During the sprint race of the recently concluded Qatar Grand Prix, Max Verstappen became a three-time Formula One world champion, joining an elite list of just 11 drivers to have achieved the feat. He also became only the fifth driver to score a hat-trick of titles after Juan Manuel Fangio, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
While the manner in which his title was sealed was anti-climatic — Sergio Perez, his teammate and the only driver with a near-improbable mathematical chance of keeping the fight alive, crashed out of the race — it capped off one of the best campaigns in the sport’s history.
In elite sports across disciplines, some once-in-a-generation athletes push the boundaries and achieve tremendous success at such a young age that they etch themselves into history books as an all-time great of the sport long before their career ends.
The Dutchman, all of 26, has joined the list of some absolute superstars the world has seen, like Bjorn Borg, Sachin Tendulkar, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps, who by the time they were in their mid-20s, had achieved greatness in their respective domains.
Right from when he appeared in his first free practice session at the Japanese Grand Prix in 2014, the 17-year-old Verstappen looked like he belonged at this level despite having just a season of racing cars.
While the road to F1 greatness was not always smooth — there were times till 2018 when his driving bordered on the dangerous, and he came under intense criticism from rivals — the 26-year-old has realised his pure pace is enough to be at the top of the game without having to do something reckless.
The consistency he showed even when Red Bull was not in title contention in 2019 and 2020 made it evident that he would be ready when the time came to fight for the championship.
Also read: Explained | What led to Max Verstappen’s win at Sunday’s Abu Dhabi GP?
After prevailing in a tense battle against Lewis Hamilton in 2021 under controversial circumstances, Verstappen has raised the bar in the last two seasons. In 2022, he showed terrific race craft and patience, often winning races despite starting outside the top ten due to engine or gearbox penalties.
This year, Max, the son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, has just obliterated the field and his teammate with the kind of metronomic consistency rarely seen in the sport’s history.
Granted, Red Bull Racing’s RB-19 is one of the most dominant cars ever raced in F1 history. But Verstappen’s performance relative to his teammate Perez shows the gulf between the Grand Prix winners and world champions.
To illustrate Verstappen’s value to the team, let us look at a hypothetical scenario if he were not there.
With five races left, the driver’s title would still be alive, with Perez just 30 points ahead of Hamilton, who hasn’t won a race this year, thus showing the vast difference in quality between the two.
It may now seem like a distant memory, but after the first four races, Perez trailed by only six points after the Red Bull drivers shared two wins each.
On a rampage
Since then, Perez has yet to win a race while Verstappen went on a rampage with ten consecutive wins, a new world record.
The worrying thing for rivals is that at 26, he is just entering the peak of his career. Even as he operates at an extremely high level with hardly any chinks in his armour, his drive to constantly improve should give the rest of the grid sleepless nights.
A prime example of this is that at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, where Perez won — thanks to a bit of luck with the timing of the Safety Car — Verstappen revealed he fiddled with his driving style, which has helped him since then.
“I learned a lot from the race in Baku over how to do some things with the car and how to set it up,” Verstappen was quoted as saying at Zandvoort.
“I didn’t win that race in Baku, but I tried a lot of stuff and different tools in the car. That’s why, throughout the race, it was a little bit inconsistent.
“At one point, I got into a good rhythm with what I found, but then I damaged my tyres a bit too much, but it was like: ‘Okay, that is quite interesting for the next races. I then implemented that, which has helped me on every track,” he added.
Sure enough, it became evident at the next race in Miami, which can be considered the turning point in this year’s championship fight.
Verstappen started ninth after a problem in qualifying, while Perez started from pole position. However, the reigning champion breezed through the pack, including his teammate and coasted to victory. The Mexican driver’s confidence took a big beating at that race, and his campaign went off the rails since then, making Verstappen’s march to the title a foregone conclusion that culminated on Saturday.
His level of dominance is so spellbinding that his tally of 433 points so far is 107 more than what the Mercedes team has managed this year. With five races left, Verstappen would most likely have won Red Bull the constructor’s title — which the team clinched in Japan — on his own.
And he is not even done for this year. The champion-elect has won 14 of the 17 races this year, including the Qatar GP on Sunday and could better his record of 15 wins, the most in a season set last year.
In a year in which he shattered most records in the books, it would be only fitting he breaks his own. For now, there is no one to stop Max Verstappen!