DOHA, Qatar — Max Verstappen’s 2023 championship will go down as one of Formula One’s greatest ever.
The sheer dominance the Dutchman has displayed this year has made the outcome of the championship seem like a foregone conclusion months before even the summer break. It’s seen him break one record for consecutive wins — he will likely break his own for most in a season before the year is out.
After a even start, Verstappen’s has crushed his only likely challenger, Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez.
Looking back over it, there have been several standout moments. There’s only been three occasions when the Dutch national anthem has not played after a race this season.
One of those turned out to be a significant moment in defining the season which followed.
Victory in defeat
After F1’s preseason, it was clear Red Bull had created something special in its car. Mercedes driver George Russell predicted after the first qualifying session of the year the reigning world champions would win every race. Red Bull’s drivers were both 2-2 after four races, with Verstappen winning in Bahrain and Australia and Perez winning in Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan.
The latter, at Baku’s popular street circuit, also featured a sprint race, which Perez won, while Verstappen narrowly avoided a brush with the wall after being forced wide by Russell.
Perez would win the grand prix which followed, while Verstappen’s chances of winning were hurt by the timing of a Safety Car. Leaving Baku, there was a feeling that Perez might just be able to squeeze some kind of challenge out of Verstappen. This was before the crashes and spiralling form which would come to define the Mexican driver’s season.
While Perez had been cruising home to first place, Verstappen was doing some season-defining work inside the cockpit of his car. The Dutchman would use the final portion of the race experimenting with different settings and modes, which can be done via the many buttons on the steering wheel, essentially working out on the fly what worked, and what didn’t.
On the outside, it could have seemed like Verstappen was struggling to tame his car, but inside a master of his craft was busy at work.
Ahead of this week’s race in Qatar, Verstappen pointed to that Baku race as the defining turning point in his season.
“It’s not like I suddenly turned the car upside down, but little details can make the difference,” he said.
“It was when I was behind after the pit stop with the safety car of course, I knew that it was going to be very hard to pass. I was trying a lot of things. Some worked, that’s why it was a bit of an up and down stint.
“I was just trying a lot of different combinations on the wheel, to get a bit more of an understanding, because it was still so early in the season. Probably we were still not fully on top of a few things.
“Towards the end of the race, I found my rhythm, I found my preferred balance and it helped to just find a little bit more of an edge. There’s a few things coming together more, and having a good run as well.
“And also in the beginning of the season, we were mainly driving on street circuits which I think in general are a little bit less enjoyable, and then you get to tracks where you have a lot of fast corners and it’s just better to drive.”
He added: “I jumped out of the car after the race, and of course P2 is not where I want to be, but I was like, ‘I actually learned a lot throughout the race’. It was actually very useful to do.”
Verstappen’s on-the-fly homework paid dividends. What followed Baku was a historic streak of wins — 10 in a row, stretching from the Miami Grand Prix in early May to the Italian Grand Prix in early September.
It can be so easy to dismiss a dominant driver due to the strength of their machinery. Verstappen’s Baku is a great example of the fact that, while having a fast car is a key part of winning a championship, the tiny human details are what can separate the great from the good.
Beating Perez in Miami
Verstappen would turn those Baku learnings into a hammer blow at the next race, which would turn out to be the final high point in Perez’s 2023 season.
The Mexican driver claimed a popular pole position on Saturday, when a red flag caught Verstsappen out and forced him to start lower down the order in ninth. It was as close to a genuine championship fight 2023 would get.
When Sunday’s race started, it was immediately clear Verstappen was in the frame to win. As would become a theme for the rest of the year, Perez was unable to match the pace Verstappen was setting in the same car.
Verstappen carved through the field early and was able to stay on the same tyres for 45 of the race’s 57 laps. When he finally pitted, he emerged behind Perez, setting up the prospect of a grandstand finish. What followed was an easy pass and minimal resistance from Perez.
As we now know, Miami was the first win of Verstappen’s famous streak, while qualifying at the circuit which snakes around the Hard Rock Stadium would prove to be the final high in Perez’s season, as things would quickly come crashing down around him.
Monaco’s lap for the ages
Monaco would be a sign of things to come for the middle stretch of the year. Perez, dubbed the ‘Street King’ by some for his previous victories on street circuits, crashed heavily in the first qualifying session. Not only did this hand the advantage to his teammate, it also offered Red Bull’s rivals a chance to glimpse at the floor of its car — one of the biggest secrets of an F1 design — as it was lifted via crane away from the crash site.
There’s been plenty of superlatives about Verstappen this year and few have been more well deserved than for his pole position lap at the Monaco Grand Prix. In the final seconds of Q3 it looked like Fernando Alonso would finally return to the front of the grid for the first time since 2012 — but Verstappen had other ideas. After his first run Verstappen was fifth — a horrible place to start a race around Monte Carlo’s tight and twisty F1 track — and on his second he was down on Alonso’s provisional pole time through the first two sectors of the circuit. Then came sector three.
Verstappen would use every inch of the circuit to snatch pole away from the Spaniard, despite being 0.2s (a significant margin in an F1 qualifying lap) behind coming through the Swimming Pool chicane. Verstappen’s Red Bull would clip the wall coming through the final kink of the track. While watching live, or any of the replays that followed, it seemed impossible how Verstappen’s car stayed together.
“I think that is one of the best laps he’s ever driven in qualifying,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said later.
The race itself was another masterclass, as Verstappen managed changing conditions — and rode his luck at one moment late on — for the victory. Alonso might have won the race had Aston Martin made a braver call on strategy when the rain intensified late on. They may also have done so had Verstappen not saved his Red Bull from sliding into the wall after getting loose at the Rascasse corner around the same time. That one moment aside, Verstappen had controlled the Monaco race completely.
Verstappen also won from pole position at the next four races, Spain, Canada, Austria and Britain, to place an iron grip on the lead of the championship, before passing Lewis Hamilton into Turn 1 and disappearing into the distance to win the Hungarian Grand Prix.
A national hero
Verstappen saved two of his most dominant displays for the two races either side of August’s summer break.
In Belgium, the country of his birth and a race usually swarming with Dutch fans, and his homeland the Netherlands, Verstappen was in a different league to the rest. In Belgium, an engine penalty dropped him to sixth on the grid, but it didn’t matter. He cut through the field and passed Perez on Lap 16 for the lead of the race.
At Zandvoort, the venue which returned to the calendar in 2021 purely because of his rise to superstardom, Verstappen was half a second faster than the next quickest car in qualifying. In a race bookended by heavy rain showers, the second of which caused a chaotic sequence of laps, he never showed a sign of cracking under pressure. Like always, Verstappen seemed unfazed by the frenzied support of the home crowd.
Good things come to those who wait
There’s a big difference between the Verstappen who won the title in 2021 and the won who has won it in 2023. This was never more apparent than while fighting the Ferraris for victory at the Italian Grand Prix in early September, one week after winning at Zandvoort. The victory would be the record-setting 10th in a row.
Early in his career, Verstappen earned the nickname ‘Mad Max’ for his impatient and, at times, rash aggression behind the wheel. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, and it earned public rebukes from former champions in Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Hamilton would see Verstappen’s aggressive streak firsthand in 2021, a season which saw the drivers collide on multiple occasions. That’s not to say all were the fault of Verstappen, but after being forced off the track at the first corner of Imola’s race early in the season Hamilton realised he had to fight fire with fire. Collisions at Silverstone and Monza followed, while there would also be major flashpoints in Brazil and Saudi Arabia later in the year.
There’s been none of that from Verstappen this year. Cynics might say he’s not needed to drive like that to win, but there’s been plenty of moments he could have forced it when he didn’t need to. At Monza, Verstappen was stuck between Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc for the opening stint. Sainz defended well when Verstappen did attack, but as the battle unfolded it was clear he was waiting for his moment.
It was easy to imagine the younger Verstappen tangling with Sainz, deciding it was now or never. He lost a win at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix in similar circumstances. Verstappen knew the patient approach was the right one and when the moment finally came, with the aid of the Drag Reduction System (DRS), he breezed by and went on to disappear off into the distance to win.
The patience of that win showed many things. For one, a driver supremely confident in himself and in his car, someone who knew he could let the race come to him. While it is difficult to imagine Verstappen ever echoing Niki Lauda’s famous quote, “The secret is to win by going as slow as possible”, he has clearly matured into a driver who knows the battles he needs to pick and which ones he can avoid.
There’s no doubt that aggressive streak is still there — it remains one of Verstappen’s defining traits — but he now seems to understand he can reserve it for the most desperate of moments.
Bouncing back in Japan
Red Bull’s unbeaten season was ended by Carlos Sainz and Ferrari in Singapore, where Verstappen finished fifth. Red Bull played down the importance it had placed on completing a perfect season, but clearly Verstappen was hurt by the loss and the chat which followed.
In the days between Singapore and Japan, Verstappen would play Red Bull boss Christian Horner at padel ball.
“He was properly fired up,” Horner would later reveal about their match. “He made it clear and said that he wanted to win the race in Japan by 20 seconds.”
Verstappen was a blink of an eye short of doing that, winning by a fraction of a second slower than the target he set himself.
The backbone of that victory had been another supreme qualifying lap. While Monaco’s had been sublime in the final sector, Verstappen’s attack of the opening corners of Suzuka’s famous circuit were breathtaking. The onboard of the lap, which F1 has posted to its YouTube account, is a stunning watch.
“I think what we’ve witnessed today is something very special,” Horner told Sky Sports. It was hard to disagree.
Verstappen would follow up his legendary qualifying with one of the great F1 soundbites, referring to speculation a technical directive about flexing bodywork had hamstrung his team in Singapore. It was a direct comment to anyone thinking there was a direct link to Red Bull’s bad race one week earlier.
“Honestly, we had a bad weekend,” he said about the defeat at Singapore. “Then people start saying it’s all because of the technical directive, but I think they can go suck on an egg.
“From my side, I was just very fired up to have a good weekend here and make sure we were strong.”
Verstappen’s win was comfortable on paper, but it was cleared how fired up he was from the beginning of the race, as he held off the charging McLaren pair of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri to lead into Turn 1.
The Japan win made his title coronation in Qatar this week a formality.