If Red Bull really is going into the 2021 Formula 1 season in better shape than Mercedes, then we’re about to see something we haven’t in car racing so far: Max Verstappen in a championship fight.
How will he handle it? Is he ready for the change from occasional surprise winner to championship contender?
Here’s what our writers reckon.
This wouldn’t be just any title fight
F1’s absolute greats – and Verstappen is blatantly going to be one of those – never need much of a warm-up for getting in a title fight. When the car’s ready, they’re ready. That will absolutely be the case for Verstappen.
But the caveat here is this won’t be just any title fight. The sheer length of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ domination of F1 makes this uncharted territory, they’ve become a winning steamroller of unprecedented resilience.
The Michael Schumacher/Ferrari alliance is the only comparable situation, and we didn’t get to see if Fernando Alonso and Renault were ready to topple them in a truly straight fight at the first attempt because of how off-guard Bridgestone was caught by 2005’s rule changes. It would be a shock if Mercedes was destabilised to the same extent by 2021’s floor tweaks.
So, yes, Verstappen is ready for an F1 title fight. But an F1 title fight against Hamilton/Mercedes is another level.
Too unflappable to stumble
Is he ready? Of course he is.
Verstappen is one of the most mentally resilient, psychologically airtight drivers that has ever sat on an F1 grid. Being a racing driver is the only thing he has ever done, maximising the car is just what he does.
He races only one way and the points take care of themselves. That will not change one iota if he is in a title fight or not.
He knows exactly how good he is, knows if he is not the champion then there’s a reason outside his control. You could call it ‘competitive arrogance’ if you liked but it’s just a realistic assessment of his own level.
Titles are almost irrelevant. Hence there will be no nerves about whether he bags it or not.
We just don’t know yet
You never really know how a driver will react to the intensity of a world championship fight until they have set foot in that undiscovered country. While trends from junior categories can carry over, the profile and pressure at the top level in Formula 1 is unique.
Some drivers buckle under the pressure of the experience, but those who go on to become the greats are usually cured into granite competitors. In Verstappen’s case, the key question is if he can switch from his mindset of recent years of aggressively attempting to seize every opportunity and know when to attack and when to consolidate in the pressure points.
He’ll back himself to thrive in that environment, but if he’s going up against Lewis Hamilton on equal terms it will be the toughest possible test. The gut feeling is that he will not fall into an early-2018 style tailspin of blunders through being too ‘grabby’, but until he faces the ultimate test it’s impossible to know.
Verstappen doesn’t necessarily have to prevail in his first title fight to prove himself, but if he can make the right decisions in battle with the pressure of the scoreboard on his shoulders, it will indicate he is destined to fulfil predictions of greatness.
What difference does it make?
You can see how a driver can be unaccustomed to leading a race – managing the gap, maintaining concentration, that kind of thing. As certain drivers have shown again and again, it’s an art of sorts.
But is there really an “art”, or an obvious set of guidelines borne out of experience, to winning a championship – something that spans multiple rounds across multiple months, and all sorts of specific situations and moods and challenges? I know we sports journalists certainly like to indulge in this assumption – but I’m really not convinced personally, especially when it comes to racing. I just see it as a set of individual circumstances.
Yes, a title fight changes the parameters for risk and reward – but F1 drivers always have to be aware of situational risk and reward anyway, and if they’re not then they’re not any good. Verstappen, to put it mildly, is “any good”.
And yeah, okay, there’s a mental aspect to it. A driver pursuing their first championship can be overawed by the possibility of capturing it, particularly if it’s been a long time coming. But Verstappen is quite clearly hard-headed enough not to be affected by the prospect, and as for focusing on one single rival in Hamilton, I bet you anything he pays particular attention to the Briton’s laptimes anyway. We all do.
Motorsport – or any sport – is just not that complicated. If you’re fast enough and your car is fast enough, and that combination is faster than anyone else (and decently reliable), you score the points and you get the title.
YES – IF HIS IMPULSIVE STREAK IS KEPT IN CHECK
It’s time for Verstappen to prove his destructive tendencies are completely behind him.
So far in his career, his big glories have come also hand-in-hand with flare-ups.
At World and European Championship level in karting, Verstappen lost titles due to misjudgements and controversial incidents.
But he proved that there were also moments he could string it together and be untouchable.
He was then explosively good in his first year of car racing in European Formula 3, but didn’t win the title as a rookie – and at the end of the year crashed out of the Macau Grand Prix qualifying race from second. That was a silly mistake.
In F1 he has had his moments as well. The big example is the early run of errors in 2018 and the ‘it’s not my fault mentality’ he had afterwards.
Slowly but surely though, Verstappen’s been rounding off the remaining edges. Yes, last year Turkey was an example of him not playing the percentages, and taking a needless risk behind Sergio Perez in pursuit of the race lead that undid his race. But he felt that was just a ‘well, I might as well go for it’ moment in a randomly chaotic race. And says he’d act differently in different circumstances.
He’s become an increasingly effective sniper, so we can give him the benefit of the doubt. But he will need to prove that isn’t just talk if he is in a title-challenging position this year, and prove he can keep his impulsive streak in check