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The era of Verstappen?

Bengaluru: A fortnight ago, at the glitzy Yas Marina circuit, Max Verstappen brought the curtains down on an unbelievable Formula One season that will certainly go down in history as one of the most dominant performances ever seen. It was the season where the 26-year-old Red Bull driver proved, beyond doubt, that he indeed is a once-in-a-generation talent like his Mercedes competitor Lewis Hamilton, and is perfectly on course to create a legacy of his own.

Turbo-charged after back-to-back world championships, the Dutchman, blessed with a car that was a cut above the rest, operated on a different level altogether, combining innate speed, personal passion, natural aggression and a solid team strategy to such perfection that competitors were left wondering whether if the youngster is in that space and zone where he simply may be unbeatable. Such was his brilliance right from the season opener in Bahrain to the climax in another desert kingdom of Abu Dhabi, drivers who once slammed him as “dangerous” with the potential to harm others for his ultra-aggressive style that often saw him being involved in crashes, were forced to now hail him as a “genius”.

“This simply was the year where Verstappen showed that this era could be his,” former India F1 driver Karun Chandhok told DHoS. “Formula One has had several exceptional drivers who were almost untouchable or were the benchmark in their peak. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were the men in the 1980s, then you had Michael Schumacher in the 90s and early 2000s, Sebastian Vettel dominated from 2010, Lewis Hamilton then took over the mantle and reached places where no driver did. Now, I feel, it’s the time of Verstappen. He’s in unbelievable form, got an insatiable hunger to be known as one of the best the sport has seen and has a car that’s performing like a dream. The force is certainly with Max and Red Bull, and as a team they simply look unbeatable unless someone does something extraordinary over the next couple of months.”

Chandhok, whose knowledge of Formula One is second to none and is now a very respected TV pundit of the sport, is certainly not hyperbolising by saying that this could be Verstappen’s era. The numbers and the records the Dutchman has obliterated this season certainly prove why he is destined for greatness. Apart from winning a mind-boggling 19 out 22 races and finishing on top of the podium in all but one race, Verstappen led in 1003 laps out of the 1325. In others words, he was ahead of his competitors for 75.70 percent of the time, surpassing the feat of two-time champion Jim Clark who led 506 of 708 laps at the rate of 71.47 in 1963.

Breaking records is actually nothing new to Verstappen. In fact, it’s as easy as using Magic Eraser on Google Photos. He’s the youngest driver to score points, the youngest race leader, youngest winner, youngest to record a fastest lap and the youngest to score a ‘grand slam’ of pole, victory and fastest race lap. The problem though was at the start of his career when he graduated directly from Formula 3 to Formula One at 2015 Australian Grand Prix. Already hailed as a generational talent, young Verstappen, having heard that statement constantly in his formative years, struggled to live up to the expectations. In trying too hard to prove his credentials, he got himself entangled in several nasty on-track battles and the innate aggression to not cede ground saw him being involved in several crashes.

At the 2015 Monaco Grand Prix where overtaking is next to impossible in the tight and twisty circuit, Verstappen clipped the back of Romain Grosjean’s car that resulted in a high-speed collision. The generally calm Felipe Massa called Verstappen’s act ‘dangerous’ and the Dutchman was handed a five-place grid penalty. That was a first of the many transgressions Verstappen would go on to commit, earning a lot of ire from the paddock. Next year, after moving to Red Bull, Verstappen collided with Kimi Raikkonen in the opening lap of the Belgian GP, a move that had the latter fuming. The normally ice-cool Raikkonen said Verstappen “was going to cause a huge accident sooner or later” and the highly respected Formula One director Charlie Whiting called the Dutchman for a discussion before letting him off with a warning for aggressive driving. Even Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner admitted Verstappen’s driving was “on the edge”.

That didn’t deter Verstappen, who continued to push the limits. In 2017 he was involved in three first-lap collisions and the next year, he was involved in at least one incident in the opening six races. He even crashed in the Monaco GP, making the same mistake he did in 2015. Despite the repeated blunders, Horner refused to give up on Verstappen, who ended up earning the nickname Mad Max. Horner knew if Verstappen could channel his aggression in a cultured way, he could be unstoppable. He stuck with him and gave him the belief that he could be the one to end Hamilton’s dominance. Today, Verstappen is repaying all that faith, evolving tremendously from a crash-prone ultra-aggressive driver to a calm and assured championship-winning machine.

“The direct switch from F3 to F1, especially as a teenager is never easy,” reckoned Chandhok. “Hamilton and some of the other guys did F3, then F2 before moving to F1. So they went through the system properly. Verstappen was plucked out from F3 and thrust directly into the brutal world of F1. That’s why there were so many mistakes early on. But Max, like champions do, has learnt from his mistakes. The evolution in such a short time is extraordinary. He now knows he necessarily doesn’t have to qualify on pole to win a race. He knows he can win it from anywhere on the grid. He also knows he doesn’t have to go full throttle in the opening lap. There are plenty of laps to engineer a win. He just understands the race dynamics better now. He’s calm, totally assured and got great self-belief. Miami Grand Prix is an example where he won from ninth on the grid.”

With Hamilton set to turn 39 next January and other drivers literally struggling to stay even in the rear-view mirror of Verstappen, Chandhok feels it’ll take some doing to stop him from winning a fourth world title. “I met Max after he had won the championship and I asked him if he would like to join another team just to try out new challenges. But Max is adamant about staying at Red Bull. He wants to create a legacy for himself and the team. He says he’s hungry for more glory. He has already turned his focus to 2024.”

There’s no doubt Verstappen will be gunning for another era-defining season next year.

(Published 09 December 2023, 19:56 IST)

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