MAX VERSTAPPEN WON the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal on the weekend. He won the race before that in Barcelona, too. And he’ll likely win the next GP in Austria in ten days’ time. It’s Max Verstappen’s world. The rest of us are just living in it.
At least it would appear that way, so dominant has the Red Bull driver been this season. His victory in Montreal was his sixth in eight races and the 41st of his career, matching legendary Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna’s tally, at just 25.
After the victory in Montreal, Red Bull principal Christian Horner hailed Verstappen as an all-time great. “What we are witnessing with Max is the emergence of another mega talent,” Horner said. “You can start talking about him in the same sentence as the greats now after he matched Ayrton Senna.”
That’s true. Verstappen looks to be next in a championship lineage comprising Senna, Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton. It’s also true that Red Bull has the fastest car on the track this year, almost to the point, that if you didn’t know better, you could argue that it doesn’t matter who’s driving it. Verstappen’s only losses this season were to teammate Sergio Pérez, who’s 69 points behind him on the leader board.
The chances of anyone catching either Verstappen or Red Bull this season are about the same as Peter Dutton declining to weaponise the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff admitted as much.
“There’s nothing I can do about their amazing performance,” he said. “It’s likely that they will win every race, moving forwards, this year, unless the Astons and us put a lot more performance on the cars.”
Verstappen and Red Bull will likely claim the drivers’ and constructors’ championships well before the season’s final race in Abu Dhabi, meaning the latter half of the season could be robbed of tension at the top of the leader board. Compare that to the drama of the 2021 season when Verstappen claimed his first F1 championship with a controversial victory over Hamilton in the very last race and you would have to conclude that the Dutchman’s supremacy may be harming the spectacle, at least for the casual fan.
The thing is, those ‘casuals’ comprise a larger portion of the viewing audience than ever before, after the phenomenal success of Netflix’s Drive to Survive docuseries in luring new fans to the sport. It’s a pity, perhaps, that in comparison to the drama and tension those fans enjoyed in the docuseries, the real thing might be viewed as a fast-acting loungeroom sedative.
Still, long-time F1 fans probably aren’t losing too much sleep over Verstappen’s dominance (actually they are, as their indifference means they will continue to stay up late watching races in incompatible time zones). Dominant seasons in F1 are common – each year it quickly becomes clear which team ‘has it’ – ‘it’ being the fastest car. Success in the sport has always hinged as much on technological innovation and engineering prowess as it has on driver skill. It wasn’t so long ago that people were calling for an end to Hamilton’s dominant reign.
None of this should overshadow what a unique talent Verstappen is. Son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, the Dutchman became the youngest F1 driver in history when he joined Toro Rosso at the age of 17 in 2015. In 2016 he joined Red Bull, winning his maiden GP in his first race with the team, a victory that prompted three-time F1 World Champion Niki Lauda to describe Verstappen as the “talent of the century”.
Verstappen’s brilliance is highlighted by his superiority over teammates driving the same car. As former F1 driver Eddie Irvine has noted, Verstappen “has had many different second drivers in the team and none of them have got close to him”.
F1 journalist Scott Mitchell believes Verstappen’s dominance is due to his outstanding natural ability and years spent honing his aggressive driving instincts as a junior. “Verstappen drives mainly on intuition, and that comes from years of training and preparation,” Mitchell wrote. “He has a database in his head which he can use immediately . . . what makes Verstappen so good is mainly unconscious.”
It’s true, the 25-year-old is not the easiest guy to root for, at least if you’re not Dutch. He’s often direct and blunt in response to issues on the track and circumspect in celebration. He’ll never possess the blinding charisma of a Daniel Ricciardo, but then who will? And who really needs it when you’re busy polishing trophies anyway?
Otherworldly natural talent is often polarising – just ask Novak Djokovic. Was Michael Jordan’s domination of basketball in the ’90s boring? Was Usain Bolt’s near ‘triple treble’ of gold medals at three separate Olympics dull? For some, perhaps. For others, those years marked a golden age.
Are we entering another?
Ben Jhoty covers sport and wellness for Esquire Australia.