2-Time F1 Champion Max Verstappen's Stock Keeps Going Up
Max Verstappen's first championship was controversial, at best. Although he ran a magnificent season to put himself into the position to win, the timing of a safety car and uncharacteristic plan to force an earlier restart before full wave-around procedure was complete casts a long shadow over his 2021 title. His 2022 season carries no such qualifiers.
This is the twentieth and final installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2023 Formula 1 season. You can find the rest of our previews here.
Verstappen's 2022 was outrageous. Although his percentage of wins was lower than either, his 15 2022 wins shattered Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel's records for a season by two. Another two podiums mean that Verstappen finished worse than third just five times over 22 rounds. It was a dominant showing, one that answered every possible question about whether or not Verstappen and this iteration of Red Bull were built to win big. Now, the question becomes how long they can do it.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Verstappen's rise through the open wheel ranks is so uncharacteristically fast that it forced a rule change. He jumped from karts to cars in the 2014 offseason, then won ten races en route to third in the 2014 Formula 3 championship. It was all Red Bull needed to see before promoting him directly to F1 for 2015, a decision that inspired the FIA to introduce a more robust and thorough licensing system soon afterward.
At the time, the decision seemed like a surefire way to waste a prospect's incredible potential. When Red Bull pulled a similar stunt with Jaime Alguersuari, the driver Verstappen replaced as the youngest F1 starter ever, it ended with Alugersuari out of F1 within three years and retired from racing to concentrate on his career as a DJ by 25. Verstappen skipped even further, going straight to the Scuderia Toro Rosso junior team at just 17 without a season in any international series following F1 or junior championship of any level to his name.
Verstappen overcame those concerns quickly. He scored points regularly in a 2015 season highlighted by two finishes of fourth, then got the call to move straight up to Red Bull's senior team four races into the 2016 season. That weekend, he became the youngest driver to ever win an F1 race. Four more podiums rounded out a finish of fifth in the series championship.
Verstappen improved gradually for the next few years, never winning more than three races between 2017 and 2020, but he kept improving and continued to win multiple races every year. With Sebastian Vettel falling out of favor at Ferrari, it was enough to make him the clear greatest threat to Lewis Hamilton for the championship in the 2021 season. He lived up to that promise by winning ten races in 2021, the last of those wins being the controversial race at Abu Dhabi that decided his first championship.
HOW 2022 WENT
Verstappen followed the all-out fight for the 2021 title with a season so dominant that it looked easy. 15 wins, 7 poles, and 454 points highlighted a season that seemed to fall to Red Bull by May. It was a record-setting year, aided in part by Ferrari's constant strategic blunders and the year-long battle with porpoising and sidepod shape over at Mercedes. Like at this point in both Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton's run of consecutive championships, the balance of power has now shifted from a two-team or three-team fight to one where teams are chasing a clear leader in Red Bull.
GOALS FOR 2023
Now, Verstappen and Red Bull need to keep that lead. Mercedes and Ferrari have spent their offseasons focusing on fixing their clear issues, all while retaining their talented one-two punches of race-winning drivers that all seem to be clearly capable of fighting for a title on their own. Red Bull, meanwhile, has been tasked with improving on relative perfection.
That is no small task. Verstappen and the team will be expected to come out swinging in the first few rounds of 2023, and, if they do not, the team that gets out to an early lead as Ferrari did last year will instantly be expected to win going forward. The mantle of best car in Formula 1 is a fragile one. Since his goal is a championship and another dozen or more race wins, Verstappen's season will not look like a success unless Red Bull can maintain it.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
Realistically, only three drivers are going into 2023 expecting a shot at a championship: Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, and Charles Leclerc. Two of them need their teams and cars to improve from 2022 to put up any fight at all. In other words, Max Verstappen stands alone as the only driver whose 2023 expectation is to actually win that championship.
His career is already a massive success. A two-time champion and 35 race winner at 25, another 10 years on a trajectory like this puts Verstappen in the top five all time by any measure. He will not be defined by whether or not 2023 is his third straight championship season, but it sure would be nice to maintain that standard.