Midway through the 2018 Formula One season, Max Verstappen was having one of the toughest starts to a year since he made his debut in 2015. After the sixth round in Monaco — won by his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo — Verstappen had only 35 points to Ricciardo (72 points), who had won two races by then. The weekend was a perfect illustration of the problems Verstappen had: he tried to win every session and crashed during Free Practice 3 and missed qualifying. Furthermore, he started last while Ricciardo started from pole position.
Till that point in the season, he had an incident or two in every race. His struggles even prompted team boss Christian Horner to publicly admonish him for making too many mistakes. Looking back, it was the turning point in his career.
Verstappen produced a measured drive to finish ninth on a track where overtaking is never easy. It reflected a metamorphosis that paved the way for his success in the subsequent years. It is why he has been able to clinch two world titles.
Former team-mate Ricciardo remembered how he had matured that season. During the Singapore Grand Prix weekend this year, he said, “I think he definitely took a step in 2018. You know, it was the first five or six races, he was in the wall a lot, having incidents, or making mistakes mostly on his behalf. Then through that year, it’s like he just had a bit of self-realisation and a step of maturity. I honestly think from the middle of that season on, he became a real complete driver,” Ricciardo said during his media session. Since that race in Monaco, Verstappen handily beat Ricciardo to finish ahead of him by 79 points. From then on, the Dutchman has never looked back; there is metronomic consistency in his performances as he has seldom achieved less than what his car was capable of. Over the last two years, he has been outside of the podium only thrice in races that he has finished. Damages to his car outside of his control played a part on two of those occasions.
Often in F1, where the car dominates a lot and people tend to think any driver in a winning car could become a world champion, Verstappen has shown how important he has been to his team. Since 2019, he has had three team-mates at Red Bull and has outscored them comprehensively. Others have struggled to even get close to his level of performances.
The Red Bull car’s handling has not been easy and none of his team-mates has been able to adapt to it.
Verstappen is on record saying he prefers a car that is sharp when turning the car even if the rear of the car slides and is a bit unbalanced. It requires someone with enough confidence to live with it as imbalance in the rear end can quickly affect a driver’s confidence.
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Red Bull was a bit overweight at the start of the year and not agile as Verstappen prefers. It is what allowed Sergio Perez to be a lot closer to him: they were not far off from each other when the Mexican driver won in Monaco. But even on that occasion, Verstappen was able to minimise his losses, going down to his team-mate only once.
However, once Red Bull brought developments to the car that made it suit Verstappen’s style, he was able to find a higher ceiling of performance to run away with the title. His gap over Perez increased rapidly.
But the most impressive part of his title campaign this year was how clean he kept his on-track battles.
Last year, wanting to prove a point to Lewis Hamilton and locked in a tense battle, Verstappen’s old habits had started to resurface. He was aggressive when going wheel to wheel, and when Hamilton refused to play ball after being mugged a few times at the start of the year, the duo crashed twice in Silverstone and Monza. Later in the year, he was even penalised for some outlandish moves he tried in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
This year, with a title already under his belt, Verstappen hasn’t been involved in any incident so far. He has bided his time even when coming through the field. He has not looked to win everything on lap one and has been clinical in passing through the field like a hot knife on butter to win races from lowly grid positions. And he showed in the last race at the US Grand Prix in Austin that even with the world title sealed, he was not done for the year. It was a race which he dominated before a pit-stop error pushed him down to third. But once he got over the frustration with his team’s error, he put his head down and produced a series of breathtaking laps to pass both Leclerc and Hamilton en route to his 13th race of the season.
The win also helped his Red Bull team win the constructors’ title on a weekend when its owner Dietrich Mateschitz passed away.
Verstappen is now tied with Schumacher and Vettel for the most number of wins in a year, and on current form, he is likely to break the record with three races left in the year.
Now with two world titles, Verstappen is operating at the highest level since his debut. At the age of 25, he is entering a period in which most F1 drivers are at the peak of their abilities. Sky is the limit for what he can achieve.