When does an athlete cross that line from success to one of the greatest of all time?
An F1 world championship is a feat achieved by 34 different drivers which is far too great a number to be considered the very best of the best. Multiple championships then – two is a step in the right direction but it seems once a driver moves past that figure, then their place amongst the very best starts to look more realistic.
Listen to any conversation regarding Max Verstappen of late and one question will sure enough crop up – where does he rank in the greatest of all time list?
It is a subject he himself has little time for, stating early on that he did not enter F1 to break records, but after becoming a freshly minted three-time World Champion, that question has come back to the forefront.
With a P2 in the Qatar sprint, Verstappen joined a list of just 11 drivers to have won three World titles or, to put that more succinctly, a group of just 1.42% of drivers to have ever raced in F1. Three in a row sees him amongst an even more exclusive club alongside iconic names such as Fangio, Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton.
But while numbers may earn you a seat at the table, it is the manner of the performance that determines your right to stay there. 2023 has been Verstappen’s most convincing argument. If 2021 was a blow-by-blow fight to the bitter end between the veteran champion and the young contender, 2023 has been Verstappen’s magnum opus.
10 race victories in a row, 13 in total heading into Qatar. Podiums in all but one race. 10 poles and a chance to take another record away from Sebastian Vettel. 400 points, enough to put Red Bull top of the Constructors’ tree by himself. 2023 has been nothing short of total domination.
While Sergio Perez may have flirted with the idea of a title charge early in the season, the Mexican’s capitulation came at the same time as Verstappen’s ascendancy. A run from Miami to Monza of win after win and not by anything close to a small margin.
Critics will point to the RB19’s dominance over the rest of the field but it is Verstappen’s performance against that of his team-mate’s that is the most convincing. Perez has scored 223 points, a little over half what Verstappen has. While Perez has failed to make Q3 eight times this season, Verstappen has missed the mark just twice.
Street circuits, traditional tracks, new tracks and variations to the race weekend. All have been vanquished by Verstappen and done with an effortlessness more akin to someone playing at home on the computer, which by all accounts is what he does when he is not doing it in real life.
The question is no longer is Max Verstappen one of the greatest to ever do it, the question now is where does he rank in the all-time list? Schumacher and Hamilton remain a class apart in terms of titles but at 26, there is no question matching that feat is within Verstappen’s capability.
In terms of statistics, should Red Bull continue to provide him a car capable of winning and should Verstappen continue to want to compete then it seems nothing is off limits. He is fifth in the list of all-time wins, 55 behind Hamilton, but such is the saturated nature of the Formula 1 calendar these days, he could match that tally within the next two seasons. He is already within the top three of the most points ever scored and eight podiums shy of reaching 100.
Amidst the criticism that 2023 has been boring, there is a risk that Verstappen’s achievement will go under appreciated. It is often the way that it is not until long after the event when you can appreciate just how good an era of sport was. Novak Djokovic is the last of the big three still standing, Serena Williams retired last year. Lionel Messi is living out his playing retirement in Miami while Tom Brady called time (again) this summer.
Even looking back on the days of Schumacher often ignores a similar level of boredom and instead chooses to pick up the rose-tinted spectacles. No doubt in time the same will be done with Verstappen.
He is already a clear favourite to retain his crown in 2024, making him just the sixth driver to have won four and matching the feat by Red Bull’s best ever Vettel, and given there are no serious regulation changes until 2026, he could have five by the start of the next era.
Verstappen himself has made it clear he has no intention of sticking around into 40s, so perhaps it is time to start enjoying him while we still can.