It is often said sportsmen have a short career – but the shelf life of a Formula 1 driver can be so difficult to predict.
Arriving in the paddock for the first time, are you the next Kimi Raikkonen, with a record 349 grand prix starts over a span of 20 years, or Rio Haryanto with 12 races in a Manor before being dropped at the 2016 summer break, never to return?
Max Verstappen, two-and-a-half months after turning 24 years of age, became World Champion in his 141st race, at the end of his seventh F1 season.
Being 18 years younger than Raikkonen, and 13 the junior of Lewis Hamilton who has six more Drivers’ titles than him, surely Verstappen has the time and opportunity to rewrite the record books.
But does he want to? And will he be psychologically able to?
Expectation ↔️ Reality 🥵 pic.twitter.com/XfdippRKnx
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) February 5, 2022
It feels remarkably early to discuss how long an incredibly talented 24-year-old might remain in this sport. If Verstappen was a footballer, for example, he would still be a few years away from his peak.
However, there have already been one or two indications that the Dutchman may not be cut from the same cloth as Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, both of whom took a couple of years out of F1 to scratch other driving itches before the magnetic field drew them back in.
Still racing into their 40s, that duo, like Verstappen, had become World Champion within seven seasons – twice in his first six in Alonso’s case – and in 2021 were still going at it two full decades after their debut.
Somehow, you suspect that might not happen with Max.
Why? Well, unless he is simply choosing his words carefully – and he has become a master of that in interviews, to be fair – he has never voiced any great interest in trying to establish an era of dominance like Michael Schumacher and, more recently, Hamilton did.
Instead, he admits he has achieved his “life goal” of one World Championship, which is what he and his father, Jos, were striving for ever since he first hit the throttle on a go-kart track.
“Everything that comes next is a bonus. Of course, I will keep pushing and I will be in F1 for a few more years yet,” said Verstappen at the FIA Gala where he collected his trophy.
There has also been the odd flippant comment, such as saying if his Red Bull race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase left F1 then “I stop too”. But of more significance, rather than a lack of desire, is likely to be the burnout factor.
Let’s not forget Verstappen has been a Formula 1 racer since before he had reached 17-and-a-half. Most of us at that age are only just looking into getting our provisional road licence and costing out driving lessons, while hoping we don’t get ID-checked at the pub.
And ever since 2015, he has been firmly in the spotlight. Compare Verstappen’s situation to that of, say, Valtteri Bottas, who had four years at Williams with relatively little pressure before finally getting his big break at Mercedes.
That chance, of course, came about for the Finn because Nico Rosberg chose to walk away from F1 at 31 after achieving his life’s dream, in a similarly intense duel with Hamilton to the one Verstappen has just experienced.
In the headlines just because he was barely older than a child for his 2015 Melbourne bow, Verstappen’s profile ramped up further when he was promoted to Red Bull’s senior team less than 14 months later and remarkably won on his debut in Barcelona.
Since then, he has been the teenager and now the man carrying all their hopes, culminating with that unforgettable night in Abu Dhabi and the astonishing events that unfolded on and off track.
We should not worry about Max from a physical perspective because he is clearly as fit as a butcher’s dog. However, will all the intensity of his career take a toll mentally?
Again, there have been the first murmurings. Dr Helmut Marko, who knows Verstappen better than all but a few people, is a renowned ‘stirrer’ but you feel he would not air such concerns if he did not genuinely sense them.
“We were all at the limit,” said Marko of the 2021 season. “Max also said he couldn’t stand such an intensity anymore. He still wants to drive for a while but if that’s the case every year, then it (his career) is limited.”
And as if to suggest such a conversation might even have taken place, Verstappen himself was quoted as saying just a few days later: “You can’t have that drama every single year, for sure. It’s not good for me, it’s not healthy for anyone in the team.”
Of course, not every Formula 1 season will be like 2021, more’s the pity. We would love it to be, as fans of the sport, but perhaps in a way where the stress is spread across several drivers battling for the title rather than heaped on just two.
It remains to be seen how Verstappen and, perhaps more pointedly, Hamilton, going into his 16th F1 campaign at the age of 37, will fare when everyone starts from scratch in 2022 on zero points and with a fleet of entirely new cars lining up on the grid.
In some ways, it is almost trying to defy nature in expecting a youthful sporting prodigy to still be going all guns blazing for much more than a decade.
Gymnasts and swimmers have historically retired young. From an English football standpoint, you only need to look at the examples of Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Wayne Rooney as players who broke through with great success in their teens but were well on the decline, or even almost done, by the time they hit 30.
Like we said at the beginning, an F1 career rarely follows a set pattern. There are so many variables – not only a driver’s own performance but that of his team, with finances also sometimes playing a part in which direction an individual finds himself taking when reaching a crossroads.
It is impossible at this stage to know how long Verstappen will be around, especially if setting new benchmarks is truly not his thing.
But he is a phenomenal talent, and let’s just enjoy watching him for as long as we can.
Verstappen: 2021 intensity not healthy in the long run
Max Verstappen says the 2021 intensity was not healthy.