Three F1 titles, but Max Verstappen still can't stand losing


Max Verstappen took out Lando Norris at the Austrian GP after a series of controversial defensive manoeuvres. But it's nothing we haven't seen before, from a racer who can't bear to be beaten

Max Verstappen Red Bull 2024

Max Verstappen: the F1 driver who won't be beat

Red Bull

Max Verstappen just can’t stand losing.

That fact might have faded to the back of your mind after two years of watching him cruising at the front. You might have thought that three world championships and seasons of record-breaking dominance might have dulled his razor-sharp competitive edge.

But at the first whiff of a genuine threat to his F1 supremacy in Lando Norris, a driver 69 points behind him in the championship standings, Verstappen’s fierce competitive desire roared again.

His controversial lap 64 clash with the Briton at the 2024 Austrian Grand Prix was entirely avoidable but betrayed the very same racing tendencies of the 17-year-old wunderkind that entered the series almost a decade ago with a steely focus on winning and a refusal to contemplate conceding an inch. It’s an attitude that delights fans of Verstappen’s unalloyed commitment and determination, but also provokes despair at his willingness to bend or even trample over sporting convention and rules.

Led more by his heart than his head, as were Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and Gilles Villenueve before him, Verstappen was determined to keep Norris behind him, despite his championship lead, the prospect of being able to strike back at Norris with the benefit of DRS, and the likelihood of a 5sec penalty for the McLaren driver — Verstappen had even radioed in to point out Norris’s offence of leaving the circuit after a final warning.

The calculating way to win would have been to defend less vigorously and reduce the risk of a collision. If Norris did succeed in passing, then Verstappen could have lapped 0.4sec slower than him over the remaining 12 laps, and still have won courtesy of the McLaren driver’s 5sec penalty.

But that’s not in Verstappen’s nature. And it wouldn’t ensure that Norris thinks twice about passing the Red Bull in any future battle. The fire still burns within Verstappen, and it has defined his Formula 1 career so far, as the examples below show.


2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

vs Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton hits Max verstappen in 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton escaped with front wing still attached after Verstappen braked heavily

Lars Baron/Getty Images via Red Bull

Even when instructed to let others pass him, Verstappen still finds a way of making it difficult.

At the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix — the penultimate round of a notorious season — he brake-tested the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton after being told to concede the lead of the race “strategically” by his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase.

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In an attempt to fend of Hamilton earlier in the lap, Verstappen had skipped the Turn 1 chicane after misjudging the braking zone. Having gained a lasting advantage he was ordered allow Hamilton past. Instead of pulling over to the side, he remained on the racing line — apparently hoping to retain the best entry into the corner while also gaining a DRS advantage down the pit straight by ensuring he was behind Hamilton at the detection zone (located just before the final corner).

Fully aware of the strategy, Hamilton stayed behind the slowing Verstappen as they approached the detection zone. So Verstappen tapped the brakes, forcing Hamilton into evasive action. But the cars still made contact, while Verstappen remained in the lead.

The following lap, Verstappen was again given the same order — “Let the Mercedes past” — but shortly after doing so he dived down the inside of Turn 27 to reclaim the lead. With the stewards now convinced that the issue could not be resolved on-track, Verstappen was issued with a five-second time penalty. He lost the lead — and ultimately the race — to Hamilton a lap later.

Had he simply allowed the Briton to pass at the first time of asking, could he have re-passed him? The Red Bull arguably had the pace — having only missed out on pole due to a last corner crash in qualifying.


2018 Italian Grand Prix

vs Valtteri Bottas

Max Verstappen Valtteri Bottas 2019 Italian Grand Prix

Verstappen puts up a stout defence against Bottas…and pays the price

Grand Prix Photo

Even before world titles were on the line, Verstappen’s harsh defensive strategies were renowned.

At the 2018 Italian Grand Prix, he went to great lengths to prevent Valtteri Bottas from taking away a podium finish as he squeezed the Mercedes driver onto the grass at Turn 1. Bottas tapped Verstappen’s rear wheel and half-spun into the run-off area but was able to keep his car running and rejoined the circuit after the first chicane.

Verstappen was issued with a five-second time penalty for causing the accident but continued to run ahead of Bottas for the remainder of the race — a showcase of both the pace Red Bull had, and the futility of causing an incident. After reaching the chequered flag he was demoted from third to fifth and accused the stewards of “killing racing” over team radio.

“I was going to the outside, as he was defending on the inside and there’s a very clear rule that says you have to leave a car’s width on the outside,” Bottas later commented. “But he didn’t so we touched.”

Sound familiar?


2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

vs Daniel Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo hits Max Verstappen in Red Bull team mate crash at Baku 2018

The crunch moment: Ricciardo and Verstappen in Baku, 2018

Hasan Bratic / DPPI

Not even Verstappen’s team-mates are safe when the Dutchman’s defensive tunnel-vision kicks in — a fact Daniel Ricciardo was made well aware of at the 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Across multiple laps, the Red Bull drivers swapped positions and bumped wheels in a war over fourth — not even a podium place was on the table this time! — but heading into Turn 1 on lap 41 it all ended in spectacular fashion.

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Approaching the braking zone at well over 210mph, Verstappen defended Ricciardo’s advances twice under braking — first to the right and then to the left — which ultimately left the Aussie with nowhere left to turn as he piled into the back of his team-mate’s RB14.

Both cars were sent skidding into the run-off and were soon retired — losing the Milton Keynes outfit a combined 22 points in the process. Although blame was later attributed to both drivers equally, the stewards concluded that accident’s “origins” had stemmed from Verstappen’s late defensive manoeuvres.

In post-race interviews, the Dutchman said all the right things and was apologetic in the part he had played in the accident. But his comments on “racing for the team” didn’t exactly match up with his on-track actions.

“It is just really disappointing for the team,” said Verstappen. “We lost a lot of points today, unnecessarily. I don’t think we need to speak about who’s at fault, because at the end of the day we are racing for a team, we are representing other people – this happens and it’s just not good for both of us.

“Before that I think it was hard racing but fair – I think we gave each other space. We had this little brush with the wheels, but that is racing – it can happen. But what happened afterwards is not good.”

Had Verstappen simply conceded the place, Red Bull would likely have secured all 22 points. But would the sight of his team-mate in equal machinery taking the chequered flag ahead of him be simply too painful to watch?


2016 Belgian Grand Prix

vs Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel

Max Verstappen Kimi Raikkonen

Even without the pace for a points finish, Verstappen made life difficult for front runners

Getty Images

Having made a winning debut at Red Bull in 2016, Verstappen continued to take the fight to some of F1’s biggest names that season.

At the 2016 Belgian Grand Prix, the Dutchman defended vigorously against Kimi Räikkönen on two separate occasions over a battle for fourteenth: first pushing him wide at Les Combes, then on the following lap, inviting the Finn to overtake him down the inside of the Kemmel Straight before quickly slamming the door in his face as he tried to do so.

“If I had not braked, we would have had a massive accident,” said a furious Räikkönen. “It will happen sooner or later if this doesn’t change. I am fine with good, hard racing but that is not correct. Maybe it needs an accident before it makes it more clear to everybody but hopefully not because it can be bad for someone. Nobody wants to see anybody get hurt.”

Verstappen and Räikkönen were only fighting for such a lowly place because of earlier contact at the start, where Verstappen got away poorly from the grid, and then triggered a three-car collision which involved Räikkönen and his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel — who was spun from second right to the back of the field. The four-time world champion added to the criticism of the Red Bull youngster: “I get along with him, I like him, he’s aggressive, I think that’s a strength of him, but certain moves, especially under braking, I don’t think are correct, and I think it’s something that needs to click and he needs to understand.”

Verstappen finished the race a disappointing eleventh but refused to take the blame. “If [was I was doing] was not correct, I should have got a penalty,” he said. “So I think everything was fair enough today.”


2016 Japanese Grand Prix

vs Lewis Hamilton

In defence of his sixth podium appearance of the season, Verstappen once again pulled out all the stops to ensure he wouldn’t be beaten at the 2016 Japanese GP — even with the faster Mercedes of Hamilton behind him.

The Briton was desperate to pass the Red Bull youngster for second — with just five races remaining in a hard fought battle for a fourth drivers’ title against his team-mate Nico Rosberg, who led. But as he tried to do so in the run up to the final chicane, Verstappen erratically moved over to defend, forcing Hamilton to lock up and take to the exit road. Mercedes later lodged a complaint but later withdrew it and the finishing order stood: Roberg the race winner, followed by Verstappen and then Hamilton.

It would have been simple for the Dutchman to see the faster, charging Mercedes of a multi-world champion in his wing mirrors and let him past, not risking his own race result in the process. But as has become increasingly clear over his continued stint in F1, the desire to not be overtaken — no matter his position on track — far outweighs whatever the ‘smart strategy’ might be.

Some would call that stupid. Others would call it old-school. Either way, for better or worse, it seems Max Verstappen will forever be the same racer: incapable of losing…no matter the cost.