Max Verstappen is the rising star of Formula 1, with most seeing him as a future world champion given the success he has already had with Red Bull.
But what is it about the 22-year-old that makes him so good? In this special feature adapted from a recent episode of The Race F1 Podcast, Mark Hughes, Scott Mitchell and Edd Straw deconstruct the Dutchman by analysing his key strengths, and imagine what might happen in a title fight between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
The Race F1 Podcast is available free to subscribe to via all good podcast suppliers.
Qualifying wasn’t the standout part of Verstappen’s game in junior racing – winning was. But here we’re only talking about the last little shavings of putting a lap together in that critical moment.
His raw, underlying speed was what was winning races, whereas as he’s become more experienced and understood the discipline required in a grand prix weekend he has been able to put qualifying together too. He’s only got two pole positions – he’d argue three because of his Mexico 2019 penalty – but you can’t be fastest in qualifying very often if you don’t have the machinery.
His time alongside Daniel Ricciardo showed the improvement. Ricciardo is a great qualifier and initially he had the advantage, but Verstappen did eventually get on top of him and had just over a tenth in hand in qualifying in their final season together at Red Bull.
Watching Verstappen’s onboards in qualifying throughout last year showed he’s still a little scrappy at times and not always piecing it together. Often it’s in the braking phases where he can make small errors and that can stop him maximising a full lap.
But when he does put it together, he’s stunningly fast.
There have been occasions when he’s left potential pole positions on the table – Monaco and Mexico in 2018, for example, but he’s evolved since then. The next test will be when he can challenge for poles on a regular basis.
You can argue that minor inconsistency is also partly because in this period of Red Bull’s history he’s often been consigned to the third row whatever happens, so he puts it on the line to try to overachieve knowing the consequences will be starting sixth instead of fifth.
If Red Bull and Honda become consistent title challengers his approach might change – not by much, but enough to refine his qualifying game further.
Verstappen has always been a driver capable of executing a race well, but he has improved that game during his time in F1 to the point where he’s close to Hamilton’s level on Sundays.
Like Hamilton, he’s capable of overcoming a pace deficit and pulling off overtaking moves at critical moments so he’s gone from strength to strength.
There was a point where he was perhaps panicking, or at least being impatient, in race situations but he’s tempered that. Now, as team principal Christian Horner has said, when you see Verstappen in your mirrors it feels like a question of when rather than if he will pass you.
What’s clear is he’s never been overawed by anyone. He knows he belongs at the front in F1 and he’s prepared for that his whole life
He’s become more measured, not losing aggression but gaining patience and still having that ability to pull off a decisive move.
In terms of wheel-to-wheel racing, he’s always in the right place. That’s just instinct. You can argue that he might even have surpassed Hamilton on that score, although we probably need to see a few more seasons play out to be sure of that.
Verstappen has also learned how to ensure he doesn’t ask too much of his opponent when passing, although there are still some occasions where his judgement isn’t perfect, such as where he put his car at the start at Spa last year. But usually, he achieves the perfect blend of precisions and aggression.
We also saw one of his great strengths showcased as soon as he moved to Red Bull, Verstappen winning in Spain on a two-stop strategy on his debut with the team. He put a lot of work into understanding tyre management while at Toro Rosso and he executed that race brilliantly. And he’s built on that over the years.
That race also required intelligent management of the battery power under pressure from Kimi Raikkonen and it showed he has the capacity to think through what he needs to do to achieve the result. He has the spare capacity that great drivers have.
Defensively, Verstappen was guilty earlier in his career of being overly aggressive and moving around in braking zones. We also saw his famous move on Raikkonen on the Kemmel Straight at Spa in 2016, but he’s curbed that now.
What’s clear is he’s never been overawed by anyone. Go right back to his first season in 2015 and he was able to run with the big guns in the United States GP.
He knows he belongs at the front in F1 and he’s prepared for that his whole life.
Verstappen has a clear understanding of the dynamics of driving and is able to translate that into giving strong and precise feedback to the team. Often we do hear him complaining over the radio, but that reflects his sensitivity.
His clear-headedness extends to his understanding of what the car is doing and the clarity of communication with his race engineer. His answers are always clear and concise and that gives his engineer exactly what he needs from the driver. It’s a good balance and that helps Verstappen to be consistently, relentlessly fast.
The relationship with Gianpiero Lambiase is phenomenally effective – up there with the Hamilton/Bono (Peter Bonnington) partnership. You do hear venting over the radio but the communication is always constructive.
Honda also appreciates the precision of the technical feedback it gets from Verstappen. This gives it information that can be applied trackside to give instant improvement as well as longer-term gains. In return, Verstappen appreciates Honda’s attention to the finer details – right down to its wiring arrangement.
He’ll often complain about power delivery or the feel of the car under braking because those are areas Renault in particular struggled to make consistent, but Honda also has had to work on them. But Verstappen doesn’t let the shortcomings inhibit him.
Red Bull plays a big part in this as well. This was the team that got the best out of Sebastian Vettel, who has struggled to recreate his form in the Ferrari environment where he’s been left to find his own way. It requires both sides to work to build that rapport.
Verstappen has also benefited from being elevated to being Red Bull’s undisputed number one. He’s the future of the team and is the driver those in the team gravitate around.
The way he interacts with the engineering team is very encouraging, and last year we saw Pierre Gasly in particular struggle to break through in the same way.
This is critical for anyone in elite sport and, at 22, you’d perhaps expect Verstappen not to be as strong here as someone as established as Hamilton. But he’s certainly getting there as he matures.
There are still moments where he’s not completely on top of things, In Mexico last year he lost pole thanks to not backing off under yellow flags. While he admitted he saw the crashed car, he didn’t see the yellows but should have been wise to the fact a flag would be out there.
It’s not a question of ignoring it, but that’s the kind of awareness you need to avoid these problems. His reaction to the whole thing was strange as well, because he was being asked questions about it and was getting frustrated, therefore creating problems by looking more petulant than he is.
Like so many, he does have that ‘with me or against me’ mentality sometimes. But overall, he’s become much better at keeping his emotions in check and channelling setbacks, such as he did in recovering from that disastrous start in Austria 2019.
Sometimes he doesn’t back down when he should, but those cases are becoming rarer
That said, he did also make errors at the start at Spa and Monza last year when he was a little behind where he thought he should have been, which was a combination of not playing the percentages and getting caught out by how slowly a grand prix field at the back goes through the first chicane at Monza on the first lap.
But Verstappen is only going to get stronger and the core belief in himself and his ability is supreme – just as it is with Hamilton. He recovered from the problems of 2018 and emerged from it a stronger driver. Sometimes that means he doesn’t back down when he should, but those cases are becoming rarer. And his level of performance is always sustained.
This does sometimes manifest itself as a refusal to admit he has made a mistake when he clearly has, but that’s not unusual for a driver of this type. Nothing can be allowed to permeate that supreme self-belief.
When he had his run of mistakes in early 2018 he kept denying he either had or needed to change his approach, although once the dust had settled towards the end of the season he did concede he made changes and he’s the better for it.
Red Bull also, through that period, tried to help him stand on his own two feet and become more self-sufficient. The only question now is how he stands up to the impact of a world championship fight, which is very different to sniping for the odd win.
A title battle will be the final test of his mental strength.
While this aspect has been touched on in technical ability, the great drivers are very effective at become the focal point of a team and pulling it together Michael Schumacher-style.
Verstappen’s not at the level Schumacher achieved yet, but a team does gravitate to the driver who is performing. While Schumacher approached building Ferrari strategically, this has happened more organically for Verstappen.
He also benefits from not having any kind of megastar personality. He lives and breathes racing, as you’d expect from someone who was raised by father Jos Verstappen to be a driver. He’s been in and around teams all his life, so it’s just normal for him to be part of them.
That, combined with the magnetism that his performances create, makes him the natural focal point. Red Bull has worked hard to accommodate him and the team works well.
Honda loves him, too. When Verstappen visited one of the Honda mass production facilities in Japan, there was basically a kilometre-long guard of honour from the employees because they idolise him there.
He’s the guy that ended the win drought and now he’s building up a relationship that’s comparable with what Ayrton Senna did with Honda. This could grow to become one of the great partnerships in F1 history.
Max’s influence on a team has also impacted so many other drivers’ careers. Carlos Sainz Jr, Ricciardo and Gasly have all suffered not because of anything Verstappen did to them, but because of his performance levels.
That makes Verstappen the worst team-mate you can have in some ways, but his enduring relationship with the likes of Sainz and Ricciardo shows that it’s not a personal thing.
He’s easy to get on with off the track, but difficult to live with on it and isn’t overly political within the team – sometimes politics have been at play, but one step removed from him.
Verstappen heads into his sixth season and has 102 F1 starts under his belt, so that makes experience an interesting question because he’s still only 22. But he’s been bred to be a racing driver, the offspring of Jos Verstappen and Sophie Kumpen, who was a very rapid karter in her day, and he’s been building up experience behind the wheel his whole life.
He also has the advantage of being able to learn from Jos’s mistakes. Jos has talked about trying to show Max the guidance he never had after what was ultimately the failure of his own very promising career and that means he’s very different to the average driver. No driver on the grid has had that kind of grounding, not even Hamilton with his McLaren training.
He’s the ultimate experiment in what happens when you combine nature with nurture
Verstappen started karting very young but also it wasn’t just about winning, it was about learning. Alongside the usual categories, he also raced in shifter karts and won the world championship up against guys with vast levels of experience. Throughout his career, he’s avoided taking the easy option and faced new challenges, so at 22 he’s probably reached a point it would take others another five years to reach.
Jos once claimed that in karting he used to avoid putting a little oil on the clutch to improve the start, just so that Max had more work to do. He had to fight his way forward. That reflects the mentality.
It wasn’t just ‘win’, it was ‘win the hard way and learn your art’. That’s how his underlying ability was refined and he was bred into the driver he is. In that regard, he’s the ultimate experiment in what happens when you combine nature with nurture, and this is why he’s so driven to extract more and more from himself.
While he is still young, there’s no obvious shortfall of information in the databanks he has built up that would lead to him doing something stupid. And he’s only going to continue to get better.
TITLE CREDENTIALS AGAINST HAMILTON
To bring this together, in a hypothetical situation where both Verstappen and Hamilton have identical car performance in all areas when 2020 gets going, who will prevail?
It’s the dream scenario and the pair would balance each other out so tightly. In qualifying, it would likely be all but equal between them on that score. But in races, we can expect Verstappen perhaps to be more combative and it will be interesting to see how Hamilton reacts to that because we know he’s not completely sure how to deal with him wheel-to-wheel.
Would that give Verstappen the edge, or could it be that Hamilton will use his experience to sucker him into mistakes, as he did in China 2018 by tempting him to pass in a place that wasn’t feasible?
There would certainly be some epic battles, and initially it could be that Hamilton’s greater experience and ability will allow him to stay on top. But drivers learn a lot from a failed title bid and if Verstappen did lose out the first time, he would be an even more complete version the second time.
Even Hamilton isn’t immune to the impacts of ageing, so he won’t be able to stay on top forever. There will be a crossover point between the two eventually but initially it will be something of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
Now Verstappen has two shots at the title before the new rules, it’s very likely he will get a championship under his belt before F1 transforms.
Whatever happens, this should be one of those rare generational battles between an existing superstar and a rising one.
Hamilton is already one of the few all-time greats and Verstappen is well on his way to that status, so it’s going to be a gripping fight.