Coming off of four consecutive first-place finishes, it was surprising when Max Verstappen and his seemingly unstoppable Formula 1 Red Bull Racing car were not on pole position in Monza, Italy during Saturday’s qualifying race. Instead, rival and top challenger for the championship Charles Leclerc raced home with a time of 1:20.161, besting Verstappen’s time by two-tenths of a second.
While he would still be front row on Sunday, fans and members of the media have gotten used to seeing “Super Max” line up on pole each and every weekend. Charles Leclerc, on the other hand, had been in the midst of a so-called “slump.” After winning two of the first three Grand Prix, it seemed as if this would finally be the year the Monacan driver would challenge for a world championship. But various setbacks, including poor tactical decisions by the strategy team, mistakes by Leclerc himself and just plain old bad luck, have all stopped him from reaching those heights.
This pole position was the first time the Ferrari car had been competitive in recent races. These previous mishaps allowed Verstappen to pull ahead in the championship, but a victory for Leclerc at Ferrari’s home race in Monza would do him wonders. Would this be the moment that Ferrari would weasel themselves back into the title fight?
No, it would not. Even though Leclerc looked dangerous on Saturday, it was clear the Italian team could not match the overall race pace of Verstappen and Red Bull. Verstappen led from the 13th lap onward (aside from one pit stop) and cruised to a steady victory that unfortunately finished behind the safety car.
With the victory, Verstappen added 25 points to his championship total, extending his lead over Leclerc to 116 points. With six races remaining, I think it’s fair to say the 2022 F1 championship should be in the bag. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Max Verstappen will be a two-time champion, and the Red Bull Racing team should be the first team not named Mercedes to win the constructors championship in eight years.
Leclerc’s last shot at the title with his second-place finish in Monza is only possible if Verstappen records several DNFs and poor performances in the remaining races. However, with the consistency Verstappen and his engineers have shown over the season, it seems unlikely to happen.
At this point, even Leclerc has acknowledged it will be difficult to catch Red Bull. With the point gap in the standings, it makes more sense for Ferrari to regroup and make sure simple mental mistakes that have plagued them all season are solved before 2023.
While Leclerc’s struggles have been prominent in the media, Verstappen has quietly gone about his business, producing quality performance after quality performance. Compared to last year’s nail-biting finish, with Verstappen controversially passing seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the final race, this season has been nothing but smooth sailing for the Dutchman.
While Hamilton and Russell are competing for points, what’s helping Verstappen’s case is that he has almost the perfect teammate in Sergio Perez. While Checo, as he is called on the grid, is a quality driver himself, he is perfectly content with playing second fiddle to Verstappen. That means instead of directly competing with another driver, all race decisions are made to ensure Verstappen finishes as high up the grid as possible.
This Formula 1 season has been an almost passing of the torch of sorts. Gone from the top of the standings are the incumbent Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso; it is a new generation led by Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell. Verstappen has been the first of this new generation to take a step into the championship realm. Is there anyone that can challenge him for his throne?