The exuberance at Red Bull Racing’s Formula 1 headquarters is understandable. After all, Max Verstappen dislodged Lewis Hamilton from his four-year reign atop the World Drivers’ Championship standings. That feat alone should put the 24-year-old Dutch driver in the top 1% on the list of clutch international athletes.
However, praise for Verstappen shouldn’t come at the expense of downplaying the contributions of another great driver in Red Bull history. Unfortunately, people there seem to have short memories regarding Sebastian Vettel.
Max Verstappen has worked his way to the top of Formula 1 racing
Max Verstappen was only 18 years old when he moved over to Red Bull Racing as part of a driver switch early in the Formula 1 season and promptly rewarded his team by winning the Spanish Grand Prix. He posted nine more victories over the next four seasons.
Along the way, Verstappen consistently placed near the top of the points standings, finishing fifth, sixth, and fourth the first three seasons. He followed that with back-to-back third-place showings in 2019 and ‘20, setting the stage for the greatest accomplishment in his career.
Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton dueled throughout the 2021 F1 season, in the process attracting new fans to the sport. Verstappen won 10 of 22 races, the last coming on a late pass of Hamilton at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. That broke a tie in the points standings, earning the Red Bull star the World Drivers’ Championship.
It was the first F1 championship for the Red Bull organization since Sebastian Vettel’s fourth straight crown in 2013.
Red Bull officials have lavished praise on Max Verstappen
Red Bull Racing consultant Helmut Marko knows his way around Formula 1 racing. He drove in the series in the early 1970s, operated an F3 team, and represented drivers. In 1999, he took over Red Bull’s driver development program, and Marko has been advising the racing team since 2005.
Given all that, his opinion carries some weight. And Marko’s opinion is that Max Verstappen is the best driver ever to represent Red Bull, even better than Sebastian Vettel at his peak.
“Yes, without a doubt he is,” he said, according to The Sports Rush.
Marko cited Verstappen’s ability to adapt quickly as one factor.
“If it rains somewhere, the others do five or eight laps,” he said. “Then Max goes out and sets the fastest time on the first lap.”
For what it’s worth, Red Bull boss Christian Horner is every bit as, uh, bullish on Verstappen.
“I have no doubt (Verstappen is) the best we have seen on one of our cars, in terms of outright raw ability and commitment,” Horner told the British newspaper The Times. “He’s the best driver we’ve seen. Sebastian was also incredibly good, but we gave him a better car.”
F1 driver Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull credentials were impressive
Sebastian Vettel already had a season and a half of Formula 1 racing experience under his belt when he joined Red Bull Racing in 2009 and immediately battled Jenson Button for the season championship before settling for second place.
A year later, Vettel began a string of four straight World Drivers’ Championships encompassing 25 grand prix triumphs and 20 other podium appearances. Red Bull won the constructors’ championships the four years that Vettel won his titles, potentially lending credence to Christian Horner’s assertion that the cars were better than what Max Verstappen drove last season.
However, Vettel’s magnificent body of work has to count for something.
In 2010, Vettel went into the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix third in points to Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber but outran both to snatch the race win and season title. The 2012 battle also came down to the last race, with Vettel again topping Alonso for the title.
In the other two championship seasons, however, Vettel ran away with the championships. His huge leads rendered the last four races in 2011 and the last three in 2013 meaningless.
Also, the competition that Vettel faced during his four championship seasons was impressive. Alonso (twice), Button, Lewis Hamilton, and Kimi Raikkonen accounted for the five F1 titles before Vettel’s streak, and all remained active while the German star was winning.
And not that he was slumming by driving Ferrari cars, but Vettel finished in the top five in points (while Hamilton was dominating), comparable to Verstappen’s early years, in his first five seasons after leaving Red Bull.
What Verstappen achieved in 2021 was impressive, especially head-to-head with a seven-time Formula 1 champion. Still, declaring him better than Vettel ever was at Red Bull is premature.