Sublime, ruthless, prickly | The many shades of Max Verstappen

After Max Verstappen took the chequered flag at Abu Dhabi, his engineer told the Dutch driver over the team radio that his twilight drive at the Yas Marina circuit — where he beat Lewis Hamilton last year in a hotly disputed restart call — had been “sublime”. 

Last weekend’s win at the season finale was the 25-year-old’s third in succession in Abu Dhabi and the 35th of his career. Only Hamilton (103), Michael Schumacher (91), Sebastian Vettel (53), Alain Prost (51) and Ayrton Senna (41) have won more F1 races. It was also Verstappen’s 15th victory of the season, the new single season record, bettering Schumacher and Vettel’s 13.

Red Bull team boss Christian Horner reckoned that the double world champion had hit a level that has seldom been seen in the sport. “Since winning that championship last year, Max has taken another step. It’s in many ways released him and he’s driving now at an incredible level,” said Horner. “You’re witnessing a driver that is completely at one with the car and is in an absolute purple patch of his career. Max was quite simply in a league of his own.”

Verstappen looked the complete package in 2022: aggressive and calculated in wheel-to-wheel combat, patient when he had to work his way through the pack, error-free for the most part and an expert at tyre-management. He was able to marry everything that makes him so exciting to watch with a mastery of the less glamorous but vital aspects of racing.

Can’t be taught

Double world champion Fernando Alonso was effusive in his praise, describing Verstappen’s talent as something that cannot be taught.

“There are drivers that need more time to study more data; they need all Friday to analyse and compare with a teammate and slowly make little steps until they are 100% ready for qualifying,” Alonso explained. “And there are others that are 100% in FP1 [free practice 1]. Max is one of those and he has always been like that, from go karts to now.”

But for all the plaudits Verstappen’s driving won during the season, the chatter in the paddock leading up to the Abu Dhabi GP was dominated by the drama within Red Bull. Verstappen had rejected a team order to give up sixth place to Sergio Perez in the previous race in Brazil. Perez, who had been in a battle with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc for second in the drivers’ standings, wasn’t impressed, declaring that Verstappen “showed who he really is”.

Uncompromising: But for all the plaudits Verstappen’s driving won, his refusal to follow team orders in Brazil caused people to wonder whether he was putting his interests ahead of Red Bull’s.

Uncompromising: But for all the plaudits Verstappen’s driving won, his refusal to follow team orders in Brazil caused people to wonder whether he was putting his interests ahead of Red Bull’s.

Verstappen, who had secured the title several races ago and would have lost nothing tangible if he had followed the order, refused to say why he wouldn’t help Perez, only that it was “about something that happened earlier in the season”.

Dutch media have reported it was payback for Perez allegedly crashing deliberately during qualifying in Monaco, where overtaking is extremely difficult. The Mexican lined up third and ahead of Verstappen on the grid and went on to win. But Perez denied speculation that he had admitted within the team to crashing on purpose, saying, “That rumour is wrong”.

Although Red Bull, Verstappen and Perez sought to present a harmonious picture during the race weekend in Abu Dhabi — Verstappen said he would help Perez if the opportunity arose and gave his teammate a ‘tow’ down the straight in qualifying which helped seal a front-row lockout — the criticism was unrelenting. 

Acting in ‘spite’

The gist of it was that Verstappen was ungrateful; Perez had contributed to his first world title in 2021, most memorably when holding off Hamilton in the decider, but when it was time to repay the favour, the Dutchman was unwilling. Verstappen, his critics said, had acted in selfish spite.

They also cited his verbal ‘swipe’ at Hamilton, for not leaving him enough space when they clashed, during the same race weekend as evidence that Verstappen held deep grudges. “I thought that after last year we might have forgotten everything and could finally fight. I thought ‘let’s have a great fight’ but he had zero intention to leave space,” Verstappen had said.

A champion’s mindset: Several former drivers, including former world champions Mika Hakkinen and Jenson Button, felt Verstappen’s ruthless attitude was shared by many of F1’s greats.

A champion’s mindset: Several former drivers, including former world champions Mika Hakkinen and Jenson Button, felt Verstappen’s ruthless attitude was shared by many of F1’s greats.

Hamilton was unfazed. “You know how it is with Max,” he said. Asked if he felt singled out for attack by Verstappen, he said it was “natural when you have success and the numbers on your chest that you become a bit of a target, but that’s ok. It’s nothing that I haven’t dealt with before.”

Another criticism of Verstappen’s behaviour in the Perez episode was that it was foolish: why prove a point to a teammate who was already ‘subservient’? Didn’t he need Perez’s support next season — especially when he expects “teams to edge a lot closer”?

But others, including double world champion Mika Hakkinen and 2009 champion Jenson Button, pointed out that Verstappen’s ruthlessness wasn’t exceptional; it has characterised the sport’s most successful racers. Senna, Schumacher, Vettel and Hamilton have all had moments in their storied careers when their hyper-competitiveness entered questionable territory.

Verstappen, for his part, claimed that he had been miscast by reporters. “After that race, I looked very bad in the media, but they didn’t have a clear picture. To put me down like that is ridiculous because they don’t know how I work in the team and what the team appreciates about me.”

He also said a lot of it, especially on social media, had crossed the line and was “pretty disgusting”. “They started attacking my family… that definitely has to stop. If you have a problem with me, that is fine but don’t go after my family.”

It wasn’t the only time during the season Verstappen took exception to how he was perceived. He refused to talk with broadcaster Sky at the Mexico City GP due to “derogatory” comments at the previous race in Texas, saying there had been “a constant kind of digging, being disrespectful”, especially from one individual who had said Hamilton was “robbed” of the title in 2021.

Whichever side of the debate you stand on — and there are nuanced positions right through the range — there can be no doubt that Verstappen makes for compelling viewing. Or that he will be pushing the limits, not least his own, next season.

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