Max Verstappen: A champion in waiting
This article will look at Max Verstappen's Red Bull Racing career to date and will suggest that he should already be a world champion.
It seems hard to believe that Max Verstappen at just 22 years old is already in his sixth season in Formula One, having quickly established himself at Scuderia Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) despite being F1’s youngest ever driver before being propelled into ‘the big time’ at Red Bull Racing.
Red Bull career highlights
Max Verstappen entered Formula One with so much promise and expectation by carrying the surname of former F1 driver, Jos Verstappen. Max has been nothing short of sensational ever since he made history by becoming the youngest ever F1 winner on his Red Bull debut at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix. The performance he produced on that day was remarkable for more reasons than one. In particular, Max had very little time to adapt to the Red Bull, having just raced for Toro Rosso in the previous Grand Prix. What was even more impressive was that fact that he seemed so comfortable and at ease running at the front and controlling a Formula One race, despite being chased down and put under intense pressure by Kimi Raikkonen for the majority of the 66 laps.
In 2017, he proved that he is able to win in any type of circumstance. He deservedly won the Malaysian Grand Prix that year after chasing down and passing Lewis Hamilton on-track, demonstrating his wheel-to-wheel race craft against a multiple world champion. He then won the Mexican Grand Prix by dominating the entire Grand Prix after passing Sebastian Vettel at the first corner.
Max began to build consistency in the second half of the 2018 season, which he has carried with him through the subsequent seasons. He achieved 4 podium finishes before again winning the Mexican Grand Prix after narrowly missing out on pole position the day before. He took a further podium in Brazil, but it could have been more as he was cruelly taken out of contention for the win by Esteban Ocon. He concluded the season with another podium in Abu Dhabi. The second phase of this season proved that he did not just have raw speed, but that he could deliver for a front-running team on a consistent basis. He became the driver that Red Bull could rely on to assist them in the Constructors’ Championship following Daniel Ricciardo’s departure to Renault for 2019.
In 2019, Verstappen recorded his best ever finish with 3rd in the driver’s championship after 3 wins, 9 podiums and two pole positions. Verstappen’s presence was critical to Red Bull in 2019 as there was instability on the other side of the garage, with Pierre Gasly only lasting until the Hungarian Grand Prix before being dropped for Alex Albon. He provided the team with much needed stability.
This season, Max has again gone from strength to strength. He has so far recorded six podiums, with a fantastic victory at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix in Silverstone after taking advantage of the tyre problems which hampered both Mercedes drivers. He is the only man that is taking the fight to Mercedes by opting for different tyre strategies in qualifying, and at times by wrestling the Red Bull onto the front row of the grid by outqualifying Valtteri Bottas. Max is operating on an elite level by consistently outperforming the car which puts Mercedes under pressure. Without Max Verstappen, 2020 would be a lot less exciting at the front, with Lewis Hamilton winning every Grand Prix followed by Valtteri Bottas. While he is subject to criticism, it cannot be denied that Verstappen is box office. He goes for overtakes at places where many other drivers would not even dream of attempting.
However, Max has not been a flawless driver for Red Bull as he did have a tendency to clash with his rivals on track. This was particularly prominent in the early part of 2018. He has not only rivals, but his then team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in 2017. Coupled with this has been his controversial defensive manoeuvres, particularly with Kimi Raikkonen in 2016. In recent times, Max has improved on this weakness and is now more precise when overtaking. Although, he still can become too desperate at times. The start of the 2019 Belgian Grand Prix is a case in point.
Despite the errors that he has made on track, it is perhaps down to his immaturity as a driver. He is so eager to make an overtake immediately when he arrives on the scene, rather than wait to assess where his rival is weak before capitalising like a Kimi Raikkonen or Lewis Hamilton would do. Although, I would much rather see Max crashing out of the Grand Prix by attempting an outrageous overtake, rather than just watch the majority of the field waiting for the DRS before making a pass.
Moving towards championship contention
To date, Max has accumulated 9 victories, 2 pole positions, 8 fastest laps and 37 podiums for Red Bull. This is not enough for Max and rightly so because he has the capability of becoming a multiple world champion. He should already be a world champion, but the facts are clear. He has never been provided with a competitive enough car to mount a serious title challenge. Ever since 2013 which was Red Bull’s last title-winning season, they have always started the season too slowly. This puts them immediately on the back foot in both championships, which they cannot afford to do with Mercedes remaining ultra-consistent ever since the start of 2014.
Max signed a long-term contract extension with the team back in January which runs until the end of 2023. But as we know, contracts in Formula One mean very little. Sergio Perez is a prime example. He is being replaced at Racing Point, despite having signed a multi-year contract with the team last season. Therefore, Red Bull could come under increasing pressure to hold onto Max if he becomes increasingly frustrated with where the team is heading. Although, as things stand, the only way to win a world championship is at Mercedes. While Lewis Hamilton is at the team, Toto Wolff would never even consider signing Max Verstappen out of the fear of repeating the Hamilton-Alonso partnership which just lasted one season in 2007. Perhaps there may be new players that could provide Max with the correct machinery. Let's see what Aston Martin and Alpine can achieve in 2021.
With stable regulations for next season, it seems that Max’s next best opportunity is 2022 and this is entirely dependent on the car that Red Bull produce because Max is ready, he is a champion in waiting.