Max Verstappen: Rise of a Future Champion?
With each year, Max Verstappen has improved, has he the worth of a world champion?
Just three days after his seventeenth birthday, Max Verstappen made his F1 debut for Scuderia Toro Rosso during the first practice session of the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Setting a new record for the youngest driver to take part in a Grand Prix weekend, it was unusual to see such a young driver take the reigns of an F1 car in an official session. It could only have meant one of two things, either Red Bull were a bit crazy to promote such a young driver, or this driver has the edge to show he was ready. Only time would tell if signing Verstappen for 2015 was a mistake. It wasn't.
His debut season, the youngest driver to have started a Grand Prix and complete in a season as also, was relatively good. Two fourth places at Hungary and the United States showed the speed and talent of this youngster, but a high-speed crash during the Monaco Grand Prix made other drivers, such as Williams' Felipe Massa label his aggressive driving style 'dangerous.' Max was not afraid to fight his corner, and showed he would not be pushed over, claiming Massa had a very similar accident with Sergio Perez the year before in Canada, and that he was in no position to criticise. Max was surely making a presence that would not disappear.
2016 was supposed to be a second year with Toro Rosso, but all that changed four races in when he was surprisingly promoted to the senior Red Bull team in favour of Daniil Kvyat, who suffered accidents in China and Russia. Coming into his first race with Red Bull in Barcelona, a clash between the two Mercedes on the opening lap handed Red Bull, and eventually Verstappen, the lead. Fending off veteran drivers such as Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, Verstappen secured his drive in all but one race as he crossed the line to become the youngest Grand Prix winner in history, and the first Dutch driver in history to win an F1 Grand Prix.
You never forget your first win! Victorious Verstappen on his Red Bull debut, 2016 Spanish Grand Prix. (FIA.)
Throughout the next couple of seasons, Verstappen took a handful of wins with Red Bull but still displayed signs of his aggressiveness getting the better of him on track. Things changed coming into 2019, as long-time Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo departed for Renault, Verstappen became the team's lead driver. With this, he became a more rounded driver, and a driver who had found the maturity he had been looking for.
Throughout all of Verstappen's five years at Red Bull so far, the team have been capable of wins, and quite astonishing wins a la Austria 2019 or Mexico 2018 at the hands of young Max, but not near close enough to properly challenge for the title. 2021 however, might be there year where Max Verstappen can finally prove the capabilities he has to become a future F1 world champion.
The ongoing season is one that has been awaited for what seemed like ages, and with the recent season opener confirming that indeed Mercedes are not as strong as they would like to be, Red Bull and Honda (in their final year in F1) have stepped up massively. Verstappen smashed Hamilton by nearly half a second to take pole and although Hamilton could sneak the win around the Bahrain International Circuit, Verstappen was right on his heels, only seven-tenths behind the race winner. Verstappen could have easily won and maybe should have, but an illegal off-the-track move on Hamilton at turn four forced the Dutchman to hand the lead back to his British rival.
After a poor start dropped him to eighth on the first lap, Verstappen's fightback and eventual win in the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix gave the Dutch fans in attendance plenty to cheer about! (FIA.)
Don't let the result fool you, Verstappen and the Red Bull were clearly the strongest package all weekend, and there was nothing to suggest that this was a once-off. With an experienced driver such as Sergio Perez to back him up and a much-improved power unit and chassis from the wizards at Honda and Red Bull, there is a feeling that F1 in 2021 is shaping up to be a battle for the ages. Red Bull or Silver Arrow? Netherlands or Britain? Can Verstappen use this chance to the fullest? I have no reason to believe otherwise.
Many people, including myself, are not fond of Max's sometimes outspoken answers or radio tantrums, but I admire him for this because he breaks away from the usual mould of today's F1 drivers and he is not afraid to express who he is or how he feels. It helps people to remember him and in turn, gain him more support. He already has a massive following in the Netherlands and it is to no surprise. I hope those fans are able to attend races towards the end of the year if Verstappen gets into a title fight, and I would not like to be any other of the drivers competing in the proposed Dutch Grand Prix this year.
Is the 2021 Red Bull/Honda package a championship contender at the hands of Verstappen? (Red Bull Content Pool.)
Can Verstappen become a future champion? Of course. Sure, maybe not this year because it's so close between Red Bull and Mercedes that over the course of the season it could definitely go either way but, he is a definite driver to watch. He is contracted to Red Bull until the end of 2023, so there is an intention there to build a strong package in the new regulations in 2022 and indeed form a Vettel-style dominant partnership if things go their way. On top of that, he has shaken the one thing off his driving style he needed to, the mistakes whilst still keeping the aggression that makes him a threat. When Lewis Hamilton, the reigning and seven-time world champion, says the only person he fears on track is Max Verstappen, then the boy must be doing something right.
Max Verstappen, a future world champion? I haven't been more certain of anything in Formula 1 before.