Sport

Max Verstappen on verge of joining elite club with F1 title in Singapore

Ever confident in his own abilities, Max Verstappen has enjoyed a burgeoning sense of self-belief since taking his first Formula One championship last season. Yet surely even he could not have expected to exert quite the iron grip he has exercised this year in a title defence that could be wrapped up this weekend in Singapore.

The Dutchman and his Red Bull team have been so dominant this season the championship is in his hands and he could clinch it at Marina Bay on Sunday to join a rarefied group of F1 drivers. With a 116-point lead over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Verstappen will be world champion if he wins and takes the fastest lap, as long as Leclerc finishes no higher than eighth and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez does not make the podium.

If he closes it out he will have done so with five races still to go, the same buffer Nigel Mansell managed for Williams in 1992. Michael Schumacher is the only other driver to take the title so early, doing so with six races remaining in 2002, almost indecently as early as July, while he also completed it with four to spare in 2001 and 2004. Vettel also managed it with four to go in 2011, in a Red Bull as dominant as the 2022 version.

In 1992 Mansell’s Williams FW14B, “Red Five” as his car was known, was designed by Adrian Newey, the architect of Red Bull’s success, demonstrating a touch for making quick and often beautiful cars he has never lost. Mansell put it to use with devastating effect. Opening with five straight wins, in the 11th of 16 meetings at Hungary in August he sealed the championship.

Mansell was dominant and closed with nine wins that year, seeing off Ayrton Senna, Riccardo Patrese and a young Schumacher in the process. Mansell concluded his F1 career with 31 wins, the same number Verstappen now holds. However, while 1992 was Mansell’s greatest triumph, he was 39 years old, in his last full season in F1, and it is where the similarities end with Verstappen’s similarly domineering performances this year.

For Verstappen this weekend in Singapore is still very much the opening in what appears increasingly likely to be a remarkable career. The Dutchman only turned 25 years old on Friday but this year has demonstrated a control and maturity that Mansell would surely recognise. He has 11 wins already from this 22-race season and has barely put a foot wrong in securing them. For all that the threat from Ferrari and Leclerc failed to materialise with the Scuderia stymied by team and driver errors, Verstappen and Red Bull would have been hard to match regardless.

It means of course that fans have been denied the tense fight and riveting denouement to the season that made 2021 so enthralling since, while Verstappen might not do it in Singapore, he surely will at the next round in Japan. Yet this should not detract from his achievements. Certainly Verstappen has enjoyed it as much as he did that titanic scrap with Lewis Hamilton last year.

“I don’t mind as long as I come out on top,” he said earlier this season. “That’s the most important feeling. There are a lot of good drivers in F1 and when you are battling them it’s a lot of fun.”

That sense of pleasure, an ease in his racing, has been palpable and it is without doubt partly a result of having got the first championship under his belt. Yet the reason he stands with one hand on a second title so early is not only down to some flawless drives but to his calm, composed judgment as well.

He took it on the chin when the mechanical failures that thwarted two of his three opening races saw him 46 points behind Leclerc. Rather than aggressively over-pushing, he allowed himself the time to hold his nerve and mount a steady comeback.

At race four in Imola he was peerless, opening a run of five wins from six races that concluded with an absolutely unmatchable, commanding masterclass in Canada. He was equally impressive in coming back to win from 10th on the grid in Hungary, from 14th in Belgium and from seventh in Italy, part of five consecutive victories where the championship was all but decided.

Under the lights in Singapore this weekend Verstappen may well finish the job but Hamilton led the field in first practice on Friday, in front of Verstappen and Leclerc. In the night running of P2, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was quickest, with Leclerc second and Verstappen fourth, behind the Mercedes of George Russell.

On Friday F1 announced it had extended its exclusive deal with Sky TV as its broadcaster until 2029. The channel is enjoying record figures this season, reaching an average of 1.7m, an increase of 60% since Sky took over with exclusive rights in 2019.