Top 50 Drivers of 2022
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Top 50 Drivers of 2022

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #1 Max Verstappen

1st in Formula 1 World Championship

Autosport 2022 Top 50: #1 Max Verstappen

"You just have to be confident. Otherwise, I don’t think you can succeed in the world here."

Max Verstappen is speaking in the Abu Dhabi night, three days out from the end of the 2022 Formula 1 season, which he has utterly dominated. He’s at a table outside the Red Bull hospitality building in the Yas Marina paddock, albeit one that’s squeezed in between that structure and Mercedes’ next door. It’s private, away from the busy paddock, but the team isn’t letting the media view the inner sanctum.

This is Autosport’s first sit-down interview with Verstappen in nearly two years – the two slots bookending his two world title campaigns. Back in March 2021, we wondered if the Dutchman might finally be the driver to end Lewis Hamilton’s F1 domination. Now, we know he has.

But it’s still too early to tell if we’re living through the early years of a new era of superiority by one driver or if Verstappen’s story will be more like Fernando Alonso’s nearly 20 years ago. With Charles Leclerc a title contender at Ferrari, George Russell now an F1 race winner with Mercedes and Lando Norris really just as good as he was in 2021 for McLaren, the neutral would be forgiven for wanting a 2007-2010-style run of championship success spread.

And yet, Verstappen’s 2022 performance overall contained enough to suggest he and Red Bull have what it takes to see off all comers.

His early battles with Leclerc were thrilling and fair – a similar story to his Spain and Brazil sprint scraps with Russell later on. This factor was the difference in why he didn’t top this list last year. His speed, even when dealing with the overweight and understeering RB18, was phenomenal. Once that was sorted and Verstappen had the “agile” car he wanted, with the RB18 eventually under the weight limit by the summer – “you could really use the front end [then]”, – he was essentially unstoppable.

PLUS: How Verstappen and Red Bull went from disaster to record breakers in F1 2022

Verstappen was wheel-perfect in his duel with Leclerc to open his account for 2022 in Jeddah

Verstappen was wheel-perfect in his duel with Leclerc to open his account for 2022 in Jeddah

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

And yet, again, Verstappen’s fantastic campaign ended on downbeats: the team orders spat with his squad and Sergio Perez in Brazil, which followed yet another shunt with Hamilton. So, consider again the words with which Verstappen starts our interview, where we explain he is the number one pick in this list, but that we understand racing drivers always consider themselves the best.

Verstappen is very, very confident. And yet he rails against a “lot of people in this world that try to put you down”. You sense there’s plenty of point making in his actions and words, and we’re speaking just a few hours after he has blasted media reports “not knowing the full facts” about his refusal to help Perez at Interlagos, then refused to clarify anything when given the chance. It’s motivational fuel – seeking an edge against rivals and not giving anything away at the same time.

So, does he go into every race thinking ‘I’m in charge here’ – considering moves such as his uber aggressive defence against Mick Schumacher over a mere seventh at Silverstone with a hobbled car and an already massive 49-point lead over Leclerc?

“Nowadays, I don’t really think about it anymore,” Verstappen replies. “It’s more like when you are pushing your way into F1.”

"I had a great teacher in my dad. With that, you put hard work together and you can reach to the top. Yeah, sometimes then things look easier" Max Verstappen

Interesting. It rather explains many of Verstappen’s actions in what has been an explosive arrival at the top level, where he has now raced for eight years. And he’s still just 25.

In the year where he reached that grand old age, Verstappen’s season was thus: Red Bull had a new foe with Ferrari, which took the early race successes as Verstappen retired from two of the opening three with “painful” unrelated fuel pump failures. While fixing that and lightening its first new ground-effects era car, which generally ran higher and without the porpoising problems that perplexed so many others, Verstappen overcame a 46-point deficit to Leclerc in three races. By the season’s end he was victorious by 146, the title sealed at Suzuka with four events to spare.

Ferrari’s challenge wilting with a litany of errors and issues, plus Leclerc’s mistakes, made things easier. As did Mercedes’ total absence from the championship fight thanks to the W13’s problems. But Red Bull was also the class leader this time too, even if, much like the Ferrari F2004, its advantage was in races and not in qualifying thanks to its slippery and efficient package, which got better on its tyres as the year went on.

PLUS: The difference between Mercedes’ stumble and the fall of F1 giants

Again passing Leclerc on-track in Miami pointed to a turning of the tide, but Verstappen made full use of his equipment with excellent tyre-saving prowess

Again passing Leclerc on-track in Miami pointed to a turning of the tide, but Verstappen made full use of his equipment with excellent tyre-saving prowess

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

“We were just a bit more competitive this year compared to last,” Verstappen reflects. “And just a little bit more solid than last year as well. OK, we had the two retirements, but besides that we really maximised everything we could in most of the weekends.”

That said, he wasn’t fully confident Red Bull could overcome the early-season points loss, as “you can never imagine what happened throughout the season”.

“But, as a team we just stuck together and we really worked well,” Verstappen adds. “We never gave up and we actually very quickly turned the things around. Of course, we had a bit of help from the other side making mistakes, but we just really improved our reliability. [And] also how competitive we were. We really had to improve our car.”

PLUS: How Ferrari missed its big chance to end a painful F1 wait

Ahead of the 2022 campaign, we wondered how Verstappen would wield the new and not-inconsiderable power an F1 world champion possesses. This could often be seen in his media engagements – remember Verstappen played the game in trying to ward the FIA off making rule changes to eliminate porpoising when his team wasn’t suffering on this front – most spectacularly when he boycotted Sky Sports F1 in Mexico. That Red Bull team boss Christian Horner and Perez followed his lead speaks much of the power Verstappen holds in his own squad too.

He says this, though, is “not about how much power I have or much I’m known in the world”. Instead, “it’s all about just trying to win races and trying to win championships”. Again, the sub-text is key. Verstappen knows that off-track point scoring can turn into actual ones too.

Many of the 454 (a new record) he ended up with were taken thanks to his impressive tyre management displays in 2022. Verstappen says this area is not something he’s “really worked on” and instead “came quite natural”. But, it’s been a factor where Verstappen has been able to rival Hamilton for quite a while, considering how close he regularly was to the Briton in 2020 – a year where Mercedes had a massive car advantage. Horner, who feels Verstappen improved because of 2021’s titanic title fight, suggested his charge doesn’t get enough credit for his abilities to race with F1’s fragile modern rubber.

On this point, after we mention the 38 laps in the same 1m22s bracket Verstappen produced in Mexico, he’s at his most animated.

Supreme consistency in Mexico showed Verstappen at his best to beat a resurgent Hamilton

Supreme consistency in Mexico showed Verstappen at his best to beat a resurgent Hamilton

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Verstappen: “People always say, ‘yeah, but you’re managing the engine, you’re managing the tyres, you’re managing the brakes’. I say: “You do it then! Do it yourself, see if you can do it!”

Autosport: “I guess the problem is it looks easy?”

Verstappen: “Yeah – exactly! And it is… To be honest, yeah… It is, in a way easy. Because over time… I am very lucky that I do have the talent. I mean, I’m born with it, what can I do? Honestly, yeah, what can I do? It’s how it happened and besides that I had a great teacher in my dad. With that, you put hard work together and you can reach to the top. Yeah, sometimes then things look easier. If I’m gonna kick a ball, I’m clumsy. But when I see these superstars doing it, it looks so easy. Because they are super-talented in what they do and they worked day-in, day-out to try and be better and achieve even more, right? That’s why it looks easy to them.”

"With everyone I’ve been fighting this year, it’s been really hard, aggressive battles. And we never really came together. Somehow, with Lewis it’s a different story" Max Verstappen

And yet, there were still points offered up in 2022. In Spain, Verstappen spun off when caught out in the wind early-on, while in Singapore he was needlessly urgent in passing Norris after the second safety car and went off, damaging his tyres and needing an extra pitstop. His struggles with the RB18’s early-season understeer meant he needed circumstances to get ahead of Perez in Jeddah and the Mexican crashing in Monaco qualifying created circumstances that went the other way.

Verstappen is still as explosive with his engineer Gianpiero Lambiase as he always has been. Bahrain out-lap speed, DRS malfunctions in Spain, the second Austin stop going wrong – all ignited Verstappen’s wrath. But it clearly works and Lambiase sounds very unbothered.

But there were elements of Verstappen’s 2022 that he might consider addressing for the future – not that he ever publicly admits to adjusting his approach. This is that by acting as he did on the final lap in Brazil, he risks alienating Perez to the point his team-mate might not defend against a rival as forthrightly as he did at Abu Dhabi 2021. It just seems like a needless possibility.

Then there’s his latest Hamilton crash. There’s no reason not to expect such moves to cost a world title for one or the other if Mercedes can reach back to Red Bull’s level next year.

“I have to be careful what I’m saying here,” Verstappen replies when we suggest he’s uncompromising with all his rivals, but that this takes on another level with Hamilton. “But with everyone I’ve been fighting this year, it’s been really hard, aggressive battles. And we never really came together. Somehow, with Lewis it’s a different story.

Clash with Hamilton in Brazil showed both drivers remain unwilling to compromise in battle with one another

Clash with Hamilton in Brazil showed both drivers remain unwilling to compromise in battle with one another

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

“And I honestly don’t understand. Like, this year, OK we haven’t really had a lot of battles, but Brazil we got together. It was not my intention [that we crashed]. I got the blame for it, which I didn’t find fair. If it would’ve been more of a racing incident, that I could live with.

“I don’t understand. Maybe it’s just a generation thing [with Leclerc and Russell] – that we understand each other better, we are racing nicer to each other. I don’t get it. But I don’t feel like I’m doing anything different to Lewis or to the other drivers in terms of how we’re racing.

“In England this can very quickly be received as criticism. And then I’m being called out on it. I always I respect Lewis a lot for what he has achieved in the sport, but that’s why I don’t really understand why we cannot really race like I’ve been doing with the others. Of course, everyone is different in their approach. I know that Charles is a bit different to George, or to Carlos [Sainz] or to Checo, or whoever.”

When Autosport spoke to Verstappen in Bahrain in 2021, he said “for me, it doesn’t matter what driver you’re fighting against.” But when considering his continuing crashes with Hamilton, it seems it does.

There’re a few ways of assessing this. One could be that as clearly the best two drivers of the current era – with Verstappen still ascending his peak and Hamilton gradually coming down from his – Verstappen is subconsciously unsure he has the edge. And this factors into his tiny judgements that lead to big outcomes – such as the urgency of his driving in Monza 2021 when suddenly behind Hamilton, which was very similar to Brazil 2022.

PLUS: What the Verstappen/Hamilton Brazil crash teaches F1 about a 2021 rematch

Also, rivals from ‘Verstappen’s generation’ might not be at his ultimate level, so miss out, or perhaps as they don’t yet possess his glittering palmares and so may be more wary of colliding and losing a good result in pursuit of a great one.

Then there’s how Hamilton acts in their fights. He is now matching Verstappen’s aggression level and has done since Silverstone 2021. Verstappen may reflect that this is why their crashes don’t yet make sense to him. Hamilton isn’t perplexed, saying after the Interlagos race: “You know how it is with Max…”

And so, to 2023. With Verstappen as yet unyielding as F1’s benchmark, expect more explosiveness.

Verstappen is the clear benchmark for his F1 rivals to aim for in 2023 after his second world title

Verstappen is the clear benchmark for his F1 rivals to aim for in 2023 after his second world title

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Why Spa serenity made the Belgian GP Verstappen's pick of his best wins

In 2022, Formula 1 did not gain a new world champion as it did in 2021. But, thanks to Max Verstappen and Red Bull, and plenty of assistance from their vanquished rivals, the championship did collectively witness something totally new. That was the 15 race wins Verstappen accrued (17 if you count sprints too) across the campaign, breaking the record established by Michael Schumacher in 2004 and shared with Sebastian Vettel since 2013.

Not that Verstappen was particularly bothered by the feat, or, at least, so he said publicly. As he closed in on matching the previous record, the Dutchman regularly highlighted how many more races F1 has these days. Although, 22 is not really many more than the 19 Vettel completed in 2013 and Lewis Hamilton never got so close during Mercedes’ dominant run. But such is Verstappen’s style.

At the time Autosport spoke to the world champion in Abu Dhabi, season review considerations were in full swing – the tension of the previous year gone, but not forgotten. We can’t know how many times Verstappen was asked to pick his best race of the year then just about to be gone, but every time we heard him answer, it was the same.

"Everything was just working and we didn’t really need to change too much on the set-up of the car the whole weekend. That’s always pretty special" Max Verstappen

It wasn’t edging Leclerc in another thrilling desert fight in Jeddah, nor Hungary, where Verstappen spun and passed his rival twice to complete a rise from 10th to the win. Nor did he plump for his Suzuka wet weather masterclass. No, it was his Spa victory on home soil for the Dutch-Belgian racer, which would be followed a week later by his second Zandvoort triumph in two years in front of an expectant and exultant crowd.

PLUS: The five best race drives of F1 2022

“I think the best one was Spa,” he tells Autosport. “But that of course is also in combination with the car. Overall, the whole weekend was just really enjoyable to drive the car – everything was just working and we didn’t really need to change too much on the set-up of the car the whole weekend. That’s always pretty special. Even with an engine penalty. It didn’t matter where we started, at the end of the day we would’ve won that race.

“The first lap was really chaotic. I had to really stay out of trouble. But, after that, we literally just flew through the traffic.”

Verstappen was so fast he’d risen from his 14th-place starting spot thanks to his engine-change grid penalty (after topping qualifying by 0.6s) to eighth by the end of lap one. He was in the lead 11 tours later and after his first pitstop passed early leader Carlos Sainz before just romping to his most crushing and impressive win of a record-breaking season.

Storming recovery drive at Spa stands out to Verstappen as his best win of 2022 - as it did to our correspondents in our season review 'best drives' feature

Storming recovery drive at Spa stands out to Verstappen as his best win of 2022 - as it did to our correspondents in our season review 'best drives' feature

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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