“There is no such thing as a low-risk lap in Monaco; it doesn’t exist if you want to be fast because you have to be on the limit”, said a 17-year-old Max Verstappen, after he crashed in the qualifying race of the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix, and then out of the main race halfway into it. The narrow streets of Monaco are unforgiving as the youngest entrant of Formula One (F1) would learn. But as his name goes, he never settled for anything below his maximum.
Fast forward to 2023, the two-time world champion has tweaked his explosive driving style to become a serial winner. He emphatically qualified in pole position of this year’s Monaco Grand Prix and then won the main race on May 28 for the second time in his career — battling the rain-soaked French Riviera track — by a mind-blowing margin of 27 seconds, ahead of the second-placed Fernando Alonso.
If pressure makes diamonds, Verstappen had all the right stressors in his journey. He inherited a racing DNA from his mother Sophie, a former mini-kart racer, and father Jos, a former F1 driver, had his development phase under the eternally self-correcting Red Bull, and now is being chased in every race by teammate Sergio Perez, who has himself won two out of six races this season to push Verstappen. But the journey was far from a straightforward one.
In 2015, when he made his F1 debut with Red Bull’s junior team Scuderia Toro Rosso, at 17 years and 166 days old, he was far from flawless, often picking up penalties for dangerous driving and scorns from peers for being reckless; ingredients that earned him Rookie Of The Year and the Personality Of The Year awards. When he was promoted to Red Bull, his karting style of being too late to brake, a technique called dive-bombing, or under-braking irked his peers on the circuit. Kimi Raikkonen would go on to remark that he would someday cause a major accident. Charlie Whiting, F1 race director, also implored the prodigy to tone down his aggression.
Verstappen had to unlearn a win-at-all-cost attitude from his karting days to learning self-preservation. For someone who had built his early career finding unseen lines on the road, Verstappen’s promotion to the senior-most level came with a huge risk for Red Bull because accidents and crashes in an F1 livery meant expensive repairs. But his shortcomings quickly made way for maturity while remaining hell-bent on winning. He clarified soon after his early struggles that he doesn’t need anyone shouting at him for his mistakes.
His first F1 win came aged 18 in 2018, which involved beating the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo, who held five world championship titles and hundreds of race wins between them at the time. Verstappen built a reputation of being a resilient driver who refused to be a pushover simply because his opponents were legends. In fact, tricky race conditions like rain would bring out his best. As a young boy, he would drive with frosted fingers to take full advantage of empty tracks. This conditioning paid off on several occasions, most memorably a third-place finish in the drenched 2016 Brazil Grand Prix, a title-winning first-place finish at the 2022 Japanese Grand Prix and many more.
Speaking to RedBull.com earlier in May this year, he revealed, “Growing up in Belgium and Holland, it rains a lot. So, we never liked to turn around when it suddenly started raining. We would put the rain tyres on and we would go and practice and that just helps a lot. You get a lot more understanding of what you have to do when it rains.”
And learn, he has. After 39 Grand Prix wins, Max Verstappen is now an athlete who relishes the baying of the hounds while basking at the top.
The Verstappen-Red Bull era
Some drivers don’t need all the buttons and features in a car because they know how to extract the maximum out of it. What matters is having one’s eyes on the prize and being a clear communicator to give accurate feedback about the car, which has helped Verstappen and Red Bull arrive at the world’s best-ever F1 livery in form of RB19. With the help of Red Bull’s Chief Technology Officer Adrian Newey, hailed as the best aerodynamicist of both F1 and IndyCar racing, they have manufactured a clear differentiator between them and the rest of the pack. With an agile rear, a steeper rake and rear wings, and a ‘Mad Max’ of a driver in the seat, Red Bull has blown the competition away.
F1’s regulations are meant to create a level-playing field in terms of the engine and other performance parts, but while being mindful of performance parts such as air intakes, power units and batteries, teams are allowed to experiment with the car’s aerodynamics — one thing that Red Bull never stopped focusing on since their arrival in the sport in 2005. Red Bull’s laser focus on innovation based on data has left Mercedes and Ferrari biting the dust. Teams are copying Red Bull’s engines, but they are unable to copy their strategy and design that instantly highlights mistakes by others and helps the car pierce through the air on turns and straight lines.
Across the world of sports, domination has become increasingly hard due to a packed calendar. F1, which began with eight races a year in the 1950s, now features 23 in a calendar year. Back in the day , winning more than a single race granted drivers legendary status. Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez have already delivered six podium finishes out of as many races so far in the 2023 season, and this trend does not look like it’s going to end any time soon.
In 2022 when he won the second world championship title, Verstappen picked up a staggering 15 wins out of a possible 22; a world record. The Max Verstappen-Red Bull story has a script akin to a dramatic sports movie, much like James Mangold’s Ford vs. Ferrari (2019) — gradually building their appetite for success and eventually bursting onto the scene, leaving the giants falling in the rear-view mirror.
What next for Max Verstappen?
When F1’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), announced an additional two sprint races for this season, bringing it to a total of five, Verstappen said that F1 is going away from ‘the spirit of the sport’. He admitted to looking at early retirement, attracted by the idea of running down his 2028 Red Bull contract and taking up other activities. Extra races mean taking extra care of the cars and drivers themselves, who would otherwise reserve their bravery and skill for more significant races.
Interestingly, bitter rival Mercedes’ Team Principal Toto Wolff — who has always been looking to clip Red Bull wings ever since the Austrian sports team seriously upped their game in 2020 — also has similar opinions. Wolff pointed out that these extra races would directly translate into needing more tyres. While that may not be bad news for tyre makers Pirelli, it is certainly a concerning move from the FIA, given the need for sustainability and environment-friendly measures overall.
Nevertheless, Verstappen remains the same unfazed and determined Dutchman who wants to win every single race and never back down from challenging manoeuvres. At the Monaco Grand Prix podium once again, Verstappen sits comfortably at the top of the F1 championship with 144 points and looks to be well on his way to another world championship.