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With four races still remaining, all that’s left for Verstappen is to continue to add to his epic win total.
Max Verstappen’s first Formula 1 championship was decided on the last lap of the last race in hugely controversial circumstances. Title two has been quite a bit more comfortable. Autoweek assesses how a close fight swiftly became a one-man procession.
It is easy to forget, as Verstappen basks in a dominant and potentially record-breaking championship season, that his title defense looked gloomy after three events.
Red Bull’s RB18 had its strengths, but its understeer traits frustrated Verstappen, who was struggling to unearth the optimum balance. Separate mechanical failures meant he trailed Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc by 46 points in the championship.
Verstappen joked he needed 45 races to catch up, and that “there is no reason to believe” in winning the title. He told media afterward that Red Bull “needs to be quicker, which we are not at the moment, and we need to be reliable, which we are also not.” Viewed in the aftermath of a 2021 title fight, in which every single point was gold dust, it was a reasonable conclusion to make.
Since then Verstappen has won 11 of the 16 Grands Prix to bring his season tally to 12. He’s finished off the podium just twice (caused by a massive chunk of another car getting lodged in his floor at Silverstone and an atypically messy weekend in Singapore)and turned a grim situation into title number two, with an enormous points margin.
In a season which has featured revised technical regulations, Red Bull has made strides with its RB18. Weight-saving exercises as it introduced upgrades naturally brought more lap time while the added bonus of a lighter car was that it dialed out the understeer, bringing it more toward Verstappen’s liking. Further set-up windows were also discovered in which the car performed strongly.
“The car was very heavily overweight initially, and that doesn’t help with the balance of the car because it just becomes lazy,” said Verstappen. “The car was overweight and that’s why it made it understeer, and more prone to front locking.”
As Red Bull technical director Pierre Wache said, “at the beginning of the season, we didn’t have the possibility to move the weight, then it’s part of the set-up. I think it’s everything together and after (that) you find your performance somewhere. It went in the favor of Max.”
Red Bull’s development has also shone through, with its RB18 particularly rapid at aero efficient circuits, such as Spa-Francorchamps, where Verstappen flew to first from 14th on the grid. After winning the crown he labelled that performance as the finest of the season.
Having a strong car is always crucial for any champion, but in Verstappen’s hands it was brutally exploited. Now age 25, Verstappen has blended maturity with his vast experience—more than 150 races—and natural talent.
“Max since winning that championship last year has taken another step,” said team principal Christian Horner. “It’s in many ways released him and he is driving at an incredible level.”
Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez conceded the talent operating on the other side of the garage.
“I don’t feel like Red Bull have had a dominant car, to have won the championship the way Max won it, so I think he definitely pulled a gear or two compared to anyone else,” said Perez. “I think in the beginning I was a lot closer to him; once he got quite comfortable with the car and I was more uncomfortable with it, he was driving at another level compared to everyone you know. The races that he did were sometimes incredible, incredible to watch so yeah, a lot of respect for him.”
Verstappen has cut a tranquil figure through much of the season but has naturally retained a fiercely competitive mindset. He has rarely made a mistake this year—part evolution, part the lack of pressure from a rival—and even when he has (Barcelona, Budapest) fortune has favored him, as he regrouped from the setbacks to win on both occasions.
Red Bull as a team have also been operating at a remarkably high level. The architects of that success—the likes of Horner, design guru Adrian Newey, Wache, team manager Jonathan Wheatley, principal strategy erngineer Hannah Schmitz, Verstappen’s race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase—are an exceptional unit that have barely made a mis-step this season. Schmitz’s strategies, and Lambiase’s straightforward communication, stand in contrast to how messages at certain other teams are conveyed. There is also a brutal honesty. Verstappen justifiably lambasted the team post-qualifying in Singapore for a fueling error but there was no long-term fallout or souring of partnerships.
“I like the critical approach, because when I fuck up they can also tell me that I made a mistake, and I think it should be the other way around as well because that’s how we keep each other heading into the right direction,” said Verstappen. “Because we want to be perfect—we don’t want to be good, we want to be perfect.”
The absence of a consistent and credible opponent has also been of benefit to Verstappen and Red Bull.
Ferrari appeared most likely to threaten, beginning the year with a compliant and rapid car, the result of getting a head-start on 2022 owing to its absence from the front of the field in 2020-21. Ferrari began with a 1-2 finish in Bahrain, but that remains its best result as the tantalizing prospect of a close two-team title fight swiftly wilted.
Strategic blunders, reliability setbacks and a couple of driver mistakes meant Ferrari had a string of disappointing outcomes. It failed to capitalize on rare Verstappen off-days and was not able to maximize its own haul on its own bad days. While its F1-75 remains quick across one-lap its performance in race trim has faded since Hungary, and Ferrari is still striving to understand why, leaving Red Bull’s RB18 as the quickest race package. The message from Ferrari has regularly been of accepting its need to improve but it has yet to put that into practice.
“They’ve done an incredible job this year,” said Charles Leclerc of his opponent. “Yeah, Max has just been incredible and it’s a title fully deserved and on our side, we’ll try to push for the last four races this season to improve as a team and to hopefully put more of a challenge next year.”
And while Ferrari faltered, Mercedes was never in the mix. Flaws with its W13 were identified early in the campaign and it was quickly out of title contention. The car gradually improved as Mercedes began to understand the deficiencies, and then bring and apply remedies, but it remained a step behind Red Bull throughout the season. Mercedes’ extraordinary run of Constructors’ titles will end at eight.
“Congratulations to Max. He’s done exactly the job he needed to do to win his second title.”
“Congratulations to Max. He’s done exactly the job he needed to do to win his second title,” said Lewis Hamilton. “We know what our problems are with this car, and I believe we have the team to come back stronger next season.”
Verstappen’s title-clinching victory was reflective of his season. In poor conditions at Suzuka—one of Formula 1’s most challenging circuits—he swatted aside a first-lap challenge from Leclerc and after a lengthy stoppage due to further rain he surged clear of his opponents. Verstappen was 27 seconds clear after only 23 laps of green flag action when the checkered flag was displayed due to time.
It was the 12th victory of Verstappen’s title-winning campaign and with four rounds remaining it seems inevitable that he will smash the record of 13 wins in a season, jointly held by Vettel and Michael Schumacher. It was a victory that brought him to equal-sixth on the all-time winners list, joining fellow two-time champion Fernando Alonso on 32 victories. Red Bull also stands on the brink of the Constructors’ championship for the first time since 2013.
Verstappen closed Formula 1’s past era with a last-gasp maiden crown and began the new regulatory cycle with a commanding championship. With a strong car, strong team, flailing rivals, and stable regulations, this could just be the opening phase of a Verstappen/Red Bull dynasty. Records only recently amassed by Hamilton could yet be threatened by the new two-time champion.
“We have a really good group of people,” said Verstappen. “And I think they also work really well together. So it’s all about just, keeping them together. And so if we keep them together, I think they can achieve a lot. And then of course, if I have a competitive car, I’m confident that we can keep this going. But it also depends on what the competition is going to come up with. But yeah, I really believe in this group. And I really hope that in the coming years, we can enjoy a lot more wins, and potentially, of course, championships.”
Where does Max Verstappen’s 2022 season rank among all-time great F1 season-long performances? Or, is it a matter of Red Bull just finding something that no other team found this season? Start the discussion in the comments section below.