I wonder how different the levels of inner satisfaction are for Max Verstappen, now that he has claimed his second world championship? When he dreamed of winning a title, his 2022 campaign was definitely more what he had in mind…
It happened the other way around for Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he became F1’s new dominator. He won his first title cleanly in 1988, but his second was tarnished after the incident at Suzuka where he deliberately knocked out Alain Prost at the start of the Japanese GP in 1990.
Max has always made it very clear that he felt fulfilled in winning his first title last year at the last breath in Abu Dhabi, whatever the circumstances. It was what it was, and however it happened, he was the world champion. As I wrote recently, I believe he felt he had to “destroy” Lewis race-by-race (metaphorically speaking), the same way Ayrton had felt he had to dismantle Alain. And that’s why Max Verstappen, 2022 world champion, stood in stark contrast to his 2021 alter ego.
Last year there were several moments – I select the start of the Spanish GP for convenience – when his tactics were extremely tough. The way he pushed his Red Bull to the inside of Turn 1 left Lewis with two choices: crash or switch. Wisely he chose the latter, but later had the satisfaction of beating Max to victory. But Max’s move, and the praise it received from Red Bull boss Christian Horner, left no doubt about the intensity of their title intent and ambition.
2022 Japanese Grand Prix: Verstappen crosses the line to seal Suzuka victory – and takes his second world championship title
Looking back, I think Max felt in his heart that he had to ride that BAM way (whichever way). He just had to beat Lewis. And with that season’s revised rules, which partially cut off Mercedes’ aerodynamic wings, in the Red Bull RB16B he had a car that was generally better than the Mercedes W12 at that stage of the season. Finally, after years of waiting, he had the means and thus a really serious chance to challenge the recognized master on an equal footing.
Things have been so very different this year, haven’t they? In the RB18, Max has had the equipment to show a very different side of his skills. He looked sleek, cunning, incredibly fast and highly polished. As a man who has embraced his destiny, and was completely comfortable with realizing it because, in terms of confidence, machines and other factors, such as the different levels of other drivers’ competitive packages, he found that all the planets for lined him up.
Yes, there were some unusual spins – in Spain and Hungary – but predictably he recovered from them almost immediately where a lesser man wouldn’t, and they barely slowed him down, although in Spain he won thanks to the collaboration of teammate Sergio Perez . But otherwise he has hardly made a mistake and he certainly has not felt the need to stick out his elbows as he often did in 2021. He has slipped seamlessly into his newfound status as the pacesetter – The Man.
You didn’t just see it in his impeccable driving style and his ability to get the best out of the RB18 and its various Pirelli tires – having been slightly replaced after the Monaco era period when it may have lost its super grippy front end traction and so preferred Checo’s driving style.
Even when there were times when he might not be able to squeeze out as much in qualifying as the driver in him would have liked, he generally got it the way he wanted in races when he was able to pull that together into a excellent tire management that often proved crucial. What he did with it in Spa was absolutely unparalleled.
But he was sure that if eggs are eggs, this year so far has not won 12 out of 18 races simply by having the best car or luck. Where Mercedes flopped and Ferrari, who probably had the fastest machine, often blundered, he and Red Bull were so rarely wrong. They complemented each other beautifully.
But you also saw the change in his demeanor from the cockpit. He may feel less attacked by elements of the media that would question his past driving tactics, but he’s back to being the laid-back, funny character he could be in post-race press conferences and interviews, eager to speak with eloquence and eloquence. candor then heeds the irritability of the besieged by delving deeply into selected topics of conversation that occupied him.
But it would be wrong to suggest that he has matured or matured because Max has always been incredibly mature; he’s just a much more relaxed and contented sportsman who knows he’s currently at a new pinnacle in a career that could eventually elevate him to challenge even Lewis’ astonishing string of successes. After all, he is only 25. Can you imagine what he could achieve in 10 years at Red Bull?
2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix: Leclerc and Verstappen battle for lead in final laps
One of the best aspects of his season, besides the lack of controversy, has been the closeness of his races with Charles Leclerc, and the way it has never become as intense as the battles with Lewis, who often crossed the line. That might say something about how Max sees the Monegask, who has certainly kept him on his toes at times, compared to Lewis, who obviously hasn’t had the car to compete on an equal footing this year. But it also talks about the competitiveness of its equipment in 2022.
The Ferrari was sometimes a better car, but the Red Bull has almost always been within reach, and the way the new ground effect cars work when driven close together may have played a key role as well. As Max says, the older cars can get a little tense when they drive so close, which might explain a bit why there has been no contact this year.
Likewise, it could also be that Max knows that Ferrari is more likely to drop the ball than Mercedes in 2021, and that his advantages are enough that he simply doesn’t have to take any risks. That’s exactly the kind of mentality a champion can afford and a pretender can’t; when you have a car like the RB18 and a team like Red Bull running the show, you don’t always have to win.
Indeed, after the summer break, they warmed up again with that fantastic back-to-front win in Belgium and then reruns of first-to-the-flag in the Netherlands and Italy. I loved it when he said afterwards, “We don’t need any more wins,” although we added, of course, “but we still want them.” Once a driver, always a driver, right? And that feeling runs right through the people at Red Bull.
But he has found the inner peace he showed in 2022, Max was much more of a Mohammed Ali than a Francis Ngannou. Much more of a rapier than a machete. And in that style lay the cornerstone of his title defense. But that’s not to say his old character might not come back, should Mercedes give Lewis a fully competitive car in 2023…
You have to be honest and accept that for many fans around the world there will always be hair on the cake of Max’s title success in 2021 because of the extraordinary circumstances in which it was won. Not that Max cared.
But this time, in what will surely be just another step in a slew of title successes to come, there can be absolutely no doubt about the fundamental elegance and fairness of a second title won in a way that reflects of the very best the sport has seen since 1950. The success of 2021 may have stilled some of the inner fire that burned within him when he was a pretender. But the 2022 one is one that a double champion can truly enjoy forever.