Max Verstappen is only in his 4th Formula One season but has already claimed 5 victories, 21 podiums and 655 championship points. He is already regarded as one of the best on the grid and many are touting him as a world champion in the making but could he achieve this as early as next year?
First we need to take a look at his career to date, In 2014 Verstappen would participate in his maiden season of FIA European Formula 3, a tough series where experience typically counts. Despite this the young Dutchman took 10 wins including 6 in a row to finish 3rd in the standings finishing behind Tom Blomqvist and Esteban Ocon. This would see him get the nod from Red Bull to join their junior team Toro Rosso for 2015, Verstappen would be partnered with Carlos Sainz who was also about to embark on his debut F1 season in a very strong if not experienced lineup.
Verstappen would soon make a name for himself, he was fast but he was also a brilliant overtaker, Carlos Sainz is highly rated but Verstappen had the measure of him taking 49 points on his way to 12th in the standings. Even in his first season he was already setting records, in Malaysia he became the youngest ever points scorer at the age of 17 as well as being the youngest ever F1 driver. 4th place finishes in Hungary and the USA as well as a bold overtake around the outside of Felipe Nasr in Spa led to many touting him as the next Ayrton Senna but blunders like his crash with Grosjean in Monaco would highlight his impetuous nature.
2016 would begin with Verstappen remaining at Toro Rosso once again partnered by Carlos Sainz. The team would benefit in the early part of the season by running a 2015 Ferrari engine, although it wouldn’t see any development throughout the year it had good reliability compared to it’s rivals to which Verstappen would benefit scoring 13 points in the first 3 races.
In the sister team Red Bull the bosses were unhappy with the performances of driver Daniil Kvyat who showed some massive inconsistency despite claiming a podium in China. In the 4th round in Russia Daniil Kvyat would collide with Vettel and teammate Ricciardo resulting in both Red Bulls failing to score points. Red Bull who were impressed with the speed and consistency of Verstappen opted to swap him with Kvyat promoting Verstappen to the big team for the remainder of the season. This would prove to be his biggest test to date, he had nowhere to hide in the Red Bull and had a formidable teammate on Daniel Ricciardo who already had 3 race wins to his name.
The Spanish Grand Prix would see Verstappen make his debut with the team, he was slower than Ricciardo throughout the weekend but was impressive enough considering this was his first race with the team. He qualified 4th a few tenths behind teammate Ricciardo but come race day everything was about to change, both Mercedes drivers collided and took each other out of the race gifting Ricciardo the lead. Vettel would hound Ricciardo while Verstappen would sit in 3rd, both Ricciardo and Vettel would opt to make a second pit stop while Raikkonen and Verstappen would stay out. Both managed their tyres to the end and Raikkonen hounded Verstappen to the chequered flag but Max kept a cool head and won on his Red Bull debut cementing himself as the youngest ever race winner.
Verstappen would take a further 5 podiums that season on his way to 5th in the standings that season, Brazil being a particular triumph with a mega drive in the wet where he made overtaking look easy in treacherous conditions. The 2017 season would start well with Verstappen taking a podium in China despite and engine issue on Saturday forcing him to start 19th but things would soon turn sour for Verstappen. 5 retirements in the first 9 races was not the kind of results that Verstappen expected especially now that he had a taste for fighting for wins.
The season would prove to be a test of his resolve, if poor reliability wasn’t bad enough Verstappen would find himself squeezed by the two Ferrari’s in Singapore causing an almighty crash in a race where he could have challenged for the win. Verstappen would eventually win in Malaysia in dominant fashion ahead of Lewis Hamilton, he showed that not only can he reach the podium by overtaking but also by controlling the pace and leading from the front something he repeated this in Mexico.
The start of the 2018 season would prove to be a disaster, he would spin from 5th chucking away good points in Australia, collide with Hamilton and retire in Bahrain, spin Vettel round throwing away a potential win in China and crashing with Ricciardo in Baku. His most costly mistake was ruining any chances of fighting for pole in Monaco when he pushed too hard in Saturday practice wrecking his car and preventing him from taking any further part in the action that day.
Many claimed that Verstappen would need to change his approach if he wanted any future title success something which Verstappen didn’t take kindly to. Whether he has changed his approach or not will remain a mystery but ever since Canada Verstappen has been the faster of the two Red Bull drivers and has an outside shot of finishing 3rd in the drivers standings.
A needless crash with Ocon in Brazil however highlights the fact that Verstappen still has much to learn. Ocon was trying to un lap himself when the two collided after Verstappen refused to yield throwing away a certain victory for the Dutchman. Mistakes like that would be very costly in a championship fight particularly when they were as avoidable as the incident in Brazil.
Red Bull have been very critical of their engine partners Renault since the beginning of the turbo-hybrid era. Poor reliability as well as a power deficit have prevented the team from fighting for regular wins and the title but next year has the potential to be different. From next season Red Bull will have Honda power and have been impressed by the progress the Japanese manufacturer has made with sister team Toro Rosso. If the engine is going to be as competitive as Red Bull expect then coupled with the almighty chassis we usually expect from Red Bull we may well see them challenge for the title in 2019.
Max Verstappen has now firmly established Red Bull as his team, they naturally gravitate towards him and he can do no wrong in their eyes. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo will leave the team at the end of the Season and will be replaced by Pierre Gasly, this is an ideal situation for Verstappen as he can cement his number one status in the team while Gasly acclimatises himself with the team.
No one doubts the speed of Verstappen, I would argue that he is second only to Lewis Hamilton in terms of outright speed. He also has the consistency of a world champion not to mention the star power that you usually associate with them. Reducing the number of hot-headed moments or just silly impatient mistakes will be his biggest challenge ahead of him. Don’t forget that Verstappen is only 21 years old, Kimi Raikkonen is set to run into his 40’s so Verstappen has a long road ahead of him. I’m sure we will see Max challenge the record books set by Michael Schumacher and currently set by Lewis Hamilton in the near future.
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