There was a point during the summer when it looked as if Verstappen might emerge as a challenger for the championship - after he took two wins and a second place in a run of four races from Austria to Hungary.
Since then, a combination of issues have set Red Bull back. Verstappen crashed at the start in Spa and Italy, beginning the latter race from the back with a penalty for using too many engine parts. In Singapore, a race at which Red Bull expected to be contenders for victory, they made a mistake on set-up and qualified lower than expected.
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In Japan, Verstappen was taken out at the first corner in a collision with Leclerc. In Mexico, the Dutchman made an unfathomable misjudgement in qualifying before a couple of unfortunate incidents as he sought to recover wrecked them for good. And in Austin last time out, he was a close second, splitting the Mercedes drivers.
Red Bull's progress this season becomes clear from an analysis of the fastest lap each team has done at each race. After the first half of the season, Red Bull were 0.602 seconds slower than Mercedes on average; in the second half, that margin is down to 0.176secs.
"We've been continuously improving throughout the season," Verstappen said. "Of course some tracks have been a bit better for us than others.
"Already last year I think here we were quite good but I think again we made a step forward this year.
"We learned from our mistakes in some recent races and we came back stronger and everything is working well so yeah, of course very happy with three (sic) poles but at the end of the day there are more races than that and we want more pole positions."
Ferrari engine controversy rumbles on
In the post-qualifying news conference, Vettel was in mischievous mood, the context being the controversy over Ferrari's engine that has raged for the past two weeks - specifically whether the end to their run of six consecutive pole positions in Austin last time out was related to the issuing of two rule clarifications from governing body the FIA.
Red Bull and Mercedes are convinced Ferrari were up to something - and equally convinced that they see in the lap-time traces a reduction in straight-line speed performance from the Ferrari that they believe can only be explained by a reduction in engine performance.
After Austin, where Leclerc finished close to a minute off the winner, Verstappen went as far as to say: "That's what happens when you stop cheating."
Needless to say, Ferrari are very annoyed about this and so when Red Bull showed prodigious straight-line speed in Brazil - Verstappen was fourth fastest through the speed trap, 0.5km/h faster than Vettel, although Leclerc topped it, 0.4km/h ahead - Vettel could not resist a little dig.
"It was a bit of a surprise," Vettel said. "Not to see them that quick, but to see them so quick on the straights - a little bit suspicious." Cue a big smile and an exaggerated look at Verstappen, who replied: "For once it's you then!"
Joking aside, this is obviously a serious matter.
The first FIA clarification was to do with potential ways of interfering with the fuel-flow meter to get the fuel flow rate to run above its maximum for short periods, thus boosting power. It came after a series of targeted questions from Red Bull.
The second was issued by the FIA alone, and was a reconfirmation of the rules governing the restriction on adding of lubricants into the combustion chamber, which has been a bone of contention in F1 on and off for a couple of years now.
Ferrari's position is that they have changed nothing on their engine as a result of the two clarifications and that they have not been doing anything wrong. They refer to the allegations and insinuations as "absurd", and argue that as a team of "absolute integrity" it is not conceivable that they could cheat or engage in foul play.
Mercedes technical director James Allison was asked about Ferrari's straight-line performance after qualifying.
He said: "They were still pretty useful on the straights but not quite as marked as it was yesterday. But that could be lots of things. We all run different power modes on Friday.
"Probably the only thing you could stand back at a distance and say is it is two races on the trot where it hasn't been pole position for Ferrari and they had a reasonably comfortable margin.
"It's an interesting thing but not anything you can draw any solid conclusions from. They are still a quick car on the straights. Let's see how they are in the race tomorrow and how they are in the race to come."
Arise, Sir Lewis?
Since Lewis Hamilton won his sixth world title, there has been a bit of a campaign to see that he is knighted in the Queen's New Year's Honours list this year, the argument of those proposing this being that his achievement far outstrips those of other people who have already been knighted for services to sport.
On Saturday, Hamilton was asked what he thought about this.
"Honestly, I don't really like to think too much about it," he said. "Just the fact that people have mentioned it, it's already an honour, but it's not been something that I've been chasing in my life.
"If, at any point, that was to happen, I don't particularly know how I would handle it. I have stood in front of Her Majesty The Queen before and it was pretty incredible and I think she's just awesome.
"Again, I don't think it's going to happen, and again, it doesn't bother me if it doesn't. It doesn't mean I'm not British. It doesn't mean I'm not continuing to try and raise the flag as well as I can. But I do appreciate all the support I've had from my fans and also from the British media."
Pressed on it, he said: "I just don't think about it. I don't know."
Vettel butted in: "Do you get a sword? That would be cool if you get to keep the sword."
Hamilton, clearly wanting the subject to be wrapped up, concluded: "It's just not something that you grow up thinking of. I'm really grateful just to be… I've got the MBE. It's cool."