Experience meets raw speed: how Red Bull polished 'diamond in the rough' Verstappen

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Thanks to his success in 2023, Max Verstappen achieved the most dominant season by a driver in Formula One history.

Sometimes races seemed like a foregone conclusion before they even began. The hope raised by a close qualifying was quickly dashed as Verstappen took the pace from him in the race.

Not only did he surpass his previous record of 15 wins in a season from 2022, he destroyed it with 19 wins in 22 races and over 1,000 laps led.

“When you look back at the season he's had, particularly through the different challenges of the different venues, circuits and conditions, he's been just phenomenal this year,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

A combination of factors made Verstappen's season possible, whether it was Red Bull producing such a strong car in the RB19, teammate Sergio Perez's struggles and rival teams' lack of sustained threat.

But 2023 also marked another step in Verstappen's evolution. His raw speed and “extremely rare natural talent,” in the words of his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase, combined with growing experience that made him nearly impossible to beat in 2023.

It was something Horner quickly noticed after Verstappen took his third title in the Qatar sprint race with six grands prix to spare. “He's always had speed from the moment he sat in the car,” Horner said. But speed alone does not make a champion.

“He came to Formula One like a diamond in the rough. Now it is a very polished diamond. He has kept all those raw attributes that he had, but now he brings experience to combine them.”

Max Verstappen made his F1 debut at age 17 in 2015, the youngest driver in the history of the sport. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

That “diamond in the rough” landed in F1 after only one year in single-seater racing. Verstappen had already quickly moved from karting to Formula Three, where his performances quickly attracted the interest of all the leading F1 teams. Only Red Bull was prepared to take him directly into F1 for 2015, starting with its sister team Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri). At 17, Verstappen became the youngest driver in F1 history.

Four races into Verstappen's second season, Red Bull had seen enough: Daniil Kvyat's struggles led it to promote Verstappen to its senior team and send Kvyat in the opposite direction. It was considered a big jump for the young Dutchman, but he won on his Red Bull debut in Spain.

“This diamond in the rough came along and won his first race. It didn't require much polishing, did it? Paul Monaghan, Red Bull's chief engineer, said The Athletic. “It wasn't bad from the beginning.

“What I saw in Max when he first arrived was a very motivated and determined young man with great self-confidence. Sometimes people can perceive that as arrogance, but it's not. It is confidence and self-belief. And my goodness, he has the talent to back it up.”

That confidence becomes an expectation of nothing but the best, both from the team around him and from himself.

“He leaves nothing on the table, he wants everything,” Horner said in Qatar. “That drives and motivates the team internally. He is relentless in his pursuit of performance and doesn't just want to win. “He wants to dominate.”

From winner to champion

There was a time when the idea of ​​Verstappen winning so many races in one season seemed far-fetched. Before 2021, wins were a rarity, not the norm. Mercedes and Ferrari's advantage over Red Bull meant Verstappen had little chance of challenging for top spot, limiting him to 10 wins from 2016 to the end of 2020, as many as he won consecutively between May and September this year. .

It was all part of the learning curve. Verstappen's fierce fight for the 2021 title with Lewis Hamilton boiled over on numerous occasions and was finally controversially resolved on the final lap of the final race of the season. The intensity of that championship certainly played a role in Verstappen's growth.

His father, Jos Verstappen, has been there every step of the journey. He agreed that “experience makes you better,” and although he hadn't seen any big changes in his son, he doubted that such a dominant year would have been possible a few years ago.

“It's the same Max from three or four years ago,” Jos said in Qatar. “The only difference is that he has a fantastic car around him. He knows the people he works with and I think that makes it look easy.

“But you still have to be there every weekend and the details make the difference. For me, if I had this car four years ago, I wouldn't say it would win another 10 races (in a row). But it sure was very close to what we have seen now.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MAY 15: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing celebrates his first F1 victory on the podium with Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari during the Formula One Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit of Catalonia on May 15, 2016 in Montmeló, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
On his debut with Red Bull in 2016, Verstappen took his first victory in F1. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Verstappen's confidence behind the wheel extends to all his interactions with the Red Bull team. In addition to what Monaghan described as “the occasional verbal barrage” on the radio (hardly a sign of tension, more of the strength of the relationship), there has also been another level of self-assurance and calm this year.

“Listen to their radio messages: 'What's the gap, what's this, what's that, what's the flip of the switch?'” Monaghan said. “It's just about driving as fast as anyone on the track, and it's just easy. That's what I see in him. Outside the car he seems more relaxed to me.”

Behind everything is the unwavering and relentless desire to win. Even during the final six races of the season, when he might have slowed down after securing the championship, Verstappen didn't miss a beat. As he said after the season finale in Abu Dhabi: “Winning is fantastic. Why wouldn't I want to win?

Verstappen's evolution into such a dominant driver has put him in the same conversation as all-time greats, even at the tender age of 26. Over the past two seasons, Verstappen has gone from 20 wins to 54, going from tied for 17th on the all-time wins list to third, with only Michael Schumacher (91) and Hamilton (103) ahead of him. At this rate, both are in his sights before he ends his contract with Red Bull at the end of 2028.

“He appreciates the history of the sport and respects the records that exist,” Horner said.

“A large percentage of his race wins have come in the last two or three years. It's really up to us if we can provide you with the tools as well. They are huge numbers. (For) Lewis, he is only halfway there in certain respects.

“But he has a lot ahead of him.”

(Feature image of Max Verstappen in 2023: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)



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