Rash. Petulant. Immature. These adjectives were never too far away from Max Verstappen in the early years of his career.
At times he very much needed that all-or-nothing, take no prisoners attitude. His first few seasons were spent in the shadow of a dominant Mercedes meaning Verstappen had to get every drop of performance out of the Red Bull car to even see the Silver Arrows on the track.
It was a criticism that followed Verstappen through the years. In 2021, that same style was put under the microscope when a couple of high-profile clashes with Lewis Hamilton saw the seven-time World Champion label his rival as “dangerous, crazy and for sure over the limit.”
But, aside from his often-fraught radio messages, that Verstappen is rarely seen these days. A World title is always going to change your mentality but a move away from rash decisions and to calculated risks in 2022 has been further evolved in 2023.
There was a perfect moment to symbolise this in Austin but first let us go back to Sao Paulo 2022. Verstappen was already the World Champion but when he and Hamilton were side-by-side going into Turn 2, neither driver was willing to back out of it.
The result was inevitable. Contact was made and Verstappen ended up finishing the race sixth while Hamitlon recovered to a podium place.
So when both drivers came close in the opening lap in Austin, it would have been fair to assume a similar outcome would occur. Verstappen has never been a driver to yield a corner lightly and yet he did just that in Austin. Recognising that it was a choice of contact or applying the brake, Verstappen eased off and both made it through unharmed.
If you wanted a clear moment to demonstrate the difference between 2023 Verstappen as opposed to the one that came before then that was it, in fact the whole race defines this new and improved version. It was not the frantic charge through the field that many had expected following his P6 in qualifying but instead a patient, methodical approach. Placing his faith in the quicker car and the belief that over 56 laps, he would get the job done.
To call it maturity suggests he has been immature up until this point but in 2023, Verstappen has embraced losing a battle to win the war. Another example of this new line of thinking came in Baku when George Russell crashed into his Red Bull during the sprint.
Having called his fellow driver a “d**khead” – that part of his make up will likely never change – Verstappen explained that Russell should have realised there was little to gain given the speed superiority of the Red Bull car. Swap Russell for Verstappen and Red Bull car for Mercedes car and that was exactly the kind of criticism levelled at the Dutchman in his early years.
Something has changed in Verstappen since that 2021 season.
His life goal was to win just one world title and now that he has done it, he has been driving with an air of a man who is no longer desperate to achieve. Wins come naturally to him and with a lightning fast car, he has come to realise that you do not always need to chase that extra second to be the quickest driver.