The final part of RaceFans’ mid-season driver rankings covers the very best performers in the 2023 season so far.
4 – Lewis Hamilton – Mercedes
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Lewis Hamilton’s 16th season in Formula 1 was comfortably the least successful and most frustrating of his record-setting career. For the first time, he failed to take a single race win or pole position over a full season and ended the year 35 points adrift of his much younger new team mate, George Russell.
At the half way point of 2023, Hamilton is still without a win in the ground effect era and his hopes of an eighth title have already been dashed under the crushing dominance of Max Verstappen. But Hamilton has enjoyed much more success than last year and appears to be reasserting his position in the garage over Russell.
While the Mercedes W14 is again not as strong as Hamilton or his team would have wanted, Hamilton has been able to make better use of it than Russell, by and large. His total of four podium appearances over the opening 12 rounds – in Melbourne, Barcelona, Montreal and Silverstone – is a tally beaten only by the two Red Bulls and Fernando Alonso. Along with Verstappen and Alonso, he is the third and final driver to have recorded a points finish across all grands prix so far this year, never finishing lower than eighth all season. While that might sound like the bare minimum for a Mercedes driver, the volatile pecking order of the teams behind Red Bull throughout the first half of the year makes it more impressive.
When Aston Martin had the clear second-best car in the field at the start of the season, Hamilton managed to hold off Alonso for the majority of the race, only allowing him within DRS range twice over 40 laps to beat him to second behind Verstappen. The next time out in Baku, Ferrari clearly had the edge over Mercedes. However, despite losing track position with a badly timed Safety Car, Hamilton restarted tenth in the grand prix and climbed up to sixth behind Carlos Sainz Jnr’s Ferrari.
Hamilton also enjoyed a strong run of races when the championship moved to Europe, outperforming Russell across the weekend and keeping his head when the rain came to finish fourth, unable to get around Esteban Ocon ahead but claiming the bonus point for fastest lap. In Barcelona, Hamilton should have been on the front row but a snap of oversteer at the final corner cost him two tenths. He made up for it in the race, moving up to second place and pulling away from Russell behind to secure his second podium finish of the season.
Montreal was another example of how Hamilton was able to extract more from the Mercedes than his team mate. While Aston Martin appeared to be back towards the top of the order, Hamilton showed good pace over the weekend to line up third before beating Alonso off the line to run second. He couldn’t hold off his rival and fell to third, but kept pace to take third on the podium within sight of the two ahead at the finish.
The sole low point for the season so far came in Austria where he was knocked out of the first phase of sprint qualifying and then fell to his worst finish of eighth in the grand prix after receiving 15 seconds of time penalties for six track limits strikes. However, he headed into the summer break on the back of two memorable results, taking a fortunate podium at Silverstone by jumping Oscar Piastri while pitting under Safety Car before storming to his first pole position in a year-and-a-half at the Hungaroring. While he could not hold off Verstappen or the McLarens at the start, fourth place behind the Red Bulls and Lando Norris was no poor result.
Hamilton’s been by no means perfect in the first half of the 2023 season – evidenced by his clash with Perez in the Spa sprint race – but of those lucky enough to be in the fastest cars in the field, he’s been one of the more consistently strong performers.
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3 – Lando Norris – McLaren
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Although he spent the majority of 2022 frustrated by being locked out of the fight at the front of the field with Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes so far ahead of McLaren and Alpine, Lando Norris had his best season in Formula 1 last year. The only driver to score a podium finish outside of the top three teams all year, Norris ended the season in a tier of his own in seventh place – well behind the drivers ahead but 30 points ahead of Esteban Ocon.
But with a fresh younger team mate joining him for 2023, Norris headed into his first season in F1 as the undisputed senior driver in his team. However, any hopes of bridging the gap to the top three teams were shattered before the season even began as McLaren’s pre-season test was a horror show, leaving McLaren CEO Zak Brown to admit that the team had missed its targets for the start of the new year.
After a very frustrating start to the season in Bahrain where he pitted no fewer than six times with a pneumatic failure, Norris made an uncharacteristic mistake during qualifying in Jeddah, running into the wall and damaging his car which led to his Q1 elimination. He sustained further damage on the opening lap of the race, but this was at least not his fault after running into debris from his team mate’s car.
But after Jeddah, Norris’s performances over the following ten rounds were consistently good. He rose from 13th to eighth in Melbourne before picking up two bonus places from the chaos of the final restart to secure his first points of the season. Then in Baku, Norris was the best of the rest behind the top four teams to finish ninth – as good a result as he could have realistically hoped for given the performance of his car.
Although points were difficult to come by, with Norris only able to add two more between Miami and Montreal thanks to a ninth place in Monaco, it was not through lack of effort. He was blocked by Leclerc in Monaco qualifying which left him tenth on the grid, but did an excellent job in Barcelona to qualify third on the grid before an unfortunate touch with Hamilton damaged his front wing and ruined his race. He probably deserved points for ninth in Montreal, but lost four places as a result of a five second time penalty for driving too slowly behind the Safety Car.
When Norris arrived at the Red Bull Ring, he had a wealth of shiny new upgrades at his disposal that would end up transforming his and McLaren’s season. He immediately made use of them, qualifying fourth on Friday and then third in sprint qualifying before overtaking Hamilton’s Mercedes on merit to cross the line in fifth – which became fourth after Sainz was demoted by a penalty.
But it was Silverstone where everything changed. Norris secured a front row start alongside Verstappen, then beat the runaway championship leader off the line to lead the opening four laps of the race. Despite McLaren fitting him with hard tyres for the Safety Car restart, Norris held his nerve to keep Hamilton at bay to secure a memorable home podium in second place. He backed that up in style at the next round in Hungary, qualifying in third before jumping Hamilton into turn one and then undercutting Piastri to move up to second, then keeping Perez at bay to secure back-to-back 18 point hauls.
Even when he wasn’t faultless, such as over the Belgian Grand Prix weekend where he damaged his floor during a mistake in Friday qualifying before falling down the order in the race, he still showed his skills by running 27 laps on soft tyres over his final stint to finish in seventh in spite of his high-downforce set up. Now heading into the second half of the season, Norris could well find himself in the fight for more podiums. If so, he will be a difficult driver for those around him at the front to contend with.
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2 – Fernando Alonso – Aston Martin
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Heading into a season in which he would turn 42-years-old at an entirely new team, Fernando Alonso has once again proven any doubters he still has wrong and also justified Aston Martin’s decision to pursue him as a race driver for this season. And it certainly did not take long for him to do so.
Not even the two-times world champion could ever have expected that he would sit in third place in the championship at the mid stage of his first season with Aston Martin. That he is just one point ahead of Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes is as much a testament to the Silverstone squad as it is to their newest driver, but Alonso has looked reinvigorated by his return to the sharp end of the grid in 2023.
With six podiums from the opening 12 rounds, nine top five finishes and more laps in second place than any other driver including Sergio Perez, Alonso has enjoyed more time as the closest competitor to the runaway Red Bulls as any other driver so far this season. And while that is largely down to him having the machinery to compete at the front, Alonso has demonstrated how he still retains his edge as a driver even after 360 starts as a grand prix driver.
Even getting hit by team mate Lance Stroll on the opening lap of the season did not stop him from passing Hamilton and Sainz on his way to picking up a podium finish in his first start in British Grand Green in Bahrain. Then in Jeddah, after being promoted to the front row thanks to Leclerc’s grid penalty, Alonso beat pole winner Perez off the line to take the lead until the Red Bull inevitable DRS’d his way back by. He initially lost his second straight podium until the stewards overturned their decision, establishing himself as the clear closest contender to the Red Bulls at the early stage of the season.
He was beaten by Hamilton in Melbourne after many laps spent until to pass the Mercedes, but still maintained his run of podiums to start the season. This was a little fortunate, to be fair, after he benefitted from Russell ahead being caught out by the early red flag and then the final red flag negating his being hit by Sainz at the first corner. But even when his podium streak ended in Baku, he continued to show good form, stealing fourth from Sainz with a brilliant move after the Safety Car restart and then catching Leclerc over the rest of the race to finish less than a second behind the man who had secured both pole positions for that weekend.
He was back on the front row in Miami, courtesy of Leclerc prompting the red flags, running all alone in the race, unable to keep up with the Red Bulls but comfortably ahead of everyone else. Then in Monaco, Alonso just missed out on his first pole in over a decade when Verstappen broke Aston Martin’s hearts at the death. Who knows whether he would have managed to jump Verstappen for the lead had he pitted first for intermediate tyres when the rain came on Sunday, but he had once again been more of a challenge for Verstappen than his own team mate had been.
Peculiarly, his home race in Spain was the only time over the opening half of the season where Alonso was out-performed by Stroll. An error in Q1 damaged his floor which left him ninth on the grid and he settled for finishing behind his team mate in the race. But the next round in Montreal was another highlight, taking another front row start after Nico Hulkenberg was hit by a penalty. He may have lost second to Hamilton at the start, but he claimed it back by overtaking the Mercedes early on in the race. Although being asked throughout the race to keep saving fuel, he kept within ten seconds of Verstappen and managed to keep Hamilton at bay to record podium number six in second place.
After Canada, Aston Martin appeared to lose a step compared with their rivals Ferrari and Mercedes before even McLaren jumped ahead of them in performance. But Alonso continued to deliver solid, mistake-free performances to keep the points coming in. He also continued to vastly out-qualify and out-race Stroll – a team mate 17 years his junior – beating him 10-2 in qualifying and spending more than 500 laps ahead of Stroll on Sundays to finish ahead of him nine times in races where both reached the chequered flag.
As Aston Martin have lost pace relative to their rivals, it’s become more difficult for Alonso to let his talent make the difference. He headed into the break on the back of an underwhelming weekend in Spa where he crashed out of the sprint race with a rare error, but took ten points in fifth place behind Hamilton – his best finish since Austria.
Holding onto that third place over the rest of the season will be extremely difficult. But Alonso will certainly not surrender it without a fight.
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1 – Max Verstappen – Red Bull
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What is there to say that hasn’t already been said about the driver who, at the mid stage of the season, is clearly romping to his third-consecutive world championship?
Max Verstappen already had one of the most dominant seasons ever seen in F1 last year when he won 15 grands prix to set a new all-time benchmark for a season. Now, with ten rounds remaining in 2023, he only needs to win half of them to match that tally – and who would bet against him beating it?
Red Bull’s RB19 may be one of the most successful and dominant F1 cars in history by the end of the season, but that is almost entirely down to the reigning world champion. After thrashing team mate Perez last year on his way to a second drivers’ title, Verstappen has only widened the gulf in performance between him and Perez in the first half of the season.
It’s arguable that the two rounds where Perez beat Verstappen to victory – Jeddah and Baku – were ultimately only because Verstappen was unlucky. He suffered a driveshaft failure in qualifying in Jeddah which left him 15th on the grid before he recovered to second in the race behind Perez. Then in Baku, Verstappen had been leading but the Safety Car timing helped Perez ahead – although Perez’s pace that afternoon was perhaps the only time all season where Verstappen was matched by his team mate.
The prime example of Verstappen’s dominance likely came in Miami. After messing up his first qualifying run in Q3, Verstappen was caught out by a red flag that left him down in ninth. Despite no Safety Car interventions, he calmly picked his way through the field and caught up to his team mate who had led the entire race, dispatching him with a strong pass to take a win that never really seemed in doubt despite his midfield starting position.
Miami marked the start of an eight round winning streak for Verstappen that will seem him within reach of matching Sebastian Vettel’s all-time run of nine in Zandvoort after the break and potentially break it at Monza. It’s hard at this stage to see Verstappen being beaten at any point until the end of the championship. There’s a possibility Red Bull’s rivals could catch up to them over the second half of the season, but given Verstappen’s winning margin in Spa over the first non-Red Bull – 32 seconds – was only six seconds fewer than the equivalent from the opening round in Bahrain.
That Spa weekend was comfortably Verstappen’s strongest of his ten victories. He set the fastest time in Friday qualifying knowing he would start five places lower due to a gearbox penalty, then he secured pole for the sprint race and overtook Oscar Piastri to win it before cruising to an easy grand prix victory on Sunday. The lack of pressure that Verstappen seems to face on Sundays may lead some to argue that he is flattered by the performance of his car. But given that the advantage that the RB19 has had over its rivals pales in comparison to other dominant F1 cars like McLaren’s MP4/4 from 1988, Michael Schumacher’s championship winning Ferrari’s or even Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, it’s clear that Verstappen is simply performing at a higher level than anyone else on the grid.
It’s not a question of if he will eventually claim this season’s championship, only at which round. But if he continues how he has done, this could be another record-breaking second half of the season for Verstappen.
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