When Max Verstappen suffered a fuel leak on Lap 39 of the 2022 Australian Grand Prix, few could have predicted that the Dutchman would not only overhaul what was then a 46-point deficit to Charles Leclerc, but potentially secure his second World Championship with four rounds to spare.
Since Imola, momentum has firmly been with Red Bull and Verstappen, who have gone on to win 10 Formula 1 races this season. The Dutchman has only missed out on the podium twice in the last 14 races.
The sudden turnaround in the fight for the Drivers’ Championship has also been a story of the constant evolution of Red Bull’s RB18, which has become a world-beater despite being overweight at the start of the 2022 F1 season.
What were the key ingredients to Verstappen’s near-perfect run to a certain second-world title, and how does his title bid compare to Michael Schumacher’s second?
Verstappen’s demolition of the competition
With the stress of 2021 behind him, Verstappen has become more relaxed in his approach to race weekends, in addition to refining elements of his driving.
Although the wins flowed after Imola, Verstappen did have some luck on his side. For example, in Spain, Leclerc suffered a turbo failure on Lap 27, and Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez was forced to relinquish a comfortable lead to the Dutchman.
The turning point came at Baku when a clever Red Bull strategy and a brave move on Perez approaching Turn 1 saw Verstappen cruise to victory. A week later, in Canada, the Dutchman soaked up all the pressure from a hard-charging Carlos Sainz to win for the fifth time in 2022.
But Verstappen’s most eye-catching drives came at the Hungaroring and Spa-Francorchamps, where he fought hard to take victory from 10th and 14th on the grid, respectively.
Spa was a perfect weekend for Verstappen, dominating two practice sessions and qualifying before slicing through the field on a track with not many overtaking opportunities to win comfortably from Perez and Sainz.
That being said, Verstappen let his temper get the better of him when his Red Bull developed steering gremlins in Miami and Hungaroring or a sticking DRS flap in Barcelona, but those episodes are minor blemishes on what’s been a near-perfect season.
The ever-changing face of the RB18
Verstappen’s dominance has also been a story of how Red Bull turned the RB18, which was once fragile, into a seemingly bulletproof machine.
Although Red Bull was one of the last to switch its focus to 2022, the late start didn’t appear to hinder their outright pace a great deal. But a double DNF in Bahrain, as well as Verstappen’s non-score in Australia, caused the team to go back to the drawing board.
The RB18’s weight may remain a problem, but the technical issues which plagued Verstappen at the start of the season have faded away. He has finished all 14 races since Australia and only missed out on the podium twice.
In contrast, early leaders Ferrari and Leclerc have had several chinks in their armour, including a turbo failure in Spain, an engine failure in Baku, and a stuck throttle when Leclerc was leading in Austria.
Even if Ferrari does have the quickest car over one lap, points are won on Sunday in Formula 1. Red Bull’s better race pace and reliability are the two reasons that there is such a noticeable gap between the two teams in the Constructors’ championship.
Leclerc and Perez’s championship bids hit the buffers
Leclerc was joined on the podium in Melbourne by Perez, who had gotten his 2022 campaign off to a strong start with pole position in Jeddah. It seemed that Perez was initially more comfortable with the RB18 than Verstappen was.
The Mexican continued his good run of form with a victory at Monaco sandwiched between two second-place finishes at Barcelona and Baku.
However, just as Red Bull faced a potential headache with both drivers fighting for the championship, Perez’s form took a nosedive, and he only finished on the podium twice thereafter before a dominant win in Singapore.
On the other hand, Leclerc hasn’t lost his form since Australia, taking seven pole positions and a win in Austria. Still, whenever it seems that Leclerc is closing the gap to Verstappen in the championship, luck decides to go against him.
Whether down to technical failures, poor strategies, or even rare mistakes, Leclerc and Perez’s bids to dethrone the reigning champion fizzled out just as they were picking up steam.
Parallels to Schumacher in 1995
If Verstappen were to be crowned champion at Suzuka, he would become the first Red Bull driver to clinch the title at the circuit since Sebastian Vettel in 2011.
Verstappen’s 2022 season shares some similarities with Michael Schumacher’s run to the championship in 1995, with both having rocky starts in cars that were not necessarily the fastest before going on to dominate.
Schumacher came into the 1995 season as the reigning World Champion after a gruelling title fight with Damon Hill and had started the season well with victory in Interlagos, whilst Hill spun out with a suspension failure.
Although Hill had failed to score in Brazil, he bounced back with wins in Buenos Aires and Imola as his Williams FW17 proved to be faster than the Benetton B195 driven by Schumacher in both one-lap pace and race pace.
After Schumacher suffered an accident at Imola, some in the paddock questioned his abilities, but he quickly set the record straight by dominating in Barcelona, taking seven more victories on his way to wrapping up the title with two rounds to go at the Pacific Grand Prix at Japan’s Okayama Circuit.
Like Verstappen, Schumacher overcame a low starting position to win at Spa, charging from 16th on the grid to take a decisive victory in challenging conditions that tested the German’s skills. This win would ultimately lead him to his second world title, setting him up to dominate the sport for the next decade.
Although it is difficult to tell how long Verstappen and Red Bull’s domination of Formula 1 will last, his 2022 season and the similarities it shares with Schumacher’s 1995 herald a trajectory that may lead him to break both the German’s and Lewis Hamilton’s records.