The 2021 Formula One season could only have finished in controversial circumstances. For all the pre-race pleas of ‘good, clean, racing’ it has heroically unlikely that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final round of a long 22-race slog, would end quietly.
Going into the race, Red Bull Honda Racing’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen, just 24 years old but already a veteran of 141 Grand Prix starts, was tied on points with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
The pair had traded more than verbal barbs throughout the season - they’d traded paint and car parts, coming together on track no fewer than three times as the most competitive and dramatic F1 season since, arguably, 1976 wound to its conclusion.
Speaking to BreakingNews.ie the day after hoisting the title in hugely controversial circumstances, Verstappen said that reaching the peak of the sport wasn’t about to change him. “No, it’s the same” said Verstappen. “Of course, I’m always happy to win it, but that shouldn’t change you as a person anyway.”
There was one tiny admission of just how draining the season had been, though - “It’s been a really intense season, so I’m quite happy to have a bit of time off now,” said Verstappen.
He won’t get much time off. Quite apart from the media scrum over the dramatic season and its startling last lap, there is much to do. Red Bull will be working overtime to develop a brand new car for the 2022 season, to match a raft of changes to the ways the cars are constructed and regulated.
On top of which , the team must contend with a change of engines - its current partner, Honda, is leaving the sport and so from next year Red Bull will be making its own engines, albeit using Honda’s existing tech as a basis from which to work.
Most of all, though, there will be continued questions about Verstappen’s fractious relationship with Lewis Hamilton. The pair have been close to being in a class of their own this year, with only three other drivers scoring race victories, and those in races were one or the other of Verstappen and Hamilton had retired.
Repeated wars of words have taken place between the two me and their respective team bosses, and few holds have been barred, even down to outright accusations of cheating.
Verstappen has come in for strong criticism of his own driving style, which is uncompromising to say the least. He often reacts angrily to accusations of aggressive driving, a situation probably not helped by inconsistent refereeing from the stewards who keep watch on driving standards at each event.
Verstappen’s on-track clashes with Hamilton have seen F1 migrate from the back to the front pages more than once, yet he bemoans his treatment at the hands of F1’s lawmakers as ‘unfair.’
Now, he will doubtless come under attack from social media keyboard warriors, irate that the sport’s governing body, the FIA, apparently broke its own rules to ensure a last-lap showdown between Verstappen and Hamilton at the last race.
It’s not just his on-track driving that has stirred controversy. In an interview earlier this year, Verstappen said, in response to a question, that his favourite purchase was “my girlfriend.” He later tried to brush it off as a joke, but in the #metoo era, it was something of a case, at the very least, of failing to read the room.
For his part, Verstappen seems unsurprisingly keen to move on from such controversies. Indeed, Red Bull’s media minders had admonished journalists given a chance to question Verstappen not to bring up the subject, but inevitably talk turned to it.
“This season I found really tough, because you just never knew what was going to happen,” said Verstappen. “I never really said to myself ‘OK, this is it, I’m going to be world champion’ but I knew, on that last lap, I had to get by as quick as possible. I knew he’d come back at me, on the straight, but for me it’s always better to defend than to be the attacking one.”
Over the line
It’s tempting to suggest that Max has too often found that his attacks have been over the line as far as competitors and racing officials are concerned, so perhaps winning the title has changed him just a little if defence is now more in his mind than making the apex of a corner first.
It’s also perhaps telling that Max never referred to Hamilton by name during the course of the interview, even when saying apparently warm words about his 2021 title rival.
“We’ve not had a full conversation, but I think we’re professional enough. He was really good about it, but of course I think it’s a little bit different for him - he has seven titles, I have just the one, so I think he’ll be alright.
’Worth it now’
“Of course, we all want to win, but we also respect each other a lot. And I’m very thankful for the whole season, that we have been battling because I think it has been great.”
The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen (who won neither a race nor a world title), Verstappen has been arguably hot-housed for this role, born and bred to be a title winner.
“It was all worth it now,” he says. “All the travelling all over Europe in a van. I always kept believing in it, I always kept pushing. I think that is the key - keep believing.”
Born in 1997, Verstappen has actually been racing from the age of just six — he started kart racing regularly in Genk, Belgium (actually close to his home town of Hasselt; Max’s mother Sophie Kumpen, also a kart racer, is Belgian) and by 2005 was winning big. In fact, in 2005 Verstappen won all 21 races of the Belgian mini karting championship.
That set up a peripatetic lifestyle, progressing through multiple karting titles before moving into proper cars. At the age if 16, Verstappen broke into the European Formula Three championship, winning six races and finishing third in the standings.
Just two years later, in 2015, he made his F1 debut for the Red Bull-owned Scuderia Toro Rosso team, moving to the main Red Bull team in 2016. Verstappen won his first race for Red Bull, the Spanish Grand Prix. Astonishingly, he was competing in Grands Prix before he actually had a driver’s licence for public roads.
In spite of that litany of success behind him, Verstappen said that he has no intention of winning his title and then quitting the sport, as 2016 champ Nico Rosberg did. He’s clearly still hungry for more. More racing. More fights with Hamilton. And almost certainly more controversies yet to come.