No matter what you think of the controversial conclusion to the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship, Max Verstappen showed exactly why he was rated so highly by many people in the sport.
In a season when there was nothing to separate Mercedes and Red Bull over 23 races, with the driver making the crucial difference, Verstappen was outstanding.
It required a mammoth effort to beat Lewis Hamilton and it’s taken a driver as special as Verstappen to finally dethrone the seven-time World Champion.
Verstappen has always been exceptionally fast throughout his racing career. Perhaps most impressively he gets up to speed quickly on a race weekend, before having the ability to really push the limits in qualifying.
The Red Bull driver somehow finds more time as qualifying progresses, reading the every-changing track conditions, to put everything on the line in Q3 so he can hook up a spectacular lap.
You can’t teach that skill and it’s a driver quality which Verstappen will always have in his locker.
The 2021 season saw Verstappen break Michael Schumacher‘s record for the most podiums in a season. Remarkably, he finished in the top two at every race where he saw the chequered flag, apart from the Hungarian GP when he nursed a damaged car to ninth place.
To bring your A-game to every race weekend is difficult and very few drivers are capable of performing as such a high level over 10-month period.
At each event, Verstappen had the beating of teammate Sergio Perez, who is certainly not a bad driver. He was outqualified just once by Perez, at the Emilia Romagna GP, but was faster by an average of over half a second in 2021.
Verstappen also comfortably won the races where Red Bull had the car to beat, dominating the Monaco, Styrian, Austrian and Mexico GP. The same can’t be said for Hamilton in 2021, and that was pivotal.
Handling the pressure
Remember, 2021 was Verstappen‘s first title fight but he drove like he’d been involved in multiple championship battles.
Some of his qualifying laps, when the pressure is at its highest on a race weekend, were incredible. Take the United States GP for example.
Perez was provisionally on pole position after the first run in Q3, before Hamilton went quickest whilst Verstappen was yet to complete his lap since he was the last car to start his final lap.
Under immense pressure, he delivered by stealing pole position from Hamilton. In the race, Verstappen had to replicate Hamilton’s sensational performance from the season-opening Bahrain GP, by doing a very long second stint as well as having enough pace to stay in the lead.
Despite Hamilton‘s late charge, Verstappen just did enough to come out on top. Earlier in the season, Verstappen impressed by winning other races where Mercedes and Red Bull had equal cars.
In France, you could argue Mercedes had the fastest car in the race, but a perfect strategy, which was brilliantly executed from Verstappen gave Red Bull the victory. Verstappen provided plenty of evidence he can match Hamilton on tyre management in 2021 and that shouldn’t be understated.
Even at the final race in Abu Dhabi, it would have been so easy for Verstappen to make a mistake when attacking Hamilton on the last lap of the Grand Prix.
Instead, he placed his car perfectly at Turn 5 and was fully confident that he wouldn’t lock up or brake too late as he dived down the inside of Hamilton. Pressure just doesn’t get to the young Dutchman.
A psychological advantage
Whether you think Verstappen‘s driving style when in wheel to wheel combat is right or wrong, it’s certainly given him an advantage in the on track mind games against Hamilton.
It’s a department which former F1 driver David Coulthard pointed out, noting that Hamilton is having to think about where Verstappen is if the Red Bull driver is setting up an overtake.
“He [Verstappen] fears nobody,” Coulthard told Channel 4. “That’s not a part of his psyche. The thing that I find most impressive is, if there’s a gap, he goes for it. There’s not even a doubt.
“When I was racing, I used to weigh up, ‘Should I risk it now, should I not risk it?’. He just goes for it. It really is quite special.
“Lewis has to keep opening up the door because he knows he’s coming and that’s got in the psyche of Lewis.”
Unless the stewards give Verstappen a severe punishment for some of his over the limit racing moves, he will always have an advantage when racing his rivals because they will be aware that the defending champion has the confidence to throw the car to the inside or outside of them.
At the age of just 24, Verstappen doesn’t appear to have any weaknesses and that’s a scary thought, because he’s only going to get better.