Before you start laughing or post a comment after only reading the headline, let’s be clear – Max Verstappen is not the greatest Formula 1 driver ever, at least not yet.
Greatness requires longevity at the top of your sport for over a decade, doing things that can make your sport bigger off the track. Verstappen is getting there, but still has to prove himself over the next couple of years to join the conversation.
What we can argue is, in terms of raw, natural talent and speed, Verstappen is the best F1 driver the sport has seen. Hear me out.
Has Verstappen had a bad weekend in terms of performance?
Verstappen has shown he’s human with the odd mistake here and there, though he makes very few of them.
Take the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix as an example. He made a mistake when going onto the wet part of the track when trying to overtake Lando Norris which meant he dropped to the back.
But, his pace that weekend was still exceptional. The 25-year-old had two laps that would have given him pole position in the wet by more than one second and he surely would have dominated the race, in similar fashion to his drive at the Japanese GP a week later where he was crowned the champion.
You will find it difficult a weekend where Verstappen has been off the pace in qualifying and the race compared to his teammate in any of his 159 F1 starts. It just hasn’t happened which is staggering.
Considering he was thrown into F1 just over a year after he was driving karts, he didn’t make too many big errors in the early part of his career which was impressive.
Of course there were incidents such as Monaco 2015 when he drove into the back of Romain Grosjean going into Turn 1 or his defensive moves which introduced the so-called “Verstappen rule” which prohibited drivers from moving in the braking zone.
It wasn’t like he was crashing or spinning every few race weekends though, far from it.
“I enjoyed it a lot,” said Verstappen about his rookie campaign. “Some good overtaking, which is what I like.
“Some good points scores and two fourth positions, which are the highlight. [The season was] better than expected, that’s for sure.”
His level of consistency is unprecedented. Even the legends like Lewis Hamilton, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna – they all had a few bad weekends each season.
Michael Schumacher is the only driver you can make an argument for against Verstappen as he was exceptional every weekend during his first five seasons at Ferrari from 1996 to his third world title in 2000.
Verstappen has been on a role since the middle of 2018. The first six Grand Prix of that season were a pivotal period in his career, a spell where he was questioned for his mistakes.
In Australia, he spun when chasing down when chasing down Kevin Magnussen for third place. At the next race in Bahrain, he suffered a puncture when aggressively going down the inside of Hamilton.
The Chinese GP, was one Verstappen should have won but was too aggressive when trying to go around the outside of Hamilton at Turn 7, before turning around Sebastian Vettel at the hairpin.
Then there was Baku, where a controversial collision with teammate Daniel Ricciardo marked arguably the lowest point of Verstappen‘s career.
Even in Spain, where the Red Bull driver finished third, there was a spin along the way and his Monaco 2018 saw him crash again at the Swimming Pool chicane in the final practice session, with his car not repairable for qualifying so he started at the back.
“That hurt him quite badly because he’s obviously extremely quick in Monaco, right up until the point he crashed,” said team principal Christian Horner.
“That was a tough outcome for him and since that point he has driven incredibly well.
“If you look at his season, it’s been very, very strong. He’s driven some great races and he’s maturing and got quite a reasonable amount of experience now.
“He’s performing at an incredibly high level, you can see that in the barometer with his team-mate. They are two very competitive guys and he’s driving extremely well.”
Through this poor run of form though, the speed was always there. It sounds so simple, but Verstappen is just quick every time he gets in the car.
We have to remember, he only did one season of single-seater racing before being flung straight into the deep end into F1.
All of the learning, mistakes and experience he should have done in junior formula took place in front of millions around the world when he made his F1 debut in 2015.
For a guy who was 17 years old, he was seriously impressive and it’s a point in his career which went under the radar.
How many drivers have had such little single-seater experience before being thrown into F1, only Kimi Raikkonen and he was also an extraordinary talent which he proved in his McLaren days.
Norris, George Russell, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, every driver who’s joined the F1 grid over the last two decades had at least a few precious seasons of junior single-seater racing where they could make mistakes, learn the graft of driving a car and also being part of a Grand Prix weekend. Verstappen hasn’t.
Why 2021 was better than 2022
His 2022 season has been sensational, no questions about it. However, nothing will better what he did in 2021.
To end the dominance of Mercedes in his first ever F1 title fight was one of the most impressive campaigns anyone has ever put together.
Whatever you think of Abu Dhabi, put that to one side. Even if Hamilton became an eight-time world champion, Verstappen was the better driver that year.
His ability to perform when it mattered and win the 50-50 races when Red Bull and Mercedes had equal cars with the victory all coming down to strategy, plus driver skill and tyre management, Verstappen won all but one of those types of Grand Prix.
The only way Red Bull could win the French GP for example was by going for a two-stopper because Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were all over Verstappen in the middle of the race.
Arguably, Mercedes had the faster car that day, but Verstappen bolted on a fresh set of medium tyres and managed to catch and overtake Hamilton with one-and-a-half laps to go. One of his best drives ever.
Equally, to soak up the pressure on home soil at Zandvoort, the first Dutch GP for 36 years let’s not forget showed how he can keep a cool head.
You might not think that due to some of his radio antics and some harsh words he’s said in the past. But the Verstappen over the last three years is, as he says “very neutral”. He doesn’t celebrate victories wildly but also doesn’t let bad luck or a car failure put him down.
The way he’s conducted himself to the media has shown he has matured, yet remains very straightforward and honest with his answers too.
In Zandvoort 2021, and this year albeit with fortune on his side, Verstappen was just relentless against the two Mercedes by taking pole position and a hard-fought win both times.
Then, there is the 2021 United States GP, another strategic race which required superb tyre management against possibly the driver who understands the Pirelli rubber best.
Verstappen held on with a long final stint to take a crucial win, not putting a foot wrong to take every bit of life out of the tyres to get over the line in first place.
Hamilton’s race pace has been his strength throughout the turbo-hybrid era but he found his match, and maybe a little bit more, in 2021.
Back to this season, which has been more of the same, except without the controversial incidents and the intense rivalry.
Nevertheless, the way Verstappen is able to find the right setup in practice, deliver on that final run in Q3, get the most from the tyres and drive his heart out has been extraordinary.
How many F1 championships can Verstappen win?
The rest of the field are going to have a massive headache with Verstappen around.
F1 is in a fantastic place with the quality of the grid, but nobody can match the consistency and level that Verstappen has operated at over the last three years.
He is so clever with the way he races and manages his tyres and is a perfect fit for the slick operational Red Bull team.
Adrian Newey says Verstappen has shown “real patience” and pointed to his victory at the 2022 Hungarian GP as a high point.
“His car control is absolutely amazing,” Newey told Sky Sports. “That’s what makes him so special
“For me his standout race was Hungary. He had a problem with the K-shaft snapping in the pitlane and was 10th on the grid.
“Then we had a clutch problem and we had to tell him to not use DRS [in the race] to get the clutch under control and no push back and when we did tell him to push he was clinical.”
Red Bull have had the better car in the second half of the 2022 F1 season, but there were many races when Ferrari and Leclerc were the combination to beat.
Mistakes from the driver, strategists or car problems meant there was no title fight and who was there to pick up the pieces nearly every time? Verstappen.
It must be a real punch to the stomach for Ferrari to know they will be punished every time they put a foot wrong, knowing they need perfection to simply beat Red Bull each weekend.
Verstappen has previously stated he doesn’t want to race in F1 for a long time, but surely he would love to set a new record for the most wins and championships.
He is driving beautifully and has changed the game as to the level a driver must bring to become world champion over the long seasons F1 have nowadays.
Something tells me there are at least a few more titles to come, it’s just a question of how many.
It might not be too long before he joins the GOAT debate…