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F1 Midweek: Max Verstappen Back on Top, Red Bull Team Orders & In Defense of Monaco

The trend continues. Six Grands Prix into the season, and every single time Max Verstappen’s Red Bull-not-a-Honda has been running at the checkered flag, the Dutchman has won the race. 

With his somewhat unexpected victory in Sunday (May 22)’s Spanish Grand Prix capping a string of three consecutive victories, Verstappen has vaulted to the top of the World Championship standings for the first time this season. 

Charles Leclerc, the only other driver to win a Grand Prix in 2022, held a commanding lead for Ferrari in the first third of the race, but his first mechanical issue of the year sent the him back to the paddock heartbreakingly early. 

Yes, Verstappen had to recover from an early gravel trap adventure in turn 4 and pass Mercedes’ George Russell without the full benefits of DRS, but a three-stop strategy from Red Bull and the cooperation of teammate Sergio Perez made a Red Bull 1-2 all but inevitable. That massive points haul put the Austrian energy-drinks outfit to the top of the Constructors Championship as well.

Compared to where they looked after Australia, Verstappen and Red Bull Racing look nigh-on unstoppable. Or do they?

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Leclerc has had the measure of Verstappen in qualifying, with five poles to Verstappen’s zero — except Verstappen has had to bail out of his fastest laps on multiple occasions. Leclerc “should” be even with Verstappen on wins after Spain — except Verstappen retired from both previous races Leclerc won, even if Leclerc had him handled before the retirements.

All that is to say, don’t expect a respite from the F1 Twitter flame wars of 2021. Expect an encore. 

My two cents: between Leclerc and Verstappen, my money is on the defending World Champion. Leclerc is in his first true title fight and he, like his turbo, has shown signs of cracking under the pressure (see his spin in Imola). Verstappen in his first challenge last year came about as close as mathematically possible to losing the title he won. For his second championship challenge this year he has almost certainly learned from the experience. We saw our first glimpse of the older, wiser Verstappen in the DRS gamesmanship that got him the win in Saudi Arabia. 

It does truly seem to be between those two. Neither Mercedes driver appears to have a strong enough car underneath them to mount a challenge this year, and at this point Carlos Sainz and Perez can be relegated to full-time second-driver status. 

On the subject of Perez as second driver, I must mention the role that team orders played in earning Verstappen the victory. On lap 9, as Perez searched for a way past Russell, Red Bull asked Checo to move aside for the faster Verstappen, which he did. 

On lap 48, when Perez held the lead on aging mediums, Red Bull again asked him to move aside for his faster teammate, and Perez obliged. Red Bull pitted Perez again from second, and the two Red Bulls scored a one-two, with Perez scoring the fastest lap to ensure maximum points for the team. 

Team Principal Christian Horner defended the use of team orders to Sky Sports, saying, “it didn’t make sense for the team to let them fight because it was an unfair fight anyway,” citing the pace differential between Perez’s initial two-stop and Verstappen’s three-stop strategy. From Horner and Red Bull’s perspective, the decision proved fruitful, with the aforementioned maximum points haul accompanying the team’s one-two, but fans, especially fans of Perez, may be justifiably upset to have missed out on an intra-team battle for the win. 

This certainly isn’t the most egregious example of team orders in Formula 1 history, that honor must surely go to the one-two punch of Austria and Indianapolis 2002, but the disparity in how Red Bull implement team orders for both drivers is at least raising questions.

After all, Perez was made to let Verstappen by twice, but when Verstappen’s intermittent DRS left him stranded behind George Russell on lap 25, Perez was fast approaching on much fresher Pirellis. He asked the Red Bull team to let him through to attack Russell, and they didn’t. Of course, Verstappen pitted almost immediately afterwards, Perez soon dispatched Russell and vanished into the distance, and Verstappen won the race anyway. 

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Horner was proven right by the points haul for Red Bull, and I can’t fault him for making any decision leading to that result, no matter how badly I want the former midfield tire-whisperer given a fair shake at the pointy end of the grid. It is a bit of a shame, though, that front-running teammates haven’t really been able to fight one another since Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes from 2014-2016. 

There is far too much on the line for any change in team policy to be implemented on the basis of what is fair. I can’t imagine Verstappen, Leclerc or Hamilton protesting a penalty leveled against a rival as Stirling Moss once did. It isn’t 1958 anymore. But to those of us for whom team politics soured the epic Mercedes-Red Bull back-and-forth of 2021, it isn’t hard to see how team bosses’ political doublespeak around the question of No. 2 drivers is disingenuous and infuriating. With Leclerc and Verstappen so handily having the edge over their teammates and the rest of the grid at the moment, that doesn’t seem likely to change.

I’d like to finish off this edition of F1 Midweek with a look forward towards this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, which has become in recent years one of the more controversial events on the F1 calendar. 

Yes, Monaco doesn’t pay nearly the same hosting fees as some of the newer Grands Prix. Yes, Formula E puts on a better show whenever they’re allowed use of the full track, and yes, there hasn’t been a lead change since 2017. With everyone and their mother clamoring for a Grand Prix (and a flashy new street circuit to go with it), it seems as if the world’s fastest parade might not be long for this world. 

With its self-serious pomp and circumstance, astonishingly flashy displays of wealth and old-money aristocratic flavor that sub-textually scream “do you know who my father is,” F1 isn’t F1 unless it races in Monaco, and Monaco isn’t Monaco unless it hosts F1. Any attempt to duplicate the magic of F1’s flagship event will feel as artificial as the water in the marina at the Miami Grand Prix. F1 losing the Monaco Grand Prix would be like shortening Le Mans to twelve hours, moving the Indy 500 to the road course, or adding overtime rules to the Kentucky Derby.

The racing is bad, the qualifying is usually epic, but none of that really matters. Monaco isn’t about the show, it’s about the performers and their audience. The world’s fastest parade is an apt description. It’s a parade celebrating the fact that F1 has enough sway to take over an entire country. 

Of course smaller cars would massively improve the competitiveness of the race, as would a change in the Nouvelle Chicane to try and create an overtaking zone on the back half of the lap. IndyCar develops its aero package specifically for its crown-jewel event, there’s no reason to think F1 couldn’t try something with the tires to introduce pit strategy to the race in some way. 

But hell, if you want to see a crown-jewel race that any driver on the grid could win, just watch the Indianapolis 500 a couple hours later. Pairing Monaco with the Indy 500 (and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 after that) not only creates the single greatest day of motorsports viewing in the calendar year, but it also relieves some of the pressure on Monaco to be something it isn’t.

With three crown-jewel races that don’t overlap, the Monaco Grand Prix doesn’t have to be the absolute greatest race of all time. It just has to be the F1-iest, and in that way it succeeds on all counts. 

Those special few who get to see Grand Prix weekend from inside the Principality? They are submerged in Formula 1 up to their eyeballs. Fans at home get, for just 90 or so minutes each year, a window into that. The Monaco Grand Prix is F1’s homecoming, an event that delivers F1 at its most concentrated. It is a celebration of all the things that make F1 unique among racing series, for better or worse, and F1 couldn’t replace it with an event that so honestly represents itself. 

So this year, watch the Monaco Grand Prix like it’s meant to be watched. Have a mimosa or two, and only pay half attention while you try and explain DRS to your F1 newbie friends while they ooh and ahh about how close the cars get to the wall. 

The Monaco Grand Prix begins Sunday May 9th at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN.

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Tom B

A great write up Jack.

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