Formula 1: The day that changed Max Verstappen forever

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Formula 1 (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, Formula 1 (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) /

For many fans, drivers, and teams alike, Max Verstappen has been the gold standard of Formula 1 greatness over the past two and a half years. In that timeframe, he has won 37 times in 58 races and scored two world championships.

In 2023, Max Verstappen looks set to become a triple world champion, having just broken the Formula 1 record for the most consecutive wins by a driver with his 10th. He has 12 wins in just 14 races so far this year.

At this point, it seems like a near certainty that he will break his own record of 15 wins in a season that he set just last season. It also doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that he could win each of the final eight races this year to end 2023 with 20 victories.

There is a lot that goes into his record-breaking success, aside from the near perfect Red Bull Racing machinery he has driven in that timeframe.

His ability to drive a car on its nose at the absolute limit when nobody else in the same car can, his immunity to mistake-making pressure, his outright fearlessness, and his determination to settle for nothing less than P1 is unlike anybody the sport has ever seen.

It’s those traits that have allowed him to walk all over every teammate he’s had, particularly Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon and now Sergio Perez, with ease, and it’s how he managed to out-duel Lewis Hamilton in his bid for an eighth world championship in 2021, despite the fact that it was his first crack at a title fight.

The Dutchman is fast everywhere, walks the line of every boundary imaginable, is impossibly kind to his tires, and never makes a mistake.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

Though he has always been seen as a future Formula 1 world champion dating back to his karting days, Max Verstappen, like every other young driver, had a lot of growing pains early on.

When he came into Formula 1 as a rookie in 2015 for Red Bull’s junior team, Toro Rosso, now known as AlphaTauri, the Dutchman became the youngest Formula 1 driver ever and the youngest points scorer ever. And in 2016, he became the youngest ever winner in just his first race with Red Bull. These are all records that will likely be his forever.

While he opened a lot of eyes in his first season with his daredevil overtakes and stunning P4 finishes in the Hungarian and United States Grands Prix before winning on his Red Bull debut in the Spanish Grand Prix the following season, he also made a ton of high-profile mistakes.

Look no further than in his first Monaco Grand Prix in 2015, when he had a spectacular crash in turn one after a divebomb attempt on the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. He ended the year as the sport’s most penalized driver and had several “moving under braking” incidents with other drivers the following season, plus multiple incidents with his rivals at the front of the field.

These errors were understandably thought to be just a classic case of a young driver learning tough lessons. The problem was, these issues persisted for years. At the start of his fourth season in Formula 1 and his third for Red Bull, Verstappen had at least one incident in five of the opening six races.

He spun himself around in turn one during the Australian Grand Prix, crashed in turn three in Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying before clashing with Hamilton in the race and getting a puncture, went off-track battling Hamilton in China before taking out Sebastian Vettel in the hairpin, crashed with teammate Daniel Ricciardo in Azerbaijan, and then crashed again in Monaco’s third practice session, which caused him to miss qualifying and start the race from last on the grid.

While all of that was going on, Ricciardo, whom Verstappen was perfectly capable of matching and beating, went on to win two of the opening six races, asserting himself as an early season title contender alongside Vettel and Hamilton.

Verstappen’s troubles, lack of accountability, and stubbornness, meanwhile, got so bad to start 2018, that Red Bull were even rumored to be considering demoting their poster child — their golden boy — to Toro Rosso mid-season.

However, it was during that same Monaco Grand Prix weekend in 2018 when Max Verstappen became the Formula 1 driver he is today.

The Monte Carlo circuit was undoubtedly Red Bull’s best chance at a 1-2 finish that season, given the lack of power in their Renault engine, their high downforce, and their subsequent high drag aero philosophy.

With Ricciardo leading Verstappen for Red Bull 1-2s in both of the opening two practice sessions, Verstappen pushed for more in FP3, and he ended up in the barrier at the exit of the swimming pool chicane. With Verstappen ruled out of qualifying, Red Bull’s 1-2 chances were shot down in an instant.

The heavy criticism from exterior outlets, and even his own team, continued to mount on his shoulders, as he was forced to miss qualifying and start last on the track where it is hardest to overtake.

Suddenly, a switch flipped.

The following day, Verstappen put together a very solid, calm, and mature drive to finish in ninth place. The next race in Canada, he put together one of the most complete weekends of his career to that point, qualifying and finishing third on a straight-line speed track where Red Bull were supposed to struggle, crucially finishing well ahead of Ricciardo and Hamilton.

From that point onward, Verstappen won two races to Ricciardo’s zero, and he scored 10 podiums to his teammate’s zero to end 2018. Yes, Ricciardo had a ton of bad luck in the latter part of that season, but Verstappen still outraced the Australian 7-0 in races they both reached the checkered flag.

His step up in performance, and subsequent improved position within the Red Bull team, is ultimately the biggest factor in what made Ricciardo leave for Renault at the end of 2018. Verstappen was truly a changed man.

This marked the start of the Max Verstappen era in Milton Keynes, and in Formula 1 overall, one which has seen him get the more than the most out of his car nearly every single race and demolish every teammate with whom he has worked.

In fact, since the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix, Verstappen has only been outqualified by a teammate eight times in six seasons, excluding races in which he took grid penalties or sessions in which the Dutchman suffered from car reliability issues.

It is unclear what specifically changed with Verstappen. After all, it could be nothing more than a young driver growing older and wiser.

Next. All-time Formula 1 wins list. dark

What is clear, though, is that after his difficult Saturday in Monaco five-plus years ago, the eventual two-time world champion, seemingly overnight, turned from a young, mistake-prone future star, to arguably the most unstoppable force that Formula 1 has ever seen.