A changing of the guard? Our writers give their verdict on Max Verstappen’s title-winning 2021 season
From the moment Max Verstappen first sat in a Toro Rosso and rang its neck in a trio of Friday practice sessions in 2014, he looked like a driver destined to win the World Championship one day. Seven years later, the Dutchman has done just that, winning out in one of the most dramatic season finales the sport has ever witnessed at the Ahu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Not only that, but in winning the championship for Red Bull, he ended a run of seven straight Mercedes drivers’ titles, six of those going to Lewis Hamilton, the man he defeated after a titanic season-long duel.
To reflect on Verstappen’s momentous title win, we asked F1 writers Lawrence Barretto, Mark Hughes, Will Buxton, Samarth Kanal, David Tremayne and Chris Medland to give their thoughts on Verstappen’s first title, why the Dutchman has shone this year – and whether this season marked a changing of the F1 guard.
PALMER: Whatever you thought of the Abu Dhabi outcome, Verstappen was a worthy champion in 2021
Pick one quality that has impressed you most in Verstappen this year
Mark Hughes (Special Contributor): Resilience in coming back from adversity as though nothing had happened. The only time he looked under pressure all year was in Saudi.
Lawrence Barretto (F1.com Senior Writer): Verstappen’s mental strength is like Kevlar. He’s only 24 and despite going up against F1’s greatest ever driver, with no experience of fighting for a title in such a pressure cooker, the Dutchman never showed any signs of cracking.
David Tremayne (Hall of Fame journalist): His attitude. Yes, at times he gets a little over the limit of what some outside the FIA might deem to be acceptable behaviour on-track, but on every lap his mindset was to race. He’s a warrior who doesn’t take prisoners, and because of that he is a winner in everything he seeks to do. He is never willingly going to settle for second.
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Chris Medland (Special Contributor): His unwavering approach. He has been aggressive throughout – sometimes too aggressive in my view – but he never changed how he went about his racing, whatever the title picture said. It meant he was sometimes caught in incidents, or made small mistakes, but it was refreshing to see a driver just race every race in the same manner.
Will Buxton (Digital Presenter): Consistency: finishing on the podium in all but one of the races he completed showed the level Verstappen was operating at, and saw him set a new record of 18 podiums in a season. There were many impressive facets to Verstappen’s season, but it’s this consistency that ultimately made the title deservedly his.
Samarth Kanal (F1.com Staff Writer): His tenacity. He just didn’t let up on Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes this season. Constantly a thorn in their sides, Verstappen made sure the title was never out of his sight – shrugging off events in Baku and Silverstone. This quality was summed up best in Abu Dhabi when, even amid slim chances, he managed to stay in contention throughout.
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What was his best drive or performance this year?
DT: Wow, this is an easy one, isn’t it? Not many to choose from, just Imola, Monaco, France, Styria, Austria, Belgium, Holland, America, Mexico and Abu Dhabi… and that’s only the victories (okay, maybe not Belgium or AbDab). Then there were another record eight podiums. Styria, Austria or America all stand out because he was so dominant in the first two and withstood huge pressure in the third. But I’ll settle for Holland because he was likewise peerless, despite huge national expectation that he would deliver.
WB: Zandvoort. It may have looked like a breeze but soaking up all the pressure and noise of a first home Grand Prix and converting it into such a flawless display was deeply impressive.
SK: Tough one to call. Monaco was a crucial display, Mexico was a masterclass, Austria was utter domination, but the Netherlands has to take it here – a massive home victory that he made look downright easy.
MH: Probably in dominating Zandvoort where he was perfect despite the intense attention upon him at his first home Grand Prix.
LB: There are plenty to choose from, but for me it was his win on home soil at Zandvoort. He commanded the race from pole, absorbing the huge pressure on his shoulders from an expectant crowd, and nabbed the championship lead back in the process.
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CM: I’m going to go with Austin. As impressive as Zandvoort was for the way he handled the weight of expectation, in Austin he was being hunted down by Hamilton at a track where Mercedes were favourites. Both drove brilliantly there, but Max holding on to win was crucial to the title.
What was the key moment to Verstappen winning the title?
SK: It would be unfair to point the finger solely at the last-lap shootout in Abu Dhabi. I’ll pick his wheel-to-wheel start with Hamilton at Imola. It was a warning shot towards the Silver Arrows – a sign of how he would race throughout the season – and the start of his winning run.
LB: His victory in Austin. The Circuit of The Americas had been a Mercedes stranglehold, yet Verstappen first took pole, then reclaimed the lead through the pit stops and managed his tyres brilliantly as Hamilton hunted him down to take a mature win.
MH: Several of them but probably getting 12.5 points effectively for setting pole at Spa would have to be right up there.
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DT: One might say the final few laps in Abu Dhabi, and in a lateral sense that’s accurate. But it’s also unfair on Max and Red Bull insofar as they won nine other races. I’d cite his overtake on Lewis in France here.
CM: Really, it’s Nicholas Latifi crashing in Abu Dhabi as that race was just not going Max’s way, but aside from that and Austin, I’m going to say it was his decision to pit for inters when he did in Russia. He’d made very good progress from the back of the grid but was only sixth at the time, and nailing the strategy there saw him secure second place when he might have dropped a further 10 points.
WB: Ironically, as it turned out, the stewards deciding not to force Hamilton to give up the lead for running off track in Abu Dhabi. Being in second gave Red Bull the upper hand from which they were able to make the superior strategic decisions behind the Safety Car.
Is Verstappen winning the title a symbolic moment for F1?
LB: We’ve got ourselves a changing of the guard. But that isn’t to say Verstappen will go on to dominate as Hamilton has done. Hamilton has two years left on his current deal and will come out fighting after this painful defeat. This golden season could turn into a golden era.
MH: Certainly it is. Not only the new guard victorious over the old guard but also the first time in the hybrid era a Mercedes driver is not champion.
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CM: Yes, but I’m not sure it’s a changing of the guard moment. I think it’s symbolic in that it has come at a time when Hamilton is still performing at the top of his game, and it gives us two absolute giants of the sport racing each other in closely-matched machinery. Winning against Hamilton in such a way just further cements Verstappen’s brilliance.
DT: Absolutely. After the outcome of the 2021 title fight – I prefer to say it that way than use the word defeat, which would be inapposite – Lewis is going to come back harder than ever in 2022. But having a feisty 24-year-old world champion resets things and is good for the sport.
SK: Undeniably so. The Red Bull driver’s talent has finally been realised, he’s broken a massive winning run for Hamilton and Mercedes, and planted a flag of his own after a title battle for the ages.
WB: It’s symbolic of a shift from one generation to the next. Hamilton hit new heights this year and dug deeper than he’d ever needed to in his career. For Max to beat him in that kind of form showed the level he too has now achieved and represented the passing of the baton.
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What does Verstappen need to work on over the winter?
WB: His focus is on the now. He’s always stated he doesn’t want the bigger picture to skew his attention. But by narrowly limiting his scope to the moment, he has on occasion threatened to undo all his hard work. He could perhaps learn that discretion is often the better part of valour. Had he done so, he’d likely have sewn up the title long before Abu Dhabi.
LB: Verstappen’s all-out attack approach has yielded him his first World Championship, but if he can smooth the edges and learn to at times – even if it’s not often – play the longer game (as Hamilton has done), he’ll find success will come more easily.
DT: I think it was Martin Brundle who said recently that when he asked Max whether he would do the same thing again at Silverstone, he had said yes, he wouldn’t change a thing. Now, there were plenty of what-if situations in his season, but had he given his rival an inch or two more clearance, as Charles Leclerc later did, he would at worst have scored an extra 18 points and not lost an engine. And been world champion much sooner… Time for a small mental reset?
CM: His understanding of how far is too far. I believe the Turn 1 penalty he got in Jeddah was right and I feel he should have been penalised in Brazil too, because you’ve got to keep your car on the track to be able to claim a fair defence. He still seems to think he was hard done by on those occasions, but he’ll face more penalties if he doesn’t tweak that.
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SK: The unrelenting aggression. While his desire to win and inability to back out of 50/50 battles – in Silverstone, Monza, Brazil and Saudi Arabia – gained him a first championship, it almost very nearly lost him a first championship.
MH: I don't think anything. What works for him works for him. Easy to say he could be more choosy over which battles to fight – but that may mess with his mojo.