Last year, Max Verstappen finished fourth in the drivers standings. The spot marked a slight improvement over where he has hung out for the previous to years, where he had finished fifth in 2016 after driving for both Toro Rosso and Red Bull, followed by finishing sixth while enjoying a full season with Red Bull.
Verstappen has, at times been cantankerous and problematic. In 2018, Verstappen was involved in incidents in the first six races of the season. Yet he followed that with three straight podium finishes capped with a win at Austria. In many ways, those results signify everything there is to know about the 21-year-old Dutch driver.
At times, his problems have been written off as moments of youthful indiscretion, times of impetuousness that can be permitted to the fog of youth. In conjunction, every sterling pass or bold move that works out is attributed to his considerable talent but also condemned for his over-aggressiveness. He has, at the heart of it, been a lightning rod for criticism.
Some of the critique is real, as Verstappen has certainly made a few bone-headed moves. But something about the vitriol or condemnation may have more to do with him living in the fishbowl that is F1 – where everything gets scrutinized to the Nth degree and unless the driver hides all sense of personality, especially as a young driver, he gets vilified for it.
For some reason, even as the sport feted him for turning 21 and being able to celebrate his birthday in America with a beer, there’s a willingness to forget his youth.
His 2019 season, however, is turning out to be his best and may be just the kind that silences critics. He’s averaged a 3.6 finish over the first five races and has beaten at least one of the Ferraris in every race. (It might be too much to ask him to finish ahead of a Mercedes as no one has been able to do that this season, as they’ve locked out the first two steps of the podium in each race.)
In many ways, Verstappen has been quiet, just churning along and letting his team principal, Christian Horner be the outspoken one.
Because one of the impressive things about this season is that Red Bull has switched to Honda for their power units. The trend in the sport has been that any time an organization switches engines, there comes with it a lag in performance. The expectations were that Red Bull would suffer with Honda, especially as their sister organization, Toro Rosso, showed nothing in way of strength when partnered with Honda last year.
It is possible that Honda has made gains. Possible and they likely have. But Toro Rosso is still struggling, floundering in the 14 and 15 spots with their two drivers.
In fact, Horner is already calling out Honda for the lack of top-end speed that he feels is missing and the element that forces Verstappen to drive with one arm tied behind his back. Of course, Red Bull wouldn’t be Red Bull at this point if they weren’t bitching to their engine supplier about not being able to match Ferrari or Mercedes.
The funny thing is that Verstappen has still acquitted himself well. He is, in many ways, pulling everything out of the car that he possibly can. His style may best be compared to Fernando Alonso’s when he came up with Renault – a driver able to get everything he possibly can out of an underperforming car.
There’s another aspect that also may be being overlooked.
Verstappen finds himself paired with a new teammate for the first time since he joined Red Bull. With Daniel Ricciardo moving over to Renault, the team promoted Pierre Gasly from Toro Rosso to the big show. So far, even he’s surprising as he’s sixth in points with two sixth-place finishes to his 2019 stat sheet. Were it not for a DNF, Gasly’s worst finish would be in 11, which isn’t so bad.
Gasly finished 15 in the standings last year but also earned five top-10 finishes and flashed enough talent to know that he might be suited to be driving for the bigger team. What really might mean something is the chemistry that the two drivers have developed.
There doesn’t seem to be the same sense of acrimony at Red Bull that there had been the last two seasons. In fact, other than Horner’s public yammering, Red Bull seems to be a place of calm, and that seems weird. Consider that the trend had been Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel being unfriendly, followed by Vettel and Ricciardo being cold, and then the open passive aggressiveness between Ricciardo and Verstappen and things between Verstappen and Gasly are, well, tranquil. That seems shocking.
With Verstappen sitting third and looking like he might be the star he is, things look great.
That makes Tuesday’s official announcement that Zandvoort is going to host a Dutch Grand Prix next year even more of a boon for the young driver. He has shown that he feeds off the crowd and being able to be a part of the sport’s return to the area should only inspire him further.
In some ways, it looks like we’re entering a new era, one where Verstappen is the soon-to-be king.