Mature Max Verstappen joins gilded group

Red Bull driver and F1 champion Max Verstappen holds up trophy on the podium after winning the Japanese Grand Prix. AP

Max Verstappen joined a gilded group of double champions on Sunday and completed a rapid rise to greatness with a flourish in Japanese rain at Suzuka, in stark contrast to his terrifying first success in Abu Dhabi last December.

There he wrested a controversial last-lap triumph from Lewis Hamilton, denying the Brit an unprecedented eighth triumph to win Red Bull’s first championship since Sebastian Vettel completed four in a row in 2013.

Mercedes retained their teams’ title for an eighth consecutive season, but this result spelled the end of their Formula One dominance.

Red Bull strongly hinted at what was to come and in 2022 they delivered a superior car that could win anywhere and in any conditions, and a more polished and mature version of Formula One’s first Dutch champion.

Having celebrated his 25th birthday just over a week ago, he is the second youngest two-time champion behind Vettel and is now on the verge of a career that could be a record.

It is a remarkable achievement by a driver who was just 17 when he began his Formula One career in 2015 with Toro Rosso.

He took his first win a year later with Red Bull driving with almost reckless abandon. Now teenage “Mad Max” has matured into “Mighty Max”.

Early years

The son of Jos, a former Formula One driver, and Belgian world-class kart racer Sophie, Max raced to several titles as a boy, almost winning the F3 title on his first attempt at the age of 15.

Although his parents divorced when he was a child, their influence was lasting and created an aggressive racer who grew up with his father surrounded by cars and mechanics.

Former Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo recalled his raw pace and determination.

“He’s already proven his speed,” he said. “But in 2018 I remember the first four or five races he had accidents and made quite a lot of mistakes.

“But he found a way to fix it and he matured a lot. I think in 2018 he has the transition from a young boy to a man with some maturity. It made his track results more consistent and now just look at what he has done.”

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner also kept faith and when this year’s new “ground effect” cars were introduced, the team had the ideal man in chief technical officer Adrian Newey to exploit the new regulations.

Newey was not only F1’s top car designer, but graduated from Southampton University in 1980 with his thesis on ground effect technology which helped him gain a first class honors degree in Aeronautics.

Patience is rewarded

It was a critical advantage over his rivals and Verstappen was vindicated for remaining loyal to Red Bull when Ferrari tried to lure him away.

“I trusted the process,” Verstappen said.

“That’s why I never left. Sometimes you could have said, ‘Oh, it’s time to leave and go somewhere else and chase instant success.’ But I believed in the team, the people, and it paid off. So, I’m very happy.”

Verstappen’s patience has been rewarded with a winning car for 2022, a new contract until 2028 and none of the nastiness that marred last year’s title race.

“For me, it’s really nice to be part of this team. There is a good atmosphere and that is the most important thing,” said Verstappen.

“Sometimes you have to be patient too. You can’t force things… That’s what I learned.”

Apart from the early season form of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Verstappen has had a relatively undisturbed passage to Alberto Ascari, Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mika Hakkinen and Fernando Alonso as double world champions.

Another 10 drivers have three or more, including the two at the top of the list, Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. They are future targets.

Verstappen’s victories were built on his supreme ability and confidence, but also Mercedes’ failure to build a competitive machine and Ferrari’s self-inflicted problems ranging from driver errors to strategic blunders and mechanical failures.

“He couldn’t have done it last year, no,” said Horner of Verstappen’s dominance in 2022, winning 12 of 18 races so far.

“I think back then the cars were so hard to follow.

“But then again, the racing we had in 2021, especially between Max and Lewis, was just on another dimension.

“I mean those two guys worked hard and they were two titans at the top of their game. It was fantastic to be a part of it.”

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