Max Verstappen may not be heading into the winter with Formula 1’s champion trophy, but at just twenty years of age, he can certainly lay claim to being F1’s star of the future. The titles will come, but for now, Verstappen can be happy in the knowledge that he’s arguably F1’s most feared driver.
It might seem like a bold tag to place on a driver with just three wins to his name, but the key to Verstappen’s growing stature is that he’s still somewhat of an unknown to his rivals. Lewis Hamilton knows what to expect from Sebastian Vettel, and vice-versa, but Verstappen isn’t even near his peak and is still springing surprises on a regular basis.
His victory in the Mexican Grand Prix was perhaps the most impressive of his three Grand Prix victories, and almost certainly the strongest weekend he’s put together so far. A stunning qualifying lap put him on the front row alongside Vettel, and agonisingly just 0.086s shy of becoming F1’s youngest ever pole sitter. The fact that Verstappen was annoyed afterwards not to have clinched pole is a sign of the remarkable confidence he possesses.
The aggressive move he made to take the lead into Turn Two was inch perfect in its execution; Hamilton and Vettel, on the other hand, could have each done with an inch or two to spare as the space around them quickly closed, forcing them into contact and out of contention before the race had begun.
To suggest the championship contenders’ absence at the front made Verstappen’s victory less impressive would be a harsh call. He still had a very quick Mercedes to contend with in the shape of Valtteri Bottas – desperate to regain his early season form and prove a point – but in reality, Verstappen made it look easy.
Bottas struggled to match Verstappen’s pace when it really mattered, and as his lead grew, Red Bull race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase was even heard to ask his young charger to slow down, prompting amusement from Verstappen who appeared to be focusing his efforts solely on his pursuit of the fastest lap.
What lies ahead for Verstappen now depends largely on Red Bull’s ability to stay on par in the development race. If Red Bull can avoid another slow start and take its current form into 2018, Verstappen will be a major contender in next year’s championship battle.
Earlier this month it was announced that Verstappen would be extending his existing Red Bull deal through to the end of 2020, matching the length of Vettel’s new Ferrari deal and ending speculation that he might move elsewhere. Christian Horner’s comments clearly show that Red Bull see Max as its prize asset.
“I think he can see the strength and depth of the team,” Horner told Motorsport.com. “He feels comfortable in the team. He’s the youngest Grand Prix winner; he’s the youngest double winner, he’s the youngest points scorer.
“Lewis is pretty set at Mercedes, Seb has signed for three years at Ferrari. The obvious thing is to build a team around [Verstappen]. But it’s down to us to provide him with a competitive car.”
If that competitive car does come, it would appear that Red Bull’s focus will shift towards Verstappen in the way it did towards Vettel during his title-winning years with the team. That’s an ominous thought for Red Bull’s rivals, and perhaps enough to nudge Daniel Ricciardo towards the exit door should he feel he’s not getting a fair crack of the whip.
All the great champions have shown the ability to build a team around them to some extent, but with F1 teams so much bigger these days, having that focus towards your side of the garage can be hugely beneficial. Verstappen’s father, Jos, will know all about that from his time as Michael Schumacher’s teammate at Benetton in the nineties.
Sometimes momentum, speed, and raw talent still aren’t enough to guarantee success; a toughness on track and a degree of intelligence off it come in handy as well. Verstappen’s fearlessness and willingness to push the limits set him aside from many others on the grid; his move on Raikkonen in Austin is just one example of that. But those are the opportunities that top drivers very rarely pass up; “make the move, then argue about it afterwards” is perhaps a motto Max might well adopt for himself in years to come.
In practice for the Mexican Grand Prix, Mercedes accused Verstappen of blocking Valtteri Bottas’ hot lap in the stadium section. When asked for his opinion on it afterwards, Verstappen was unphased: “There is no incident for me. That’s his own problem if he out-brakes himself in the next corner.”
It’s this “couldn’t give a f***” attitude that some see as arrogance, but in reality, it’s probably one of the few character traits he’s picked up from his father, Jos. Thankfully, Verstappen’s mother, Sophie, herself a champion karter who raced and beat the likes of Jenson Button and Giancarlo Fisichella, has had enough of an influence on Max to ensure he’s a more level-headed character than Jos was when he raced.
With the right car and the right guidance, Verstappen could easily go on to dominate the next decade in F1. Beating the likes of Vettel and Hamilton along the way will make that first championship just that little bit sweeter when it comes.