RACE DEBRIEF

    Max Verstappen picked up his second Formula 1 drivers' title with four rounds to go at the Japanese Grand Prix. But what's been his most impressive quality, his stand-out drive, and just how far can he go? We assembled our experts for their verdicts.

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    Pick one quality that has impressed you most in Verstappen this year

    Mark Hughes, Special Contributor: How he has combined his savage pace and relentless push to never leave performance unexploited with the requirements of the moment. He seems to have a better feel of when not to make the move and when it’s absolutely required – such as in the late laps at Jeddah. As the RB18 has improved, so has his own performance.

    Will Buxton, F1 Digital Presenter: His long game approach. So much of what we knew of Max Verstappen the racer was born of a seemingly narrow view of competition. Win or bust. Where every race – no, every corner – had to be his. Perhaps in the lifting of a burden of a life’s expectation in taking his first World Championship he’s eased the pressure on himself. Perhaps in reviewing his 2021 season he saw the opportunities to wrap it up earlier which he’d let slip. Whatever the reality of how and why it came about, what we have seen in 2022 is a racer who views the championship as a whole, rather than reducing his focus to a narrow singular point, in the moment. A recognition that winning a battle and winning a war are miles apart.

    Chris Medland, Special Contributor: The way his approach doesn’t change. Sure, when he doesn’t have the car to win, he adapts, but when he does, he will be robust and attacking wherever he starts and wherever he is racing. Having the chance to win the title didn’t change how much he risked around the outside of Charles Leclerc at Suzuka, and he was so impressive starting in the pack in Belgium and Hungary. I wondered if having a title already and an easier run to this year’s might change that approach, but he just loves to race and does it in the same manner for pretty much any situation.

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    "A recognition that winning a battle and winning a war are miles apart" – Will Buxton

    Lawrence Barretto, F1 Correspondent & Presenter: Max's confidence in his own ability has always been high, but that was boosted significantly when he won his first world title last year. That has allowed him to ease off the all-out-attack approach by a couple of percentage points, which in turn has made him an even more potent force on track and become key to his impressive win ratio.

    David Tremayne, Hall of Fame F1 Journalist: I think his calmness in almost all situations has been the most impressive thing for me about Max in 2022. There were times last year when he was angry, aggressive, and sometimes plain bullying and intimidating, but there’s been none of that. I think much if not all of that was down to the intensity of the fight with Lewis Hamilton, whereas this year he’s been much more self-assured and composed. Arguably that’s because he’s been able to drive like a man who knows he has the best car and that it’s down to him to get the best out of it. Which he always did.

    Jolyon Palmer, Special Contributor: His mentality. Starting a season as reigning champion without the fastest car and with two DNFs in the first three races was pretty woeful, but Verstappen kept level headed throughout. I’m sure the confidence of having the first title helped, and the fact that he had a different rival, but throughout this season Verstappen has rarely been flustered. He’s always been able to regroup from adversity, be it swiftly recovering from a 43-point deficit, or recovering from poor grid positions to take effortless wins. He seems so unflustered this year and it’s helped him become a more complete driver.

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    "Starting a season as reigning champion without the fastest car and with two DNFs in the first three races was pretty woeful" – Jolyon Palmer

    What was Verstappen's best drive or performance this year?

    JP: I think the best and certainly the most critical was Imola. Chasing that 43-point deficit, Max put it on pole in the wet conditions when closely matched with Ferrari. His Sprint performance was the standout, recovering from a poor start, getting his head down and hunting down the then-championship leader before dispatching him with a lovely clean move to win the Sprint and put himself back on pole – crucially the better side of the grid for a race start on Sunday. From there it surprised nobody that he crushed the field in the wet – a typical Verstappen drive, made even sweeter for him by Leclerc crashing, as he felt the heat of a dominant weekend from the Dutchman.

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    WB: It's incredibly hard to look past Hungary. Sure, Max came from further back in Spa, but such was the performance advantage the RB18 held on that circuit there was little anyone could do to hold back his charge. Hungary should have been a Ferrari circuit, and with both cars inside the top three on the grid, it was theirs to throw away. Yet even without the strategic blunders on the day, Ferrari had no answer to Verstappen. Does the 360-spin deflect from the performance, or merely add to the impressive nature of the win? I’d say the latter. It was the day and the drive that plunged a dagger into tifosi hearts.

    MH: It has to be Spa. Sure, the car’s superiority over the opposition was greater than at any other track because of how its qualities dovetailed with the unique demands of the place, but from his almost casual single run ‘pole’ (he was taking PU penalties) to his victory drive from 14th, it was even more impressive than his Hungarian 10th-to-win display. From row seven, the race wasn’t even halfway through by the time he was dominating it.

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    CM: I think Max himself said Belgium – where he and Red Bull were so dominant – but from a long list I’m going to pluck for Canada. It had a bit of everything from Verstappen, who took pole in wet conditions, pulling off a dominant first part of the race, clinical with any moves he had to make, and then faultless under pressure from a quicker Ferrari in the closing stages. It’s a mark of how good he is that you never expected him to give Carlos Sainz a chance in that final stint when the Spaniard was all over him.

    LB: There are so many to choose from but for me, his victory in Hungary was something else. He fought through the field mercilessly, climbing his way into the lead from 10th. Even a 360-degree spin couldn't stop him winning, the Dutchman re-passing Charles Leclerc with ease.

    DT: I think you have to say Belgium, because of the way not only that he had to come from the back of the field – which, let’s face it, is entirely possible in the RB18 – but also because of his sheer speed and poise, and the fact that he comfortably beat team mate Sergio Perez – he didn’t just beat him by a bit. Also, of course, Suzuka. He was so calm all through the red flag suspension, even though a superb start had just been negated, and he never let up during another demolition. To win by 27s in a 28-lap race was a hugely impressive performance and a fitting way to clinch title number two.

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    "Belgium… because of his sheer speed and poise, and the fact that he comfortably beat team mate Sergio Perez" – David Tremayne

    How can Verstappen come back even stronger in 2023?

    DT: Oddly enough, if he has greater competition from Lewis and Mercedes. I actually think he can handle that a lot better now, not that he didn’t do a great job through most of 2021. But I think 2022 has given him even greater self-assurance, and he will certainly be as strong or stronger if the RB19 evolves correctly, and if he finds himself having to rise once again to meet a demanding challenge from a driver who is at least as good as him that requires him to give everything he’s got.

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    JP: This is a tough one to call. He’s been so dominant and a class above in the dry and the wet, his racecraft has been clinical, he’s made almost no significant mistakes and he’s galvanised his team to become a formidable force. He’s even managing his tyres better than the famed 'tyre whisperer’ Sergio Perez. Max might feel he could have qualified better on the whole. A couple of mistakes at critical times have left him work to do on occasion, for example at Miami or Budapest. He also took a little time adapting to the RB18 which allowed Perez to match him sometimes early on. That shouldn’t be an issue next year with more stable regulations.

    MH: It’s difficult to envisage where there is any headroom for significant improvement in his performances. As he relaxes into his competitive situation, after years of not-quite-good-enough machinery from 2016-20, his bond with the team should strengthen, their understanding of each other becoming even more intuitive.

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    "His bond with the team should strengthen, their understanding of each other becoming even more intuitive" – Mark Hughes

    WB: In all honesty, he just has to keep doing what he’s doing. The gulf between 2021 Max and 2022 Max is vast. The ramp up in maturity, level-headedness, calm, his bigger picture approach and his ability to extract the maximum from a car not always to his liking has been mesmerising. If he makes the same kind of step up from 2022 to 2023, he will be nigh on unstoppable. He’s learning with every lap, he’s focusing on himself and he’s making an incredibly small number of mistakes. He’s 1996-level Michael Schumacher. This is only the start.

    CM: This is a really tough question to answer, because there are no obvious weaknesses that Verstappen needs to address. The quality that impressed me most this year could come back to bite him in certain scenarios if he still races in the same way with even more to lose, but then it has worked well for him so far so that’s hypothetical. He also needs to make sure any frustrations never get the better of him – at times they seemed to a little in 2021 and we haven’t had many similar scenarios this year – but I’m clutching at straws a little!

    LB: The way Verstappen has crushed the opposition to defend his title is impressive and makes it hard to see what else he must do to be even better next year. I suspect he will just keep tweaking his approach to a race weekend, searching for marginal gains.

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    "He’s 1996-level Schumacher" – Will Buxton

    Does this achievement definitively put Verstappen among the greats? And how many more titles can you envisage him winning?

    LB: His performance this year shows that he has the potential to become one of the greats. But it's too early to place him in that upper echelon just yet. I do think Verstappen will win more – at 25, he's got time on his side. But how many depends on whether Red Bull can dominate this era of F1 in the way Mercedes did. Do that and Verstappen could match Lewis Hamilton's tally of seven.

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    DT: Yes, I think it’s fair to link him with the Clarks and Stewarts and Sennas and Schumachers and Hamiltons in terms of performance, and the signs are there of greater self-control – though I think he will always have that slightly sandpapery, suffer no fools edge to his personality. Nothing wrong with that, if that’s what he needs to get the best from himself. If Red Bull can keep up their current performance, there’s no reason why, in time, he shouldn’t be knocking on Schumacher/Hamilton wins and titles territory if he stays with it. Especially once Lewis has retired.

    JP: What is a great? For me Hamilton, Schumacher and Senna are ‘legends’ of the sport and Verstappen isn’t there yet, but being a double world champion, and crucially in the manner he’s achieved it, probably classes him as a ‘great’ already. If he were to suddenly retire at the end of the season, I think we’d look back on him as an incredible driver who had unfulfilled potential. That’s not going to happen, and with his talent and desire, I’m sure he will go on to win many titles and most likely join the pantheon of legends in due course, but they have the longevity that Max doesn’t yet. His career isn’t dissimilar to Vettel’s at this stage. One hard-fought championship and one dominant one in a Red Bull. Maybe an F1 great already, but not yet a legend.

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    MH: Just like Schumacher, Alonso and Hamilton before him, he’s been among the greats from day one. It just takes time for perception to catch up to the extraordinary level they operate at. The rattling off of race wins and titles is just repetitive proof of what was already the reality; validation from the outside world but relatively meaningless from inside. How long will he want to keep repeating? Totally up to him, of course. Ten titles is probably within reach. But, as Dr Marko has said, he may well not be one of the guys who stays around the sport forever.

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    WB: You don’t win two World Championships without being great. But there is a chasm between being great and being considered one of the greatest. The same caveats around that definition exist today as have always stood: cars, tracks, level of competitiveness. How can one compare a Fangio to a Senna, a Lauda to a Hamilton, a Clark to a Verstappen? All a driver can do is prove themselves the master of the era in which they race, and do more within those parameters than those against whom they race. He is great, no question. But one of the greatest? Let’s revisit that in a decade.

    CM: Absolutely it does. You just don’t expect him to make mistakes and are not surprised at all when he is pulling away from the field at a second per lap in the wet. Good drivers get themselves into the best cars, great drivers keep them because they become almost unbeatable as a combination and that’s where Verstappen is right now. He could easily threaten Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher in terms of titles, but you might have said similar about Fernando Alonso after 2006 – and look what came next. So even if he doesn’t add more, that won’t diminish his abilities.