With pack up well under way at Suzuka on Sunday night, Max Verstappen took five minutes to sit down with those closest in his team, open a beer and reflect on what he had just achieved – the defence of his Formula 1 world title.
There would not be much time to celebrate that night, as he had already planned to fly back home so he could maximise the hours with his family and friends before the following race in Austin. Between a string of interviews – including one with us for broadcasters – there was only really time for a quick team photo, debrief and short calls with his father and then his mother.
Racing drivers don’t tend to dwell on success. The focus is always on what is next. You’re only as good as your next lap. But in those five minutes, Verstappen gave himself the chance to take it all in.
This has been a remarkable season – one which after three races saw the now two-time world champion 46 points adrift in the championship hunt, courtesy of two mechanical-related retirements. But he then went on a run of 13 wins in 17 races, smashing the record of most wins in a year (14) with two races still to go. Victory in Mexico also set a record of the most points in a year (416).
“It’s been an incredible season,” says Verstappen. “As a whole team, we definitely didn’t expect something like this. We had a competitive start, but we retired two times in three. It was not the best start to try and defend the title.
“After that, we had a great turnaround – we kept on pushing, kept on believing kept on improving the car, which was the most important area. It is why we are here today. As a team, we made very few mistakes. You can’t be perfect, but for most of the races, we have been close to perfect.”
Though Red Bull failed to win a title between 2014 and 2020, they remained operationally shrewd throughout, and alongside building a mighty car for the new-for-2022 regulations, that has been one of the fundamental reasons they have been so relentlessly successful this year.
Another has been the power unit in the back of the car. Though it is now under the Red Bull Powertrains banner, courtesy of a brand-new division and huge investment from the energy drinks firm, Honda continue to play an integral role – and it’s their constant development from one year to the next that has given Red Bull the grunt to fight at the sharp end.
“Working together with Honda has been incredible and is incredible and they definitely deserve it, that we’ve won it on their own track,” added Verstappen at Suzuka. “Thanks goes out to the whole team, back at the factory and those contributing to the powertrains division. They have been working flat-out, nobody is lacking motivation – and that’s how I like to see.”
Verstappen himself has been key to their success. Having joined the team back in 2016, winning a race on debut with them in Barcelona, he has set about building a dynasty that is showing shoots similar to that of Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel before him at Red Bull. But he knows it’s more than just about him – it’s about the people around him and how everyone gels together to work towards the same goal.
“That [building something special] is what we’re trying to do,” he says. “With the regulations more or less staying the same for the coming years, we can take advantage of that.”
He adds: “Red Bull are my second family, they were already world champions before I joined. We had a bit of a tough time [at the start], but I always believed in the project. The whole team we have – back at the factory designing the car combined with the powertrain division – we have a really great group of people who I think can be successful for quite a few years.
“It goes higher up than me to make sure we find the right people and putting them into the right position. What is most important is that everyone gets on well and everyone understands their role. Honda and now coming into our own powertrains division, it’s about understanding how to work together. Implementing the two together has been really strong the last few years. And that’s helped us make that final jump that we were missing to fight for a title.”
Verstappen’s second title has been impressive for different reasons. Last year, he fought tooth and nail to the season-ending race and clinched the title on the final lap of the season, edging out Lewis Hamilton. This year, after a slow start, he has gone on an extraordinary run of form that has made the title a formality. It’s no wonder, then, that each championship feels different.
“The first one was very emotional because you realise you have achieved everything in the sport you wanted to achieve,” he says. “The second one, because of the season we have had, is probably more rewarding. It’s very different feelings, which I think is great because it would be a little bit boring if they are the same.”
Winning that first title had a positive effect on Verstappen, in that it made him more relaxed and has seen him pull back on his all-out attacking approach by the smallest of margins. In doing so, it has also made him a more potent force. Make no mistake, having an incredible car, with a team working efficiently in terms of operations and strategy, has made life easier – but he’s still had to get the job done.
“You grow as a person every year, you learn a lot from every single year what has happened at every single race, you try to improve as a driver,” he says. “I don’t think you improve in terms of raw speed, but because of the experiences you have had in the past, you try to put that into play. In some tricky situations, sometimes that can help you out because of the previous experiences you have.”
At 25, Verstappen has plenty of time left in F1 – his fellow double world champion Fernando Alonso is still cracking on at 41 – and is committed for six more seasons with Red Bull, his contract running up until the end of 2028. While he doesn’t envisage sticking around as long as Alonso, his current form, stable regulations and Red Bull’s momentum in his contracted period suggest he could rack up titles very quickly.
“I don’t see myself driving until I’m 40 because I want to do other stuff,” he says. “I’m having a lot of fun with what I’m doing now – I’m still in for a few more years, I’m signed until ‘28. After that, it depends on how everything is going. I will try to do a few different types of racing, as it’s important to try different things.
“Numbers have never been important, I just really enjoy the moment. I really enjoyed being part of this team already for a long time and hopefully also for a long time to come. With all the people we have now, I believe we can be strong for a couple of years.”