Is Verstappen’s F1 title defence already in tatters?

The 2022 season is just three races old but Max Verstappen already finds himself with a mountain to climb if he is going to fight for this year’s Formula 1 world championship. 
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Verstappen’s title defence suffered another setback in Melbourne when he was forced into retirement with 20 laps to go in last weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, marking his second DNF in three races and costing him a certain 18 points. 

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took full advantage by cruising to his second win of the season, leaving Verstappen a whopping 46 points adrift and only sixth in the world championship standings. 

Leclerc’s points advantage over his main rival is larger than either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton held over one another at any stage during their titanic championship duel last year. For Verstappen to come out on top in 2022, it would take something not seen before in the current 25-points-for-a-win system.  

After the 2012 German Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel found himself 44 points down on Fernando Alonso but the then Red Bull driver staged an incredible fightback during the second half of the season to triumph to his third world title. 

Considering the scale of the task facing Verstappen, it is understandable why the Dutchman was so downcast about his prospects of defending his crown after the race. 

"We are already miles behind," A frustrated Verstappen said. “I don't even want to think about the championship fight at the moment; it is more important to finish races.

“We didn't even finish the race, so it is pretty frustrating and unacceptable. I knew there was a problem so there was always going to be a question mark in finishing the race. 

“These kinds of things, if you want to fight for the title, these things cannot happen.”

Max Verstappen Red Bull
Max Verstappen Red Bull

However, there is still a long way to go with 20 races - and three sprint events - left to run in F1’s longest-ever season. 

With a maximum of 544 points up for grabs, Verstappen’s deficit seems somewhat minute in the grand scheme of things. Luck and reliability will undoubtedly play a huge role. 

Realistically, Verstappen knows it will take several races to claw back Leclerc’s advantage if Ferrari continues its early season form. 

“Being already so far down in the championship, from now on we need to be ahead,” he conceded. 

“We need to be quicker, which we are not at the moment. And we need to be reliable, which we are also not. So there's a lot of things to work on.”

When asked how he viewed his chances of winning the title, Verstappen replied: “I don't even think about it. At the moment, there is no reason to believe in it.”

What is going on at Red Bull? 

While there is no doubt that Red Bull has a very fast car, with Verstappen going toe-to-toe with Leclerc for victory in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the RB18 has also proven to be fragile. 

An identical issue caused both cars to retire from the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix but Red Bull was able to correct the problem by bringing an instant fix to the next race in Jeddah. 

Red Bull still needs to investigate the exact cause of Verstappen’s latest stoppage but the early indication is that it was fuel-related rather than a power unit problem. And according to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, the issue was “something totally different” to Bahrain. 

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB18 retired from the
Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB18 retired from the

“Obviously it’s very frustrating to have a DNF on Max’s car,” Horner said. “It looks like a fuel system issue, external to the tank, that has caused the issue.

“So obviously it’s gone into quarantine, the parts will obviously return to Japan, and we’ll obviously try and understand the problem as quickly as we can.”

Concerns have been raised over the Honda-designed engine running under the new Red Bull Powertrains banner after a spate of issues have affected sister team AlphaTauri. 

Yuki Tsunoda has already been forced to move onto his third and final permitted engine of 2022, while Pierre Gasly is also facing the prospect of an early grid penalty this year after his car caught fire after losing power in Bahrain. 

So far, engine-specific problems have evaded the Red Bull senior team, but poor reliability has certainly given the Milton Keynes outfit a headache, with Verstappen expressing concern that there is no “clear fix” in sight. 

There was already an indication of reliability concerns before the Australian Grand Prix got underway when Red Bull carried out a plethora of parc ferme changes to Verstappen’s car.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB18. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park,
Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB18. Formula 1 World Championship,…

Yet, despite the issues that have plagued Red Bull, Horner insisted he would rather his team be faced with the challenge of trying to “fix a fast car” than make a slow one quick. 

"The fact that we are playing catch-up from the second-fastest position is encouraging and we are starting to understand some of the issues that we have,” Horner said.

"I'd rather fix a fast car than try and make a reliable slow one fast. So, you know, we need to get on top of it. We can't accept DNFs, but we need to understand what the issue is and we have got to address it.”

While it is true that there has been little to choose between Ferrari and Red Bull so far this season in terms of pure performance, the missed opportunities are already biting the latter hard. 

Things can of course swing around quickly, but if Verstappen is going to be a two-time world champion come the end of the year, both Red Bull and its star driver cannot afford to be anything other than flawless.

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