Our writers pick their best drivers and favourite stories from 2023 – as well as who needs to up their game in 2024
The 2023 season was an exhilarating spectacle and our experts, who have covered every minute of action, have been looking back on an incredible year of racing. We put Will Buxton, Lawrence Barretto, Chris Medland, Mark Hughes, David Tremayne and Jolyon Palmer on the spot as they reflect on the entire year before looking ahead to 2024.
Who were the top five drivers of 2023? (in order)
Chris Medland, Special Contributor: Max Verstappen – Just incredible consistency and race craft throughout the year. Obviously, you need the car to do that, but the way he adapted to it after the first four races was so impressive. Fernando Alonso – Similarly took every opportunity going early on in the year, and while the car performance tailed off, his ability to maximise its potential didn’t as his stunning drive against Sergio Perez in Brazil showed. Lando Norris – Nearly pipped Alonso to P2 for me but for a few qualifying errors. Norris looked like the main driver capable of worrying Verstappen for much of the second part of the year and so often overcame those Saturday mistakes with strong race recoveries. Lewis Hamilton – Qualifying was still a bit up and down but then the car appeared temperamental all year long, and Hamilton delivered some excellent race performances despite that. Had no right to worry Sergio Perez for second in the drivers’ championship. Alex Albon – Didn’t always have the car to grab big results but took full advantage of his opportunities whenever he did have the machinery, and very rarely made mistakes even during the tougher weekends. Extremely consistent even when the Williams car wasn’t.
David Tremayne, Hall of Fame F1 Journalist: Max Verstappen, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Charles Leclerc, and Alex Albon. And if you want to know why, in order, I’d say: Verstappen – domination previously unseen; Norris – brutal personal candour allied to silky smooth speed; Alonso – speed and aggression are undimmed by the advancing years; Leclerc – still has the speed when the car isn’t sulking and is just a thoroughly decent bloke; and Albon drove the wheels off the seventh best car every time he got in it.
Lawrence Barretto, F1 Correspondent & Presenter: Max Verstappen was so good this year, he wasn’t just the best this season but arguably the best ever. Lando Norris was P2 for me, proving once again he’s a future race winner and title contender, with Alex Albon completing my podium after wringing the neck of that Williams. Lewis Hamilton did the best he could with the Mercedes to grab my P4 with Carlos Sainz – the only non-Red Bull winner in 2023 - closing out the top-five.
Will Buxton, F1 Digital Presenter: Verstappen, Norris, Alonso, Leclerc, and Hamilton.
Mark Hughes, Special Contributor: Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, and Lewis Hamilton.
Jolyon Palmer, Special Contributor: Verstappen – No doubt about this one. What a season, absolutely impeccable. He’s flattened the opposition to the point nobody even thinks it’s worth fighting him anymore. Incredible skill and consistency. Alonso – What a story to see Fernando battling regularly at the front, and at 42 he didn’t look rusty in the slightest. Some superb race performances early on and even as Aston Martin tailed off he salvaged a one off podium in Brazil, with some trademark Alonso determination. Norris – Once McLaren sorted their car out Norris looked like a potential champion once again. Somehow not a race winner yet in Formula 1, had it not been the year of Max he might have claimed a hatful this year. This was Lando’s true breakout season.
Hamilton – Finishing in the top three of the championship was a superb result for Lewis, ending best of the rest. He’s proved he’s still got the ability to put a season together like the champion he is, ending comfortably clear of the chasing pack with an extremely consistent campaign. Leclerc – Once the Ferrari car was able to give Charles what he wanted with the Japan update he was back to his best. Phenomenally quick, much more consistent and he found some decent race pace as well at times. Encouraging for next year.
What was the best individual performance of 2023?
CM: Pretty much Verstappen’s entire season aside – and Singapore actually stood out as particularly impressive to me – I’m going with Alex Albon in Canada. The team brought an upgrade and a new power unit as it felt it was its big chance, and on a track where it’s not that hard to overtake – but in a car that was tough to pass – he withstood race-long pressure from quicker cars to secure P7. Carlos Sainz in Singapore and Oscar Piastri in Qatar also get honourable mentions.
DT: Fernando in Brazil. And Checo. They put on a fantastic display of what motor racing should be all about, running wheel-to-wheel without resorting to cheap or questionable tactics, and provided wonderful entertainment. Fernando did a superb job all season to demonstrate that age is just a number, and the way he won third place back – and how Checo came so close to grabbing it from him once again on the finish line and lost out by just 0.053s – is something I pray we’ll see a lot more of in 2024.
LB: Verstappen’s lap for pole in Monaco was something else. He was 0.2s down with one sector to go but knitted together an incredible final few corners to rob Fernando Alonso of the top spot. It was a phenomenal effort and one of the all-time great qualifying laps.
WB: Liam Lawson's Grand Prix debut came in the most unfavourable of circumstances. With just one wet practice session to get up to speed it was little surprise to see him qualify last although he admitted to not pushing quite as hard as he might after a small spin in his only practice session. His race in wet dry conditions was fantastic, finishing ahead of his teammate and showing sensational racecraft, and all after spending the opening laps with his drinks bottle tube having positioned itself up his nose. He'd had no time in an F1 car for half a year and had spent most of the season's sim work on the RB19. He was given the most complicated of opportunities, but he shone.
MH: I think it may have been Verstappen in Miami when he clawed back his eight-place starting disadvantage to Perez and just ground him down.
JP: Has to be Carlos Sainz in Singapore. The one race that Red Bull weren’t in contention for and it was a wide open fight for who could take the spoils. Two Ferraris, two Mercedes and Lando Norris all in contention but a perfectly managed race from Sainz claimed it. This was a brilliant example of a thinking driver claiming the most calculated of victories. The DRS train was a nice idea, but to execute it in that fashion was incredible.
What was your favourite story of 2023?
CM: McLaren’s turnaround. Aston probably had this section covered at the halfway stage but then McLaren’s huge leap forward edged it out. To do that mid-season, but more importantly identify and introduce such a massive performance step gives hope to the whole grid (outside of Red Bull), and it also helped a talented rookie shine too.
DT: As a corollary to that aforementioned fight between Fernando and Checo in Interlagos, my favourite story of 2023 was the way in which the latter was still stoked even though ultimately he had lost the place, and the way in which they embraced afterwards – in the style of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in Dijon back in 1979 – in the sheer joy that such close yet clean competition engenders. Both will tell you that is what they believe racing really means.
LB: Yuki Tsunoda seriously impressed me in 2023. His first five races were ruthlessly consistent, scoring twice and finishing 11th three times in a car that was ninth fastest at best. He was the rock AlphaTauri needed this year. He fended off the challenge of Nyck de Vries, was a match for Liam Lawson and outshone Daniel Ricciardo, ending the year with three points finishes in five events. He’s not quite knocking in Red Bull promotion territory yet but he’s finally showing what he’s capable of and is certainly closer to a step up than he’s ever been.
WB: McLaren's rise. Let's not beat around the bush, they were ninth fastest at best in testing with a car that was as unreliable as it was slow. Expectations had to be put on hold in a car whose development had been stopped before the season had even begun, design team uprooted, and a new path set. What the team achieved over the course of 2023 was nothing short of miraculous. A brilliant story of getting your head down and making the seemingly impossible possible.
MH: Fernando Alonso proving that 42 is no age at all.
JP: It’s always fun when a rookie comes into Formula 1 and looks like the real deal in their debut season, and Oscar Piastri did just that. Winning a sprint race, taking podiums, and generally looking super quick. As one of the most hyped rookies in a long time, it was nice to see that promise delivered on track.
What shocked you the most in 2023?
CM: Red Bull and Verstappen’s consistency. Yes, the car was rapid, but the average qualifying advantage of under 0.3s and race winning margin of just over 10 seconds shows it wasn’t always in a different league, but beautifully maximised from a driver, team, and strategy perspective. From the first-round questions about winning all the races were asked and I was one who firmly dismissed the idea given the length of the calendar and all of the different conditions and factors that would be thrown at them, but to come so close to sweeping the season is remarkable.
DT: I’m too old to be shocked by much in F1 these days. Annoyed, more likely. I’d say all the fuss about drivers’ behaviour; and the spitefulness of some of the coverage of the problem with the errant water valve cover on the first day in Vegas. If you stopped to consider that it took only two years to take the Las Vegas Grand Prix from concept to completed event – something which many people present did not take the trouble to do in all the hoopla – you shouldn’t have failed to be impressed. Suggestions that people such as Tim Mayer were more interested in a fast buck than safety were downright offensive.
LB: I wasn’t expecting Aston Martin – and in particular Fernando Alonso – to be so strong. To score five podiums in the first six races was monstrous for both parties. To then recover from a mid-season slump to give McLaren a run for their money for P4 – a position that looked lost after a woeful performance in the Asian swing – showed real grit. Billionaire Lawrence Stroll will still be a long way from being happy – but this was a massive step in the right direction.
WB: Aston's drop. When one considers what the team had achieved over the winter and the advantage they held over their new front running rivals in terms of their larger developmental opportunities given their seventh-place finish in 2022, the opportunity for genuine giant killing seemed high. But missteps along the way robbed them and us of something really special. The tyre blunder in Monaco seems even more unfathomable in hindsight than it did at the time, but the real shock was just how wrong they got their development, and all from a team who history shows us have got so many of those calls spot on when they weren't furnished with a big budget.
MH: In a good way, Oscar Piastri's performance in qualifying on his first visit to Suzuka.
JP: Red Bull. The pace and the consistency was just incredible. They didn’t do the unbeaten season, but they were so close and, aside from Singapore, they didn’t look like they might be beaten at any point. To have that level of dominance over 22 races and only miss one beat is something anybody will struggle to replicate ever.
What made you laugh the hardest?
CM: It's a bit of a plug, but when we filmed the ‘Rookies Reunited’ feature with Lando, George and Alex in Spa. This year was five years on from their F2 title fight and their F1 careers have all taken such different routes since then, but they were all on great form joking with each other and laughing about moments in their past. Even when George forgot that Alex had been dropped and wasn’t racing when he qualified third and Lando took his first pole position in Sochi in 2021…
DT: Now there’s an interesting question! At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I’m not sure that there was a lot that made me laugh in 2023. It was all a bit too predictable for that.
LB: Watching our recurring F1 Animated series. Animator Nick Murray Willis’ takes on the best moments of the season are hilarious. I challenge you to watch it and not have a permanent smile on your face.
WB: Fred Vasseur. For a man who has one of the highest pressure jobs in world sport, his ability to smile, laugh, and push away the stresses that would make even the most hardened team manager crack were more than simply admirable. He's brought something unique to Ferrari that it has lacked throughout its recent history – possibly for its entire existence. Levity, humour, and an ability to soak up the pressure on behalf of his team. His interactions with us in the press never leave you in any doubt as to his seriousness or ability to get the job done, but the way in which he carries himself and the light touch with which he deals with every situation is a breath of fresh air.
MH: It's always Yuki Tsunoda. I just love his turn of phrase. He still hasn't bettered 'traffic paradise' though.
JP: Alonso’s radio early in the season was comical. Coaching Stroll from the cockpit, congratulating him on some great moves, and then shepherding him home to a sixth place finish in Barcelona – the only time I’ve seen Alonso not be up for the fight on track in 20 years. Someone was keen to make an impression at Aston Martin!
Who needs to do better in 2024?
CM: The American contingent. Starting with Haas, the grid is as competitive as ever but it’s just looking tough to see any real momentum to prevent another P10 finish in 2024. They’re keeping the same structure and approach but others are investing massively, so the current set-up will need to deliver a stronger car. And Logan Sargeant showed solid progress late in his rookie season and deserves a chance to build on that, but he will need to show this year’s experience will lead to improved performances to solidify his spot on the grid.
DT: Sergio Perez is the obvious answer here, though perhaps it’s a little unfair to keep banging that well-played drum. The real answer, in terms of improving the show, is Mercedes and Ferrari. Red Bull should be applauded rather than denigrated for doing far and away the best job, and for everyone’s sake beyond Milton Keynes we’d better pray that their principal rivals have got their heads around much better car concepts and their digits firmly extracted.
LB: Mercedes and Ferrari. Both entered this season with high hopes of challenging Red Bull and instead, they were even further back than they were last year. The two teams have already said they are changing their concept for next year, in a bid to close the gap, and need to make significant progress over the winter.
WB: Logan Sargeant has to do more to show he is not simply keeping the seat warm for Kimi Antonelli should the Mercedes junior's F2 season (having skipped F3) prove to be half as impressive as expected. Haas, too, feel like a team in need of a shakeup. Their strategy of a few key upgrades, the most pivotal one of which was an almighty failure, is not working. By treading water they've dropped to the bottom and dragging themselves back up might require a fundamental shift in operational philosophy.
MH: It's got to be Mercedes, hasn't it? How long can Lewis Hamilton stay energised if he gets a third dud?
JP: Sergio Perez would be an easy answer here, but I’d also say Haas need to step up their game. Formula 1’s midfield has tightened so much and the way Haas fell off a cliff as the season went on is a concern. They have two decent drivers but the team have never been able to understand tyre degradation and their only significant upgrade package was a failure. How many times have we said that about them in the past as well?