Aggressive, exacting, ruthless. That’s Max Verstappen in a nutshell. The Red Bull Wunderkind has put on a title charge for the ages, against arguably the greatest racing driver of our time.
His road to Abu Dhabi started all the way back in March, at the Bahrain International Circuit. Red Bull knew they had a car to challenge the Mercedes, and Max opened the season with a nail-biting chase of Lewis Hamilton. Lap after lap, the Dutchman gained on the Brit before finally catching him near the end of the race. Wheel to wheel combat ensued, as Max piled on the pressure forcing Hamilton into a lockup. Max finally made his move on lap 55, as Hamilton forced him around the outside causing Verstappen to leave the track briefly before passing to take the lead. The move was deemed illegal, Verstappen was forced to hand the place back. Hamilton won the race, but Mercedes knew they had a tough fight on their hands.
3 weeks on, Red Bull and Max grabbed their first win of the season on a rainy day at Imola. Verstappen jumped Hamilton at the start, high-speed crashes, broken front-wings, and red flags followed, but Max never looked back leading the race all the way through to take a dominant win. Mercedes however came back strong the next few races, outsmarting Red Bull in Catalunya, and dominating at Portimao both resulting in resounding victories for Hamilton.
Red Bull responded to this by winning the next 5 Grand Prix’s. Verstappen started P2 in Monaco, before pole-sitter Charles Leclerc’s gearbox failed, effectively giving Max pole position for the race-start. Max pulled ahead by a comfortable margin as Mercedes struggled to complete a pitstop with Hamilton languishing in P7. Azerbaijan was a race of mixed fortunes, Red Bull were on for their first 1-2 race finish since Malaysia 2016, before a tyre failure ended Max’s Grand Prix and handed the win to teammate Sergio Perez. Not much harm was done in terms of the title race however, as the 2 lap drag race at the end began with Lewis Hamilton locking his breaks and sailing through the first corner as the entire field passed him by. He would finish P15 in the race.
Moving into the European leg of the season, Red Bull started by exacting revenge on Mercedes for the Spanish Grand Prix, pulling a similar undercut in France to take the win from Hamilton. They followed this up with 2 dominant victories at the double header in Austria, allowing Max to build a 32 point cushion over Hamilton. 2 weeks later, Max and Red Bull went into enemy territory for the 72nd British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The inaugural sprint-race weekend, began with Lewis Hamilton taking P1 in Friday qualifying to put him atop the grid for the Sprint. Max jumped the Britton at the start of the Sprint on Saturday to take Pole Position for Sunday’s race.
Red Bull had the faster package, but Hamilton was desperate to win in front of his adoring home crowd. Lewis aimed to jump Max in lap 1, resulting in the best 1/2 lap of wheel to wheel racing we would see all season, before a controversial incident (not the last time we would see this) put Max in the barrier, and Hamilton on the top step of the Podium. Verstappen’s comfortable 32 point lead was suddenly down to just 7 points heading into the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Charles Leclerc aptly described the Hungarian Grand Prix as a game of bowling. Lewis Hamilton started on Pole, and as he made his way through turn-1 his teammate Valtteri Bottas, for lack of a better phrase, came in like a wrecking ball punting Norris into Verstappen and Perez. Lance Stroll also stayed for seconds, as he simultaneously punted Charles Leclerc into Daniel Ricciardo. A racing version of the ‘this is fine’ meme for Hamilton as chaos ensued behind him, before he himself made history by being the only one on the grid for the restart. Hamilton despite his disasters, finished P2 after disqualification for Sebastian Vettel, while Max came back to P9 with half of his car missing. Into the summer break we went, Max finding himself down by 12 points to Hamilton. A stark turn around since Austria.
Now for the race that never was. Verstappen delivered a stonking lap on Saturday to take pole position in the wet for Sunday’s race at Spa and sat there (quite literally) for the next 4 hours. Half-points were awarded, tickets weren’t refunded and on to Zandvoort we went.
For the first time since 1984, Formula 1 returned to the Netherlands, a home race for Verstappen. Max took pole (with a broken DRS) and the win. Domination from start to finish. Back to Italy at Monza, which featured another controversial moment as Max Verstappen mounted atop Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes resulting in a double DNF for the title rivals.
At this point Mercedes had significantly gained on Red Bull and were now superior in terms of straight-line speed. This was on display in Russia as Mercedes dominated across the practice sessions and 2/3rds of Qualifying before rain jumbled up the starting grid. Max started at the back of the grid due to an engine penalty. Rain again played to the benefit of Max, as the heavens opened up 7 laps before the end and resulted in the entire grid pitting (bar Lando Norris and a few others). Verstappen finished a very respectable P2 behind Hamilton who took his 100th Grand Prix victory. The roles were reversed in Turkey the next time, as Lewis started in P10 after taking an engine penalty. Mercedes had the better of Red Bull again with Max finishing P2 behind Bottas who took his first win of the season, as Sergio Perez put on a brilliant defence on Hamilton keeping him behind and off the podium in P5. Verstappen and Red Bull ended the European leg of the season with a slender 6 point lead over Hamilton.
Heading into the Americas for the next 3 races, Mercedes comfortably had the jump on Red Bull in terms of straight-line speed. However, Red Bull stole the Mexican GP with a double podium and Max took his 8th win of the season masterfully jumping both Mercedes heading into turn 1. Red Bull again on the back foot in terms of pace, put Verstappen on an aggressive strategy at COTA. This helped him fend off Hamilton in a nail biting final few laps to take his 9th and most recent victory.
The next 4 races were pure Mercedes excellence. Hamilton took pole in Brazil, was demoted to the back on the grid, came back to P5 in the Sprint, and started P10 in the feature race after taking another new engine. He powered through the field and despite Max’s best efforts, took the lead and pulled ahead easily to take a famous win in front of an awed Brazilian crowd. More of the same followed in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Mercedes much the quicker car and Hamilton much the better driver took both race wins, to get us where we are now.
21 races gone, yet Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton sit all alone at the top, dead even on 369.5 points a piece. 2 sensational drivers who have thrown everything at each other (including their cars), are right back to where we were in March. One Race. Winner takes all. History to be made? I’d argue it already has.