Formula 1 fans might be starting to run out of excuses

Max Verstappen actually being challenged in Formula 1 isn't what many expected in 2024, yet he continues to rise to the very challenge fans wanted.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Lando Norris, McLaren, Formula 1
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Lando Norris, McLaren, Formula 1 / Clive Rose/GettyImages

Nobody was supposed to be able to challenge Red Bull and Max Verstappen during the 2024 Formula 1 season after the way the season started.

Verstappen entered the year on a seven-race winning streak and with wins in 17 of the 18 most recent races, and early returns indicated that the RB20 was a continuation of the RB19. Verstappen won a record-breaking 19 out of 22 races in 2023, breaking his own record of 15 wins in the RB18 from the previous year.

But several teams and drivers have closed the gap. At one point, three different teams won during a stretch of three races. Ferrari teammates Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc as well as McLaren's Lando Norris have all stood atop the podium through the season's first 10 races.

Yet a contingent of fans are still trying to come up with excuses for the fact that the three-time reigning world champion has been able to win seven of the season's first 10 races and open up his lead in the world championship.

And it's not just fans; it's the mainstream media. Everybody knows about Sky Sports' relative bias, but it seems that every week, it's nothing but doom and gloom regarding the 26-year-old Dutchman and the Milton Keynes-based team in various other publications.

Though that "downfall" is definitely more played up nowadays, it's reminiscent of certain weekends of Mercedes domination from 2014 to 2020. It certainly never stopped Lewis Hamilton from winning.

"It's lights out and away we go, Norris gets a decent start!", all while the McLaren driver dropped from the lead to third place before the corner, was just the latest hint of bias from the company that owns the rights to the Formula 1 broadcasts.

Funny enough, it wasn't even Verstappen who took the lead. It was Mercedes' George Russell. And they can wonder all they want about how the race would have gone if Norris didn't lose the lead at the start. But the fact is that Verstappen made quick work of Russell in the ensuing laps and Norris needed a full pit cycle to do so.

Norris dominating another Driver of the Day vote, despite falling short in a clearly quicker McLaren, is also somewhat intriguing.

He is clearly the second best driver on current form, which is no small feat. In 2021, it was Verstappen vs. Hamilton. In 2022, Ferrari's Charles Leclerc was the main challenger. In 2023, several individuals convinced themselves that teammate Sergio Perez was the world championship favorite. In fact, he was the betting favorite to take the points lead at one stage.

Now Norris has emerged as that biggest threat. Yet even in what has been, for the last several races, a faster race car, the McLaren driver has finished runner-up behind Verstappen in three of the four most recent events.

Verstappen has become the Patrick Mahomes of Formula 1. Guys get more praise for almost beating him than he does for consistently beating them. He is exactly who fans want his rivals to become.

In some respect, it makes sense. As much as we may think of Verstappen as the "next big thing", he went from "next" to "now" a while ago. Only Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have more career wins, and Verstappen, world championship leader and three-time reigning world champion, is still 26 years old.

Formula 1 fans wanted this. Now they got it, and some are still coming up with excuses.

Verstappen has never hid his relative lack of affinity for the fame associated with Formula 1. He simply wants to compete, he wants to win, and he wants to enjoy his personal life. And it's obvious that that approach goes beyond just talk.

With that comes a relative lack of care when it comes to what is written or said about him, something he has discussed with Beyond the Flag before.

“Just keep on doing what I had been doing before and know who the important people are to you in terms of the team – close people," Verstappen said.

"You know, at the end of the day, what people write about you, that shouldn’t really upset you or put you off, because it’s very important to be working with the people who actually can make a difference in terms of your performance.”

With seven wins in 10 races during a season that has been as competitive as any in recent memory, it's clear that that approach is paying off.

The 2024 season has made clear that "Red Bull domination" is not entirely responsible for Verstappen's success. The driver, as he has since joining the team in 2016, continues to make the difference.

And in an era, specifically a season, in which it's been as challenging as it's ever been to do that, given the ultra-narrow margins at the sharp end of the grid, he continues to rise to the top.

Does it guarantee future success for himself or the team? Of course not. But though his 70% win percentage isn't quite as high as it was last year, his own performance has exceeded what he achieved last year, given how he has managed to pull off a lot of his recent victories against quicker cars.

In the last four races, teammate Sergio Perez has an average starting position of 13.5 and an average finish of 13th place.

He is consistently being beaten by drivers who compete for mid-pack and backmarker teams, all while his teammate continues to run at the front and win races in a car that is nowhere near as strong as last year's challenger. As a result, he has dropped several positions in the standings.

Fans are promised on a weekly basis that the Verstappen era of domination is over, yet only one driver has more than one race this year, and that driver has won 14 of the 17 – and 24 of the 28 – most recent races.

But even if Verstappen wouldn't be as dominant as he is now with another team, he would still undoubtedly be winning races in the McLaren, Ferrari, or even Mercedes, for the simple reason that he would not be competing against himself at Red Bull.

That goes beyond speculation, given the fact that the Dutchman's four most recent wins have all seen one of those teams finish runner-up. His three most recent wins have all seen two of those teams finish on the podium.

The jury is still out on who the true top-performing team might be, and given the recent parity, maybe there really isn't one.

Just how good are Red Bull, really?

When you look at how Perez has performed in recent weeks, you have to wonder what level of driver it would take to get the team back to a steady position when it comes to a number two driver.

On all-around performance, the team's status as top team is in question. The idea of simply arriving at this team and immediately being able to win races just because the car is fast is not as advertised.

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But the top driver still stands out, and as impressive as Norris has been, that driver is still Verstappen.