Addicted to winning: a retrospective with Max, Jos and Raymond
Published on 07 February 2024 by FORMULE 1 Magazine
Does it get any better than the commanding way he became World Champion in 2022? Yes, Max Verstappen proves it can be done better just a year later. It seems that the only person who can break through the glass ceiling of Verstappen’s achievements is Verstappen himself.
Flashback to Suzuka, Sunday 9 October 2022. Verstappen joins racing royalty Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet and Aryton Senna. Each driver in this quintet secured three world titles. In the paddock friend and foe alike agree that Verstappen is not the odd man out in this list. The consensus: he is only 26 years old, there will perhaps be more titles in his future, but already he’s cemented his place within the elite of motorsport and Formula 1 in particular. Onwards and upwards to Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel (4), Juan Manuel Fangio (5) and Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher (7)? Who knows.
Verstappen claims not to personally care much about records, but nuance says otherwise. Because even if the sport or historical value don’t mean much to him, the emotions do. It represents a shared success, he likes to emphasize. His, and that of his family and friends. And his team, the Red Bull family. In short, all the people close to his heart.
However, in Qatar on the Saturday evening after the sprint race, Verstappen does give voice to the great historical value of this third championship. He is genuinely proud and happy. “If you see the names of the people that hold those three titles, you do think to yourself: ‘wow’. It’s unbelievable what they achieved in their careers and now I’m there with them. That does create a special feeling.”
Already on Thursday, Losail’s media day, the talk is frequently about what historical context you can or should place Verstappen’s then-upcoming championship. Asked for a comment comparing his achievements to three-time championships of old, the Dutchman says that you can’t just make those kinds of comparisons. “Everyone is good in his own way, nobody is the same. Each time period is also completely different. That’s also what’s nice about the sport, the development. But it also makes comparisons unfair.”
This is said while the temperature in the desert is steadily rising to 41 degrees. Luckily the air conditioning of the 300 million euro (!) renovated pit complex is working, standing in the middle of ongoing sandstorms on the edge of Losail. Not that Verstappen needs the relief: he is as cool as a cucumber. There is no chance he’ll break out in sweats in the lead-up to the title fight climax, he is relaxed. As has been so often the case this season.
It’s also on display this Grand Prix weekend. And other weekends, for those paying attention. Because often, in the hundredths or tenths of a second after a question is posed to him, there is a mini-silence, quickly followed by a sparkle in the eyes and then a not-so-small mischievous smile that threatens to break through. The result is a witty response, often supported with humor, self-mockery, or a direct but innocuous quip at Mercedes.
The arrival of Thursday marks the start of a decisive race weekend. Is he nervous about the upcoming title weekend, an English journalist asks? And there is that sparkle, and the quip is incoming in 3, 2, 1. Like clockwork: “Oh yes, very nervous. I’m shaking”, Verstappen answers, followed by a wide grin.
No stress then. He’s the picture of self-possession: everything is under control, everything is good, everything is fine. Try me, and all that. It’s the aura of a true champion, self-assured without being cocky. Confident without overestimation. And it is also at that moment that you as an onlooker already know: it’s going to go completely his way.
It all unfolds just 48 hours later. Verstappen finishes the race behind Oscar Piastri, second in the sprint race. But when after just 12 laps his only competition (and teammate) Sergio Perez spun out of the race, the third world title was an inevitability. “I saw what had happened”, Verstappen said afterward regarding Perez’s untimely exit. The Dutchman didn’t throw a party while he was behind the wheel. “I stayed focused on winning the race because that’s what I wanted.”
While the race wasn’t quite won, the relief at clinching the world title was just as great crossing the finish line in second place. That was also true for father Jos Verstappen and manager Raymond Vermeulen. “We of course saw this coming for a while,” the former says amid congratulations and interviews. The praise for his son also flows his way as Max’s mentor. He is the man that the junior Verstappen also knows the best of anyone. And so the question is asked of him: What does this success mean for the coming years? “Max is in peak form, I think. But we don’t know where that will lead.”
He thanks the team and praises the collective success of Red Bull and his son. “You need good stuff, lest we forget. That is why these many people are important: engineers, designers, you name it. There can’t be a single weak link.” So comes the question of whether the combination of Verstappen and the RB19 may be the best in the sport ever, especially for the Dutch driver? Verstappen senior, grinning: “Apparently so.”
Next to him Vermeulen nods. He is also enjoying the success. “Max has made yet another step, it’s super to see how he pulled this off with so much dominance.” Where it will all lead to, his manager, too, doesn’t dare to speculate. He doesn’t see the world champion’s eagerness running out soon, however. “The spirit in Max, of that there is more than enough to go around. Next season will be a new season, it will probably be a tighter race. But that too will be a beautiful year.”
With perhaps the same stubbornness as now, although it has a different character to the previous two championships? “For sure the first win was very different”, father Verstappen reflects, thinking about the climatic final lap of the 2021 championship in Abu Dhabi. “That was of course a lot more exciting, and perhaps more meaningful, I think.” With a laugh: “I’d rather have it like this though.”
And which win does the three-time world champion prefer? It’s a cliché question, but with three titles under your belt, it’s bound to get asked. “And especially if each was achieved in completely different ways”, Verstappen agrees, understanding only all too well. “But here too it’s difficult to compare them.”
The driver nevertheless attempts an answer: “The first time I became world champion in Formula 1 was the most emotional, also because I had achieved my dream. But this last title is the best of the three because it was the result of my best season ever. Not just all the consecutive wins (Verstappen beat Sebastian Vettel’s record for the highest number of consecutive Grand Prix wins, with an impressive 10), but also thanks to the car, which turned out to be so good. That’s why of this title, but also of this team, I’m the most proud. We’ve been so consistent.”
And now? His star is still rising. How many titles are in his future? Nobody can predict it. Nobody dares to predict it. Because just when you think it can’t get any better, Verstappen will prove you wrong. That’s what we learned this year compared to 2022. The competition has been issued a warning. The time of Verstappen is here to stay.