If there are any questions lingering around Max Verstappen and his status as an all-time great of Formula 1, even aged only 25, they should surely be extinguished by now.
Let’s take the controversy under which he won his first title out of the picture for a second, and focus on the way he has gone about the time since then, because if he hadn’t shown enough talent and skill in bringing himself to the top of Formula 1, the way he has gone even further to crush all those before him since is quite extraordinary.
Since that night in Abu Dhabi, there have been 34 races in Formula 1. Verstappen has won 25 of them and finished on the podium four more times, with two retirements and only three non-podium finishes. While the two Red Bull cars underneath him have undoubtedly been among the most dominant in Formula 1 history, the way in which he has performed in them has been on another planet compared to his team-mate, even more so in 2023.
Does F1’s oldest argument mean Max Verstappen is not an all-time great already?
But still, as has been an age-old argument in Formula 1, a question was raised about whether or not he could do it in inferior machinery, with Le Mans winner Richard Bradley pointing out that, even though it is not his fault for being in competitive cars for most of his career and it does not count against him, he has not followed the example of multiple World Champions before him in outperforming what has been underneath him.
“For me, Max hasn’t proven himself properly in a car which doesn’t have the capability to win yet,” Bradley said on the newest episode of the On Track GP Podcast, produced in collaboration between PlanetF1.com and DR Sports.
“I’m not talking one which had a possibility to win, I’m talking one which really didn’t have a chance to win.
“The only time he was in a car which definitely didn’t have the chance to win, which was the Toro Rosso. He was teammates with [Carlos] Sainz, and they were very, very evenly matched throughout the whole period.
“And then he went into Red Bull and he won his first race so the car was clearly in a position to compete.
“But whereas you look at the real greats, [Ayrton] Senna, with that 1984 [season] driving the Toleman but then winning in an uncompetitive Lotus when his teammates weren’t on the podiums, then he went into a good car. But even when the McLaren wasn’t good in ’93, he still won races in it.
“You look at [Michael] Schumacher, he won the World Championship in that Benetton when his teammates were absolutely nowhere, took Ferrari and was winning races in 1996 when, again, they were nowhere.
“You look at [Mika] Hakkinen, he was winning races before McLaren were in a position to win the championship. [Alain] Prost has won the most races not starting in the top four of anybody in history.
“For me, [that’s] what makes the whole package, and I don’t think Max has actually done that yet – but that’s no fault of Max’s at all.
“Going back to the [Sebastian] Vettel factor, Vettel won a race in that Toro Rosso, and was consistently in the top six.
“But Max, the problem is Red Bull have had such a good car over the years, Max has never been tested to that yet. So that’s not a discredit to Max, it’s just merely saying that we haven’t seen that happen yet.”
When Max Verstappen outperformed his Toro Rosso
To go back to his rookie season in 2015, we need to remember a few things, chiefly being that Verstappen was not only the youngest ever Formula 1 debutant aged only 17, and that he only had one season of car racing under his belt before moving up to the big time.
With five retirements in his first nine races, there were always going to be moments of him being raw, but his second race at Malaysia was enough of a hint at what was to come for his natural talent.
In qualifying, it began to rain – Formula 1’s great leveller – and Verstappen put his car sixth on the grid, only 0.030s behind the ‘senior’ Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat, and held on to seventh for his first points, in a first glimpse of what he might be capable of achieving.
Yes, for the majority of the season, Verstappen and Sainz were pretty evenly matched in terms of their on-track performance, but it was Verstappen who put in those marquee performances that made Red Bull sit up and take notice.
Even after a hairy moment with Valtteri Bottas in a frantic Hungarian Grand Prix, Verstappen kept his nose as clean as he could in moving up from ninth to a superb fourth place, and would repeat the feat with a sterling drive at Austin later in the season after qualifying 10th on the grid.
While the two young Toro Rosso drivers were relatively even for most of the year, the final points tally would actually read as rather one-sided come season’s end: Verstappen 49-18 Sainz.
Even though Kvyat had beaten Daniel Ricciardo in the Drivers’ Championship in 2015, it took only a few races before the Russian was unceremoniously dropped back to Toro Rosso in 2016 for Verstappen to show what he could do in the senior team, with the Dutchman beating Kvyat on the road in Bahrain as the ‘senior’ driver finished a lap down after qualifying down in 15th.
With that came victory in Barcelona for Verstappen on his first weekend with Red Bull, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The domination over his team-mates should not be overlooked
One of the oldest adages in Formula 1 is that the first person you have to beat is your team-mate, and bar the more experienced Daniel Ricciardo in his early Red Bull days, Verstappen hasn’t beaten his colleagues so much as crushed them, to a Fernando Alonso-esque degree.
Such has been the power he has exhibited, Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko has said previously that Sergio Perez should be almost be pleased to have lasted so long against the Dutchman, given the psychological impact of driving against someone operating at such a level.
Thankfully for their sakes, Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have been able to recover after their respective bludgeonings at Red Bull to thrive at their current teams, but that was not an immediate turnaround by any means, and Christian Horner famously accused Ricciardo of “running away from a fight” when he departed for Renault in 2018, sensing that the tide was beginning to turn in Verstappen’s favour.
And such has been the margin to Perez at certain races in 2023, including an eight-tenth gap to the rest of the entire field in qualifying at Spa at the weekend, that it makes you wonder how on earth it must feel to be his team-mate on occasion.
No, Verstappen doesn’t have the near-win in a Toleman that Senna had or dragging an uncompetitive car all the way to victory, but there’s more than enough evidence over the course of his career to suggest that he’s right up there with the very best the sport has ever seen already.
The scary thing for the rest of the field is there could be many more years of it to come.