Max Verstappen scored his 40th career Formula 1 victory in Spain and has shown no signs of slowing down. Is it too early to put him in a category with the sport’s all-time greats?
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen recently scored his third consecutive Formula 1 victory and his fifth win in the first seven races of the 2023 season in the Spanish Grand Prix at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
The 25-year-old Dutchman has opened up a lead of 53 points over teammate Sergio Perez, the only other race winner this season, in the driver standings.
The victory was the 40th of Verstappen’s career. He sits in sixth place on the all-time wins list, just one behind the legendary Ayrton Senna. With 15 races remaining on the 2023 schedule, Verstappen could mathematically climb to as high as third on the all-time wins list by the end of the year.
Third is currently held by former Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel, whom Verstappen just passed in all-time Red Bull victories. The four-time world champion earned 53 victories during his career, including 38 with the Milton Keynes-based team.
Given the run Max Verstappen is on, is it too soon to enter him into the Formula 1 debate over the greatest of all-time?
The debate itself will never be completely fair, given how hard it is to compare drivers across multiple generations. The cars, rules, regulations, tracks, teams, and just about everything else in Formula 1 has changed throughout the sport’s lengthy history.
While it’s easy to make a case for a number of drivers, whether we’re talking about Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, or Ayrton Senna, the challenging part is making the case against all but one.
And of course, there will always be a sense of recency bias in these debates, since the outstanding performances of modern and current athletes will be a lot fresher in the minds of fans. In this complex era of Formula 1, wouldn’t the elite drivers have been just as elite 30 or 40 years ago?
But at the same time, there will always be those with primacy bias, with some never giving up on the idea that those who competed in the “old days” will never be beaten. After all, you can’t possibly argue that Juan Manuel Fangio wouldn’t be just as dominant in the RB19 as he was back in the 1950s, can you?
But there is a happy medium somewhere, and Verstappen is in the process of transcending it.
Alain Prost, a four-time world champion who won 52 races throughout his Formula 1 career, said in 2017 that talk of Lewis Hamilton, who had just cemented his fourth world title and third in four years, potentially winning seven world championships was “ridiculous”.
Hamilton ended up winning the next three titles to get to seven in 2020, and he broke seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s all-time wins record of 91 in doing so. He has now stood atop the podium on 103 occasions.
Was it premature to consider Hamilton the GOAT in 2017, when he was a three-time champion with 53 victories?
Absolutely. But at the same time, everyone knew what he was capable of, and everyone knew the strength of Mercedes at that point. They knew he had GOAT potential. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, Hamilton was poised to add to his win and championship totals in a big way. Arguing against that was what was really “ridiculous”.
And sure enough, he did.
So in a sense, yes, it’s premature to put Verstappen in this discussion. He still obviously needs to do more. He sits 63 wins and five world championships behind the records. Just three drivers have ever even secured either one (or both) of those statistics.
But on the flip side, Verstappen has reached, if not exceeded, the point that Hamilton was at back in 2017.
Verstappen has done a lot more than just show potential. He is the man to beat. He is no longer the “next big thing” like he was in the late 2010s, or even the early 2020s. He has done more than “show flashes” of being the next Senna. It’s just a matter of how long he can continue to dominate.
Nowadays, the question has shifted to “who can become the next Max Verstappen?”, and that has to count for something.
Red Bull appear to have nailed the rules and regulations that were put in place a year ago, and Verstappen already holds the record for most wins in a single season with 15, despite a rough start to the 2022 campaign. He appears to be well on his way to a third straight world championship, and he might even break his own single season wins record in 2023.
While the whole “GOAT” debate may be overrated, it’s hard to argue against the current driver, team, and car combination being the most dominant combination throughout Formula 1 history.
And if that continues for a lengthy period of time, then perhaps the driver whom many are beginning to talk about with some of Formula 1’s legends will indeed find himself atop the record books when it’s all said and done.