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How Max Verstappen went from ‘rough’ to ‘polished diamond’: Experience meets speed

Through his success in 2023, Max Verstappen delivered the most dominant season by a driver in Formula One history.

At times, races looked like a foregone conclusion before they’d even started. The hope stirred by a close qualifying would quickly fade when Verstappen got into his groove in the race.

He didn’t just beat his previous record of 15 wins in a season from 2022, he destroyed it with 19 victories in 22 races — and over 1,000 laps led.

“When you look back at the season that he’s had, particularly across the different challenges of the different venues, circuits, conditions, he’s been just phenomenal this year,” said Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal.

A combination of factors made Verstappen’s season possible, be it Red Bull producing such a strong car in the RB19, teammate Sergio Pérez’s struggles, and the lack of sustained threat from rival teams.

But 2023 also marked another step in Verstappen’s evolution. His raw speed and “extremely rare, natural talent”, to quote his race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, matched with a growing experience that made him almost impossible to beat in 2023.

It was something Horner quickly noted after Verstappen clinched his third title in the Qatar sprint race with six grands prix to spare. “He’s always had the speed from the moment he sat in the car,” Horner said. But speed alone doesn’t make a champion.

“He arrived in Formula One as quite a rough diamond. He’s now a very polished diamond. He’s maintained all those raw attributes that he had, but now brings experience to couple with that.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Scuderia Toro Rosso waits in the pit lane for a team photograph during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


Max Verstappen made his F1 debut at 17 years old in 2015, the youngest driver in the sport’s history. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

That “rough diamond” landed in F1 off the back of only one year in single-seater racing. Verstappen had already fast-tracked from go-karts to Formula Three, where his performances quickly drew interest from all the front-running F1 teams. Only Red Bull was prepared to get him straight into F1 for 2015, starting out with its sister team, Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). At 17, Verstappen became F1’s youngest ever driver.

Four races into Verstappen’s second season, Red Bull had seen enough: Daniil Kvyat’s struggles prompted it to promote Verstappen to its senior squad and send Kvyat in the opposition direction. It was deemed a huge leap for the young Dutchman — only for him to win on his Red Bull debut in Spain.

“This rough diamond turned up and won his first race. He didn’t take much polishing, did he?” Paul Monaghan, Red Bull’s chief engineer, told The Athletic. “It wasn’t bad from the outset.

“What I saw in Max when he first arrived was a very driven, determined young man with a huge amount of self belief. Sometimes people may perceive that as arrogance, but it’s not. It’s confidence and self belief. And my goodness me, he’s got the talent to back it up.”

That confidence turns into an expectation for nothing but the best — both from the team around him, and himself.

“He doesn’t leave anything on the table, he wants it all,” Horner said in Qatar. “That drives and motivates the team internally. He is relentless in his pursuit of performance, and he doesn’t just want to win. He wants to dominate.”

From winner to champion

There was a time when the idea of Verstappen winning so many races in a season seemed far-fetched. Prior to 2021, victories were a rarity, not the norm. Mercedes and Ferrari’s advantage over Red Bull meant there were few opportunities for Verstappen to challenge for top spot, limiting him to 10 wins from 2016 to the end of 2020 – as many as he won consecutively between May and September this year.

It was all part of the learning curve. Verstappen’s fierce fight for the 2021 title with Lewis Hamilton boiled over on numerous occasions, eventually being settled in controversial fashion on the last lap of the last race of the season. The intensity of that championship undoubtedly played a part in Verstappen’s growth.

His father, Jos Verstappen, has been there for every step of the journey. He agreed that the “experience makes him better”, and although he had not seen any great change in his son, he doubted such a dominant year would have been possible a few years ago.

“It’s the same Max as three or four years ago,” Jos said in Qatar. “The only difference is he has a fantastic car around him. He knows the people that he works with, and I think that makes it look easy.

“But you still have to be there every weekend, and the details make the difference. For me, if he had this car four years ago, I wouldn’t say he would win another 10 races (in a row). But for sure, he was very close to what we have seen now.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 15: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing celebrates his first F1 win on the podium with Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 15, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)


On his Red Bull debut in 2016, Verstappen clinched his first F1 victory. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Verstappen’s confidence behind the wheel extends to all his interactions with the Red Bull team. Besides what Monaghan described as “the occasional verbal volley” on the radio — hardly a sign of tension, more of the strength of the relationship — there has also been another level of self assurance and calmness this year.

“Listen to his radio messages: ‘What’s the gap, what’s this, what’s that, what are the switch changes?’” Monaghan said. “It’s all just taken with driving as quickly as anybody on the track, and it’s just easy. That’s what I see in him. Out of the car, he seems more relaxed to me.”

Beneath it all, there is the unwavering, unrelenting desire to win. Even through the final six races of the season, when he could have let up after sewing up the championship, Verstappen did not miss a beat. As he put it after the season finale in Abu Dhabi: “Winning is great. Why would I not want to win?”

The evolution of Verstappen into such a dominant driver has put him into the same conversation as the all-time greats, even at the tender age of 26. In the past two seasons, Verstappen has gone from 20 victories to 54, leaping from tied for 17th on the all-time wins list to third, with only Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (103) ahead of him. At this rate, both are within his sights before his Red Bull contract is up at the end of 2028.

“He appreciates the history of the sport, and he respects the records that are there,” Horner said.

“A big percentage of his race wins have come in the last two or three years. It really depends on us if we’re able to provide him the tools as well. They’re massive numbers. (To) Lewis, he’s only halfway there in certain respects.

“But he has a lot of racing ahead of him.”

(Lead image of Max Verstappen in 2023: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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