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It might be unusual to say any driver other than Lewis Hamilton, with four wins from six and a 17-point championship lead, is the standout performer of the season to date, but Max Verstappen has never been ordinary.
Verstappen has made a career of rattling cages and upending the expected order, but perhaps no time since his 17-year-old 2015 debut — a feat so offensive to the establishment that drivers younger than 18 have since been banned from F1 — has the Dutchman so positively impressed with his exploits on track.
I say ‘positively’ deliberately, for it was only 12 months ago he was creating headlines for all the wrong reason. This time last year the wagons were circling the then 20-year-old in his second full season at Red Bull Racing.
Verstappen’s opening six rounds of 2018 were a smash fest. Crashing on his own, crashing with other drivers, crashing during practice, crashing after a safety car restart — you name it, Max hit it, and his sins were all the more egregious for the machinery he had at his disposal, because while he was busy shedding carbon fibre, teammate Daniel Ricciardo had claimed a pole position and two race wins to make himself a temporary championship dark horse.
It was enough to warrant intervention by team principal Christian Horner and Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko, who, it would not be unfair to say, are among his biggest fans.
But one year on and Verstappen has revolutionised himself.
Whereas his 2018 Monte Carlo weekend was marred by a needless crash during Saturday practice as he attempted to dent Ricciardo’s dominance, writing off his car for qualifying and earning himself a back-of-grid start, in 2019 he was the quintessence of control around a circuit that demands maximum respect.
For 67 tense laps he laid siege to Lewis Hamilton’s lead. Prodding and poking the reigning champion’s defences in an attempt to elicit a mistake, only five times did Verstappen end a lap more than a second behind his prey. It was compelling viewing.
It was an almost flawless drive culminating in an optimistic attempt down Hamilton’s inside into the chicane, and though it was ultimately fruitless, it was regardless well judged.
Verstappen knew Hamilton would be hyper-attentive to his mirrors at the circuit’s most popular overtaking spot given the pair speed differential, which meant both worked to ensure neither crashed. Hamilton opened up his steering to allow Max space, and both emerged unscathed after a brief moment of tyre wall touching.
It was a move borne of patience rather than impetuousness.
Compare this mature drive to, as only one example among many, his painfully botched attempts to win last year’s Chinese Grand Prix, when he needlessly tangled with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel on a circuit substantially less mentally demanding than Monaco, and the development is clear.
“I thought he was really reserved,” Horner said, summing up Verstappen’s Monaco Grand Prix. “The encouraging thing is that the performance is right there — he was pushing, pushing, pushing, he fought like a lion, tried to make the pass on Lewis and it was worth a go.”
Verstappen was unable to add to his victory tally — indeed he didn’t even finish on the podium after the penalty for his bump with Bottas was applied — but it was fitting that perhaps his most mature drive to date came on the anniversary of last year’s disastrous Monaco result, which snapped him out of his destructive funk and returned him to the path of competitiveness.
“The difference is I just listen to myself,” he said, reflecting on his strengthening form after winning last year’s Mexican Grand Prix. “My dad always told me in go-karting back in the day if I was maybe overdriving or something … ‘Max, even if you think you are not going fast enough, it’s still fast enough’.
“So basically, for my feeling, I just backed it out a little bit and that seems to make me a bit faster.”
Max has become exactly the driver Red Bull Racing needs in its first year without Ricciardo. Having marked 2019 as transitional as the team switches from Renault to Honda power, Verstappen is acting as a steady, reliable bar of potential that will help guide English and Japanese mechanics towards a fruitful union, particularly given Pierre Gasly has thus far struggled to come close to replicating the performances of his younger, albeit more experienced, teammate — and Gasly’s certainly no slouch.
So while Valtteri Bottas 2.0 might win plaudits this season for taking the championship fight to Lewis Hamilton and while Charles Leclerc is winning fans for putting Sebastian Vettel under pressure, it’s Max Verstappen, unperturbed by the unlikeliness of victory and the impossibility of a championship tilt, who’s building the strongest case to be considered the standout driver of the season.
And with 15 rounds remaining and Verstappen still on the development curve, there’s no telling how much more he can achieve this year alone.