Max Verstappen, confident and at ease, his innate ability fused with judgment and maturity, could not enter the new season in better form. With a Red Bull car that looks formidable it might be considered that the only real threat to Verstappen is Verstappen himself, but of such a fragility there is no sign. Indeed it is dismissed by the people that matter in the paddock – the drivers themselves.
As Formula One’s defending world champion opens his challenge to take a third consecutive title in Bahrain this weekend there is an overwhelming sense that he will not exhibit one iota of weakness, overconfidence or lack of focus because of his remarkable success last year. If anything the men who must compete against him warn he is only growing stronger, among them Lewis Hamilton, well-placed to recognise a champion’s traits.
It was a consummate display of how far the driver has come since he made his debut at 17 in 2015 – the impetuousness, poor decision-making, overaggressiveness and a somewhat all-or-nothing approach that earned him the “Mad Max” moniker was nowhere to be seen. Verstappen executed with a relentless, clinical precision, a distinctive hallmark of the great drivers and notably multiple world champions, particularly the two most successful of the modern era, Michael Schumacher and Hamilton.
There are 23 races this season, beginning here in Bahrain and ending in Abu Dhabi in December. It will be a long road to the championship but Verstappen goes in as firm favourite. His car comfortably held the edge over Ferrari and Mercedes in testing, its excess weight long stripped out and honed to Verstappen’s driving style of having a pointy front-end on turn-in.
Yet there is not a chance of complacency, according to Hamilton, who has been wheel to wheel with him more than any other driver. “I don’t think he will slip up,” the Briton said. “He’s a world champion. I wouldn’t question his determination or his focus, he will be just as focused as ever and it is our job to catch up. I think he will be very confident, they developed an amazing car last year and blew away all the records on pretty much everything. I don’t think they were even pushing at the end and they were still way ahead. I don’t see that changing necessarily starting this season.”
It makes clear that Hamilton knows Mercedes will not be challenging at the start of the season until they can bring in the upgrades they require to begin unlocking the potential they believe is in their car.
Hamilton is not alone in his appraisal of Verstappen. Lando Norris of McLaren, who grew up admiring the Dutchman when he was in karting and has a strong, friendly relationship with him, believes if anything Verstappen’s dominance is only just beginning.
He has changed quite a bit over the last few years. He has looked a lot more focused and in the right space than he ever has done,” said Norris. “He enjoys winning races, the more records he can break and set, that’s only motivation for him.” Might Verstappen break the 15 wins he scored last year, he was asked with not a little incredulity. “I think he very possibly could do more than that,” Norris replied.
Verstappen still has his detractors, especially across an increasingly vituperative and partisan F1 social media, but it is notable that Norris felt entirely comfortable praising his rival. It is a feeling that is widespread in the paddock.
He’s always had what he has since he was a kid, his talent is insane,” said Norris. “His work ethic is also a lot better than people think. He just has a very good ability to understand the limit at any instance, rain or shine. He has the perfect understanding of where the limit is in every aspect. His natural ability is outstanding.”
At the start of the season it will fall to Ferrari to put the pressure on him but the Scuderia, adapting to the new team principal Frédéric Vasseur, appear to still be trying to catch Red Bull. Leclerc will form the schwerpunkt of their assault but while he certainly has the talent to fight Verstappen he has to have the tools and at this stage Ferrari need a little more.
Not that Verstappen or Red Bull are taking anything for granted as Verstappen noted here with undertones of ominous intent. “What you have learned throughout the whole year, last year, gives you a much better understanding of the car,” he said. “That naturally makes it better but that doesn’t mean that we are satisfied. We’re never satisfied, you always want to do better.”
Red Bull look to be the new dominant force in F1. Verstappen has stuck with them since the beginning and both parties are reaping the rewards.
The former driver and Sky Sports broadcaster Naomi Schiff grew up inspired by Verstappen’s career in karting, where his talent had already marked him as an unmissable prospect. “Max was a household name in the world of karting,” she said. “The guy just won absolutely everything. Some drivers really need a car underneath them to be properly set up to be perfect, to get the most out of it. But some can drive wheelbarrows quickly and Max is one of those.”
If Mercedes and Ferrari can bring the fight to Red Bull this season, it will be a challenge enthusiastically embraced. In Verstappen they have a rare talent, perhaps beginning to define an era of F1 that will come to bear his name.
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