Since he burst into Formula 1 as a precociously talented and preternaturally confident 17-year-old, Max Verstappen has been widely regarded as the future of the sport.
He’s the youngest driver to start an F1 grand prix. The youngest to score points. The youngest to take a podium. The youngest to win a race. The youngest to win multiple races. But when does the future become the present?
The Dutchman is now in his sixth full season of F1 and has started more than a century of grands prix (he has just passed father Jos’s tally of 106). He has scored nine hard-fought wins during that time, but there’s a sense that his talent deserved more. For one thing, while still only 22, Verstappen will, unless he pulls off a miracle and wins this year’s title, miss out on the chance to break Sebastian Vettel’s record as the youngest-ever F1 world champion.
Verstappen’s problem isn’t a lack of talent but a lack of opportunity: he’s driving a Red Bull-Honda in an era of dominance by Mercedes-AMG. And while Red Bull has established itself as the closest challenger to the German manufacturer in 2020, aided by Ferrari’s troubles, there remains a huge gulf in pace between the two.
Instead of battling for titles, Verstappen is left trailing in the wake of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, picking up scraps when circumstance allows. Even Verstappen's masterful victory in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone owed as much to the vagaries of Pirelli tyres and Red Bull out-thinking Mercedes on strategy. And even accouting for such outlying results, Verstappen, Red Bull or Honda aren't wired to settle for anything less than matching Mercedes on pure pace.
Besides, Verstappen’s form relative to points leader Hamilton hasn’t sapped his self-belief. Asked what he and Red Bull-Honda need to beat Hamilton, he instantly responds: “You mean to beat Mercedes?”
The inference is clear: Verstappen is, in his mind, equal to any driver – even a six-time world champion. Okay, then, what do he and Red Bull need to beat Mercedes?
“What we need is pretty straightforward: we need a faster car and we need a bit more power,” he replies. “Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to get to that point, because Mercedes don’t stand still. They keep developing, and when you have such a big advantage, you can switch early in a season to the year after, so it’s always hard to catch up. We’re learning from the mistakes we’ve made in the last few months, and we’ll try to rectify that.”
Red Bull knows what it’s like to dominate in F1. With Vettel driving, Adrian Newey designing and fizzy drinks money flowing, the Milton Keynes team won four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ title doubles between 2010 and 2013. That run ended when F1 switched from 2.4-litre V8 engines to hugely complex 1.6-litre hybrid powertrains. This shifted the balance of power in performance terms from chassis to powertrain – and to manufacturer-operated teams that could design and engineer both elements in harmony.