Max Verstappen can join the greats of Formula 1 as he sits on cusp of second world championship in Japan
Verstappen has dominated the drivers’ standings this year – with his grip on the title looking unshakable as early as the Canadian Grand Prix in June.
The Red Bull driver held off a fight from Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in Montreal after a late safety car had bunched up the field. Despite Sainz’s fresh tires, Verstappen was first to the chequered flag in a win that gave him a 49-point lead over Charles Leclerc, who has been viewed as his closest rival outside of teammate Sergio Perez.
Last year’s champion won four of the first six races as he was victorious in Saudi Arabia, Emilia Romagna, Miami and Spain.
That run gave him the lead of the Championship, which he has never looked like relinquishing as an engine failure in Spain as well as a spin off the track at Emilia Romagna cost Leclerc precious points in the battle for the title.
More errors from Leclerc and his team, behind the wheel and on the pit wall, have made Verstappen’s title charge easier than he may have anticipated when he sat 46 points adrift after three grands prix.
The Dutchman suffered with reliability issues in the opening races of the season when he was forced to retire in Bahrain and Australia. In-between he took victory in Saudi Arabia.
He has won 11 of 17 races this season as he sits on the edge of another world title.
His first title arrived in highly-contentious circumstances as he beat Lewis Hamilton with a final-lap overtake in Abu Dhabi but there can be few questions over this year’s march to the title.
Verstappen made his debut in Formula One when he was just 17 as he became the youngest-ever competitor in the sport with Toro Rosso.
In 2016, he was promoted to a Red Bull seat four races into the season and marked his first drive with victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, after an infamous collision between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg forced the season’s two championship contenders out of the race.
If Red Bull can continue to provide him with the right car, the Dutchman – certainly from a purely-statistical sense – could become one of the sport’s greatest-ever competitors, alongside the likes of Hamilton, Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. That is something that team principal Christian Horner has been aware of from very early on.
“Max’s talent is obvious,” said Horner in 2017.
“He is capable of challenging for the championship but we’ve got to be able to give him the tools and the car to be able to do that and that involves all elements.”
Two more wins this season will lift Verstappen above Nigel Mansell (31) and Fernando Alonso (32) in the all-time standings for race wins.
The combination of shrewd engineering from Red Bull and Verstappen’s ability is daunting for their on-grid rivals Mercedes and Ferrari.
After the opening three races of the season, Ferrari looked like a team ready to end their 15-year wait for a title but a litany of poor strategy calls and reliability issues at key points saw their challenge fade away. Mercedes have struggled with the new regulations introduced for 2022, with the eight-time constructors champions yet to win a race this season.
Verstappen’s dominance could reflect that of Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull, who won his first world title with the team in 2010 before going on to win another three. Hamilton broke that run with his second world championship in 2014, sparking Mercedes’ era of dominance.
The issue remains over the 2021 budget cap after the FIA delayed its findings into whether any of the grid’s teams had broken the financial rules, until Monday.
It was anticipated that the FIA would reveal on Wednesday those that failed to comply with last season’s £114m cap.
Red Bull faced unproven allegations at the Singapore Grand Prix that they exceeded F1’s costs cap last term – bringing into the spotlight the legitimacy of Verstappen’s already controversial championship win over Hamilton.
Whatever the findings and any subsequent punishments may be, there can be little doubt that Verstappen has been far and away the best driver on the grid this season – and with the right car under him, he could seriously challenge Hamilton’s and Schumacher’s records.