you and in the end, this could work against you, especially in an ultra-close title battle.