Max Verstappen already has one hand on the 2023 Formula One world championship trophy, such has been his dominance in the first half of the season. His Red Bull team has emerged as an unbeatable force this year, securing 12 wins from 12 races and an unprecedented run of 13 consecutive victories stretching back to Abu Dhabi last year.
Yet behind Red Bull, a tight battle has emerged to be best of the rest. Aston Martin started the season with the second fastest car but has recently dropped off the pace; Mercedes has been consistently in the running for podiums but struggled to make a significant breakthrough with car performance like some of its rivals; Ferrari has shown flashes of strong performance but remains frustratingly inconsistent; and McLaren started the season nowhere only to emerge as Red Bull's closest rivals at Silverstone and Budapest.
It may seem pointless and somewhat banal, but remove the two Red Bull drivers from the standings and you would have a thrilling title battle. As is the case in the current battle for third place behind Red Bull, Fernando Alonso would lead his old rival Lewis Hamilton at the top of our fictional standings, setting up a battle for the ages in the second half of the year. Charles Leclerc would still be a wild card contender if only Ferrari could more consistently extract performance from its car, while a resurgent Lando Norris would have racked up his first two F1 victories and maybe even daring to dream of a late-season title challenge.
It's such a tantalizing prospect that we decided to while away the first part of F1's summer break by running the numbers. If you remove Verstappen and Sergio Perez from the results of the first 12 races and redistribute the points (including for fastest laps and sprint races), the results would look as follows.
Drivers' championship minus Red Bull
Alonso - 230
Hamilton - 212
Leclerc - 151
Russell - 143
Sainz - 139
Norris - 107
Stroll - 83
Ocon - 61
Piastri - 53
Gasly - 46
Albon - 29
Tsunoda - 19
Bottas - 18
Hulkenberg - 16
Zhou - 13
Magnussen - 8
Sargeant - 3
De Vries - 0
Ricciardo - 0
Constructors' championship minus Red Bull
Mercedes - 355
Aston Martin - 313
Ferrari - 290
McLaren - 160
Alpine - 107
Williams - 32
Alfa Romeo - 31
Haas - 22
AlphaTauri - 19
Alonso and Aston Martin
Alonso's 18-point lead in the fictional championship would have its foundations in his five race victories in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Miami, Monaco and Canada. Early in the year he would have looked like the runaway championship leader, vindicating his switch from Alpine to Aston Martin and bringing an end to his decade-long F1 win drought. But from Canada onwards the results would start to dry up, with his old rival Hamilton closing the gap at the final three races before the summer break with three consecutive second-place finishes.
There would be flashbacks to their time as McLaren teammates in 2007 when their internal rowing allowed Kimi Raikkonen to snatch the title from both of them by a single point at the final round. Of course, the big difference this time would be that they are driving for two opposing teams and Alonso would be putting huge pressure on Aston Martin to bring a car update capable for the second half of the season.
Even so, the two-time world champion would likely still find himself in an against-the-odds title challenge and an attempt exorcise the ghosts of his near misses in 2010 and 2012. Questions would also be asked of Lance Stroll, who would be languishing in seventh in the standings -- all too often unable to offer Alonso the support he needs at the front of the grid. In the constructors' championship, Aston Martin would by 42 points adrift of Mercedes and would most likely have one eye over their shoulder at Ferrari and McLaren in the second half of the year.
Hamilton and Mercedes
Hamilton's results would be proof of his ability to grind out championships against the odds, with nine podiums from the first 12 races despite only rarely having the standout fastest car. He'd have two wins to his name, in Australia and Spain, underlining the Mercedes' tendency to be quick at front-limited circuits but on the back foot elsewhere. The team's upgrade path since the Monaco Grand Prix would be cause for optimism, however, especially as Aston Martin's performance started to dry up before the summer break.
George Russell would be without a win in 2023, with just three podiums from 12 races, but he would be well placed to act as a rear gunner for Hamilton in the second half of the year and a valuable source of consistent points in the constructors' championship for the team. Given the Mercedes' trajectory since uncovering a new development direction in Monaco, if you had to put money on who would win both championships, you'd probably go with Hamilton and Mercedes.
Leclerc and Ferrari
If you think being a Ferrari fan is frustrating in the real-life 2023 season, it'd be even more disappointing in our make-believe season. Leclerc's three wins in Baku, Austria and Belgium -- one more than Hamilton - would be proof of the car's outright performance, but reliability issues early in the year, Leclerc's crashes in Australia and in qualifying in Miami, and team errors in qualifying in Canada, would have all resulted in an uphill challenge in the second half of the year.
Carlos Sainz would not have secured a win in our fictional 2023 championship, but he would have made a stronger start to the season than Leclerc and would be just 12 points off his teammate, making it harder for Ferrari to justify throwing its weight behind just one of its drivers. Second place in the constructors' title would seem like a reasonable goal given the struggles on Stroll's side of the garage at Aston Martin, but an overwhelming sense of 'what could have been' would be hanging over yet another Ferrari season.
Norris and McLaren
The pattern of McLaren's fictional season would be just the same as it is in reality, with a remarkable return to form starting in Austria that suddenly put Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri in contention for regular podiums. In the non-Red Bull world, two of those podiums would have been grand prix victories for Norris, while Piastri would have taken his fist win in F1 at the sprint race in Belgium.
Norris would still be a massive 123 points off Alonso - only two points short the real gap between Verstappen and Perez in the real-life 2023 championship - but he would have the potential to be a disrupting force in the second half of the season. And given the impressive performance of the car at Silverstone and Budapest, there might be the slightest sliver of hope that further upgrades in the second half of the year could deliver a string of wins that made Norris an outside hope for the title if Alonso and Hamilton slip up.
The rest of the field
As exciting as the prospect of an Alonso/Hamilton title battle would be, removing Red Bull from the results of the first 12 races doesn't actually change the order of the 11 drivers behind Verstappen and Perez in our imaginary standings. But it does slightly mix up the bottom eight in the standings, with points at most races extending down to real-life 12th place once the Red Bulls are removed from the order.
That helps highlight what a great season Yuki Tsunoda is having as his three 11th place finishes suddenly start paying off, putting him on 19 points in total and 14th in the standings. By contrast, his teammate for the first half of the year, Nyck de Vries, would still be on zero, as would his replacement Daniel Ricciardo. American driver Logan Sargeant would have opened his points account thanks to a 10th place (minus the Red Bulls) finish in Bahrain and an 9th place at Silverstone.