February 27, 2024

Through his success in 2023, Max Verstappen delivered the most dominant season by a driver in Formula One history.

Sometimes racing looked like a foregone conclusion before they even started. The hopes raised by a close qualifying would quickly fade as Verstappen got into his groove in the race.

Not only did he beat his previous record of 15 wins in a season starting in 2022. He destroyed it with 19 wins in 22 races – and more than 1,000 laps led.

“If you look back at the season he had, especially on the different challenges of the different places, circuits, conditions, he was just phenomenal this year,” says Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal.

A combination of factors made Verstappen’s season possible, whether it was Red Bull producing such a strong car in the RB19, teammate Sergio Pérez’s struggles, and the lack of sustained threat from rival teams.

But 2023 was also another step in Verstappen’s evolution. Its raw speed and “extremely rare, natural talent,” to quote his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, matched a growing experience that made him almost impossible to beat in 2023.

It was something Horner was quick to notice after Verstappen claimed his third Qatar Sprint title with six Grands Prix to spare. “He always had the speed from the moment he got in the car,” Horner said. But speed alone does not make a champion.

“He arrived in Formula One as quite a diamond in the rough. He is now a very polished diamond. He has retained all his raw qualities, but now brings experience with him.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Scuderia Toro Rosso wait in the pit lane for a team photo during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


Max Verstappen made his F1 debut at 17 in 2015, the youngest driver in the sport’s history. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

That “diamond in the rough” ended up in F1 after only one year in single seater racing. Verstappen has already moved quickly from go-karts to Formula Three, where his performances quickly attracted interest from all the leading F1 teams. Only Red Bull was willing to get him straight into F1 for 2015, starting with its sister team, Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). At 17, Verstappen became F1’s youngest ever driver.

Four races into Verstappen’s second season, Red Bull had seen enough: Daniil Kvyat’s struggles prompted him to promote Verstappen to his senior team and send Kvyat in the opposition direction. It was seen as an enormous leap for the young Dutchman – only for him to win on his Red Bull debut in Spain.

“This diamond in the rough showed up and won his first race. He didn’t polish much, did he?” Paul Monaghan, Red Bull’s chief engineer, said The Athletics. “It wasn’t bad from the start.

“What I saw in Max when he first arrived was a very driven, determined young man with a huge amount of confidence. Sometimes people can see this as arrogance, but it is not. It is confidence and self-belief. And my goodness, he has the talent to back it up.”

That confidence becomes an expectation for nothing but the best – both from the team around him and himself.

“He leaves nothing on the table, he wants it all,” Horner said in Qatar. “It drives and motivates the team internally. He is relentless in his pursuit of achievement, and he doesn’t just want to win. He wants to dominate.”

From winner to champion

There was a time when the idea of ​​Verstappen winning so many races in a season seemed far-fetched. Before 2021, victories were a rarity, not the norm. Mercedes and Ferrari’s lead over Red Bull meant there were few opportunities for Verstappen to challenge for the top spot, limiting him to 10 wins from 2016 to the end of 2020 – as many as he won consecutively between May and September.

It was all part of the learning curve. Verstappen’s fierce battle for the 2021 title with Lewis Hamilton boiled over numerous times, and was finally ended in controversy on the final lap of the season’s final race. The intensity of that championship undoubtedly played a role in Verstappen’s growth.

His father, Jos, was there for every step of the journey. He agreed that the “experience makes him better,” and while he saw no significant change in his son, he doubted such a dominant year would have been possible a few years ago.

“It’s the same Max as three or four years ago,” said Jos in Qatar. “The only difference is that he has a fantastic car around him. He knows the people he works with, and I think that makes it look easy.

“But you still have to be there every weekend, and the details make the difference. For me, if he had this car four years ago, I wouldn’t say he would win 10 more races (in a row). But for sure, he was very close to what we saw now.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 15: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Red Bull Racing celebrates his first F1 victory on the podium with Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 15, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


On his Red Bull debut in 2016, Verstappen took his first F1 victory. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Verstappen’s confidence behind the wheel extends to all his interactions with the Red Bull team. Apart from what Monaghan described as “the occasional verbal barrage” on the radio – hardly a sign of tensionmore of the strength of the relationship — there was another level of confidence and composure this year too.

“Listen to his radio messages: ‘What’s the gap, what’s that, what’s that, what’s the link changes?'” Monaghan said. “It’s all taken by riding as fast as anyone on the track, and it’s just easy. That’s what I see in him. Out of the car, he seems more relaxed to me.”

Underneath it all is the unwavering, unrelenting desire to win. Even through the season’s final six races, when he could have dropped out after clinching the championship, Verstappen didn’t miss a beat. As he put it after the season finale in Abu Dhabi: “Winning is great. Why wouldn’t I want to win?”

Verstappen’s evolution into such a dominant driver has put him in the same conversation as the all-time greats, even at the tender age of 26. In the past two seasons, Verstappen has gone from 20 wins to 54 and jumped from a tie for 17th the all-time wins list to third, with only Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (103) ahead of him. At this rate, both are within his sights before his Red Bull contract expires at the end of 2028.

“He appreciates the history of the sport, and he respects the records that are there,” Horner said.

“A large percentage of his race wins have come in the last two or three years. It really depends on us whether we can provide him with the tools as well. They are massive numbers. (To) Lewis, he’s only halfway there in some ways.

“But he has many races ahead of him.”

(Main image of Max Verstappen in 2023: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)


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