Is Max Verstappen the new Ayrton Senna? It is a headline and a topic that has been raised a number of times by the media, who love to draw comparisons with the past and the newest rising star.
Max Verstappen is the newest rising star in Formula One.
To race in F1 you have to be very good. These are reputed to be the best drivers in the world. Okay there are some exceptions and bringing finance to back up the drive does help, but the vast majority are very good. However there are varying degrees of very good, to very very good, to very very very good, and so it goes on exponentially.
Every once in a while there are drivers who emerge who have a God given talent and competitive killer instinct on the track, combined with a dedicated work ethic that marks them out as truly exceptional.
Over the generations there has been Juan Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. I am sure these names will be further debated and people will have their own different views. However what can’t be disputed is that these drivers- regardless of the number of World Championships they may or may not have won- are or were, truly exceptional talent.
To this exclusive club we must now add Max Verstappen. With just a season and a half into his meteoric Formula 1 career so far, Max Verstappen has been continuing to impress with his mighty performances. Aged just 17 years and 166 days, Max became the youngest driver to compete in Formula 1. He is the youngest driver to lead a lap during a F1 Grand Prix, the youngest driver to secure a podium, and this year became the youngest F1 Grand Prix winner in his debut drive for Red Bull. By doing so, at the age of 18 years and 227 days Max displaced Sebastian Vettel as the youngest driver ever to win a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Max will not be 19 years old until the weekend of the Malaysian Grand Prix, so the world is at his feet and his achievements can only continue to multiply. However is it right to directly liken and call him the next Ayrton Senna?
Comparisons across generations are always difficult because each are unique to their time period, the number of races held in a season and of course the cars.
But what is interesting is the competitive attitude of the drivers, which in many ways has not changed.
I remember attending a press conference at the 1989 Mexican Grand Prix with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, where there was a unique opportunity to observe the two McLaren world champions share the podium with five times world champion Juan Manual Fangio. Fangio didn’t speak English, so his words were translated by a young interpreter. What made it fascinating was that if you closed your eyes and listened, not just to the voices, but also to the opinions and the way they were expressed, you would have thought that Fangio was the most youthful!
Each generation is different in terms of attitudes, lifestyle and fashion. Nowadays the tendency is for young sports stars to specialise at a much earlier age.
Max and Ayrton both developed their interest in motorsport from around four years old. Both went on to become karting champions in their own right. Max winning the KZ1 world championship at the age of 15, Ayrton twice finishing runner up in the world championship at the age of 19 and 20.
Max got his first taste of driving a racing car at 16 years old in 2013 and went on the following year in his maiden season to come third in the European Formula 3 championship. This led him to join the Red Bull Junior team and being confirmed for his F1 debut with Toro Rosso in 2015.
Ayrton moved to England to start his racing career in Europe aged 21, winning national Formula Ford championships before going on to win the British Formula 3 championship and the Macau Grand Prix. After tests with both the Williams and McLaren F1 teams, Ayrton made his Grand Prix debut in Brazil with Toleman in 1984.
Ayrton won his first Grand Prix in Portugal on his 18th start, although he very nearly won the Monaco Grand Prix on just his 6th start when the race was stopped prematurely due to torrential rain.
Max won his first race on his 24th start on his debut drive for Red Bull in Spain this year.
Formula 1 after the summer break now heads to Spa Francorchamps- the home of the Belgian Grand Prix- which was the venue for Ayrton’s second Grand Prix win.
Spa is very much a classic racing circuit which separates the men from the boys and one that very much resonates the true talents of the drivers.
But it is not just the speed and confidence at the limit around the track, it is also the combative nature of racing wheel to wheel, that has drawn comparisons between Max and Ayrton.
Ayrton had a unique forceful style which took racing to the very limit. He would intimidate his opponents to attain a psychological advantage. He would force the issue. The other drivers had a choice. Either they would relent and give way, or if they didn’t then contact could well be possible. It was a ruthless trait that dominated his career. If a driver left a door open- more often than not however narrow- he would go for it.
After his controversial accident with Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1989, Jackie Stewart- who was working for Australia’s Channel Nine- quizzed him about why he seemed to be involved in more accidents than the rest of the sport’s champions put together. Ayrton famously replied indignantly: “If you no longer go for a gap, you are not a racing driver!”
Likewise, Max is gaining a reputation as a forceful driver and he has his detractors including several of the veteran drivers who have questioned his defensive tactics.
As reportedly recently on grandprix247.com, Max is not fazed by the talk and in fact he sees it as a plus, “I always see it as a positive thing. If people are talking about you then you are doing something right. Of course, you always have people who criticise. Some people are for you, some people against.”
“I just try to do the best possible job for the team. You don’t just allow somebody by. Of course, I am always on the limit, but that’s how you become successful, by being on the limit – because if you are under it then you will never achieve what you are capable of.”
Without doubt, Max Verstappen has the potential to be up there with the all time greats, but will he be the new Ayrton Senna? No, he will do it his own way, and be the new Max Verstappen!