Verstappen’s inexorable rise continued in 2019, building on the progress he made in ironing out the errors the previous season and taking three victories in a car that was only occasionally a serious threat. The edges are no longer rough, but the fact they are not quite perfectly rounded is what makes the difference between first and second in this ranking.
Inevitably, the victories in Austria, Germany and Brazil grabbed the headlines. But there was more to his season than those three wins. Early on, when the Red Bull wasn’t as competitive as the team hoped, he picked off Ferraris to grab podium finishes in Melbourne and Spain before having a run at victory in Monaco that was thwarted by a combination of an obstinate Lewis Hamilton and a five-second penalty for an unsafe release. In Austria, he showed his robustness by keeping his head after dropping back to eighth to take that late victory. That was followed by the Hockenheim spin-and-win and then the near-victory in Hungary.
Judged by the first half of the season, he was probably number one. But there were some imperfections in the second half of the year. The clash with Raikkonen at the start at Spa, the blunder at the first chicane when starting at the back at Monza and missing the yellow flag at the end of Q3 in Mexico were all avoidable, although hardly in the same class of mistake as he showed early in 2018.
But he continued to be a formidable force. Twice passing Hamilton on his way to victory at Interlagos, then taking second in Abu Dhabi secured third place in the championship. In the same car, the only driver who might have done the same was Hamilton.
What tells you everything you need to know about Verstappen is how Hamilton responds to him. Every time they crossed swords on track, which didn’t happen enough, there was an extra frisson of excitement. Hamilton knows Verstappen is his biggest threat, Verstappen knows he is the man who should usurp Hamilton.
The gap between the two was slender in 2019. Now it’s time for a title battle which, as this season showed, could go either way.
Starting from second on the grid might have made Verstappen’s path to a first win of the season fairly straightforward. But an overly aggressive clutch setting and pre-race demo hooning changing the level of grip on his grid slot led to a disastrous launch. The anti-stall kicked in, and he slid down to eighth place.
Team-mate Pierre Gasly let him past but, in the first stint, Verstappen had to get past Lando Norris and Kimi Raikkonen for fifth. Lewis Hamilton had his front wing replaced at the pitstops, so Verstappen moved up to fourth. But he was still just over 13s behind Charles Leclerc in first, with Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas also ahead.
But Verstappen had the pace, and the advantage of having gone 10 laps further than Vettel and Bottas and nine beyond Leclerc in the first stint for a tyre offset. He caught and passed Vettel and Bottas and, with 15 and a half laps to go, chased after Leclerc.
He gradually closed the gap to the point where he attacked around the outside of the Turn 3 hairpin with three and a half laps to go. Leclerc held on, but a lap later left the inside line clear at the same corner. Verstappen went up the inside and took the lead and victory.
The stewards looked at the move but decided against a penalty. Verstappen, after the poor start, had driven brilliantly.