With Formula One returning from summer break at last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, there was some optimism that a resurgent Mercedes or a more competent Ferrari would close the gap against Red Bull and provide an exciting finish to 2022. That hope grew once a series of technical penalties during qualifying forced championship leader Max Verstappen to start just 14th on the grid.1 If ever there was a chance for, say, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton to grab a statement victory and position himself for an encore of last year’s neck-and-neck title fight, this might have been it.
Alas, it didn’t happen. Hamilton couldn’t see Fernando Alonso in his blind spot on Lap 1 at Les Combes and crashed out of the race, earning 0 points for the weekend. Leclerc fought from the back of the grid to finish sixth but never led, while teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. started on pole but lost that position soon after. Meanwhile, Verstappen methodically cut through the field in a way that felt inevitable. Despite the starting penalty, the defending champ took the lead by Lap 12, and his Red Bull was in first for 31 of the remaining 33 en route to a dominant 17.8-second victory and a commanding lead in the drivers’ standings.
Verstappen’s ninth win of 2022 dampened any hope of a competitive championship: With less than two-thirds of the schedule (14 of 22 races) completed, it’s now virtually locked up. This development might come as a particular disappointment for fans who came to F1 recently — perhaps through Netflix’s Drive to Survive — and enjoyed the outrageously thrilling and controversial finish to 2021, which saw Verstappen and Hamilton fight to literally the bitter end of the final race. But that was the exception to the sport’s general rule; more often, F1’s norms are huge midseason leads and a general lack of stretch-run drama — even when we control for the length of the season, which has fluctuated from 16 to 22 races over the past two decades.
Of course, it is technically still possible for No. 2 Sergio Pérez to chase down his Red Bull teammate Verstappen and win the title. (For instance, Pérez could easily erase his 93-point deficit on Verstappen if he wins each remaining race and Verstappen finishes out of the points every time.) Mathematically, all but one F1 title bout since 2003 — when points were extended to the top eight finishers in a race — was in play through 14 races, the exception being the 2020 season, which saw Hamilton build a comically insurmountable 110-point edge with three races to go in the pandemic-shortened schedule.
But of course, it’s silly to think Pérez could go 8-for-8 while Verstappen scores no more points (particularly with both driving similar equipment on the same team). Instead, a more practical best-case scenario for Pérez would see him still win out, but with Verstappen finishing in his usual spot behind Pérez. (Verstappen has an average finish of 4.1 this year, which, with a bit of interpolation, would equate to an expectation of 11.7 points per race — excluding bonuses.) If Pérez averages 25 points per race and Verstappen just 11.7, Pérez would tie Verstappen by the end of the penultimate race in Brazil and pass him during the season finale. (How exciting!) By this bit of accounting, 14 of the 19 championships since 2003 could have been up for grabs after 14 races.
That makes F1’s stretch-run battles sound pretty competitive, with most seasons offering a chance at drama (including this year). But it’s also very unrealistic. In those 19 completed seasons since 2003, there were just four winners who weren’t also the points leader through 14 races: Kimi Räikkönen in 2007, Sebastian Vettel in 2010 and 2012 and Nico Rosberg in 2016. Those were all great title clashes, but for every one of them there were many more predictable finishes.
Now, with more races remaining after 14 rounds than in previous seasons, Pérez and his fellow challengers have more time to catch Verstappen. But if we’re being realistic, even a championship-level drive down the home stretch would likely leave Pérez short in the end. Let’s modify our earlier exercise to lower Pérez’s expectations slightly: We’ll drop him from an average finish of first place over the rest of the season to 3.6, which is the average finishing position of eventual world champions during their title-winning campaigns since 2003. If Pérez does that while Verstappen maintains his usual average finish (4.1), the deficit would be reduced — but not enough to stop the defending champion:
|2021||M. Verstappen||226.5||L. Hamilton||5|
|2016||L. Hamilton||250||N. Rosberg||2|
|2014||L. Hamilton||241||N. Rosberg||3|
|2010||M. Webber||187||L. Hamilton||5|
|2008||L. Hamilton||78||F. Massa||1|
|2022||M. Verstappen||284||S. Perez||93|
|2018||L. Hamilton||256||S. Vettel||30|
|2017||L. Hamilton||263||S. Vettel||28|
|2015||L. Hamilton||277||N. Rosberg||48|
|2012||F. Alonso||194||S. Vettel||29|
|2009||J. Button||84||R. Barrichello||15|
|2007||L. Hamilton||97||F. Alonso||2|
|2006||F. Alonso||108||M. Schumacher||12|
|2005||F. Alonso||95||K. Raikkonen||24|
|2003||M. Schumacher*||82||J. Montoya||3|
|2019||L. Hamilton||284||V. Bottas||63|
|2013||S. Vettel||272||F. Alonso||77|
|2011||S. Vettel||309||J. Button||124|
|2004||M. Schumacher||128||R. Barrichello||40|
|2020||L. Hamilton||307||V. Bottas||110|
And that’s typical for F1 by this stage of the schedule. Applying this latest bit of math to the first 14 races of earlier seasons, only five of the previous 19 offered any potential for the second-place driver to catch the leader. (The epic 2021 season was one of them, even though the challenger, Hamilton, ultimately fell short of the leader, Verstappen.) Much more often than not, things looked like 2022, with one driver holding a lead that was almost insurmountable — even if the top challenger drove the wheels off the car like he was Ayrton Senna.
As we recently wrote regarding NASCAR’s flawed and confusing playoffs, a system that manufactures late-season “drama” through convoluted, arbitrary rules often makes its champion seem contrived and leaves fans feeling empty. But a setup like F1’s, which eschews the gimmicks of modern NASCAR’s system in favor of a classic points chase, can also rob fans of excitement — particularly in a sport where competitive balance is always challenged by the influences of money and technology. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that each era of engine type (V10 in the early 2000s, V8 in the late 2000s into the early 2010s and V6 since 2014) and aerodynamic rules in F1’s recent history has coincided with particular teams rising to absurd levels of domination.
And just as Mercedes dominated the years leading up to 2022’s regulation changes, Red Bull’s car seems particularly well-suited to the current rules of the sport. (Having a young, talented driver like Verstappen doesn’t hurt.) That doesn’t mean Red Bull dominance is fated for the next half-decade or longer, but it does mean that a system in which season-long point totals determine the championship will favor teams with advantages in talent and tech. And in turn, that makes it harder to stay glued to the title race each week down the final stretch of the schedule.