Verstappen deserves place among F1 greats - but who has he really beaten?

Dutchman secured his third-straight drivers' title on Saturday, but with no one to challenge on equal terms in a dominant Red Bull car questions remain over his undoubted talent

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Max Verstappen's championship-winning ways have only just begun, according to Formula One legend Fernando Alonso. And more than almost anyone the relentlessly brilliant, Teflon-coated, Kevlar-hard, double-world champion Alonso should know the real deal when he sees it.

Verstappen wrapped up his third successive championship in sweltering Qatar on Saturday, the icing on the cake of a dominant season unmatched in F1 history.

Alonso – who has been chasing a third drivers' title for the last 17 years – was more than happy to lead the chorus of recognition as Verstappen continued his climb through the pantheon of F1’s very greatest names.

Only Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Juan Manuel Fangio sit above him now in terms of world championships won.

At just 26 and with five years remaining on his Red Bull contract many believe Hamilton and Schumacher’s seven-tile haul is well within Verstappen's reach.

Asked if he could compare the Dutchman to legends like Ayrton Senna and Schumacher, Alonso said: “I’ve only been wheel to wheel with Michael but with Michael maybe, yes.”

“And for the next few years he will keep adding championships so we will compare him with Michael even closer in future.”

“When you win so many races – sometimes in tricky weather conditions – when you make no mistakes and deliver the job every weekend it deserves big respect.”

The man himself is pugilistic to an absurd extent, squaring up to one driver in the pit lane and even threatening to attack a journalist.

But he is also unashamedly honest in his self-appraisal: “I never thought I would be on that list [of champions]. Of course you dream of getting to F1 and trying to win a race or maybe get a podium. But to be among those names makes me very proud.”

Although he has the same brand of aggressive racing as Schumacher and Senna, Verstappen is a product of his age.

Drivers rule courtesy of their cars and this kind of domination comes in swathes for four or five years.

Verstappen has ruled for three, Hamilton for six before that and earlier still Vettel and Schumacher for four and five years respectively.

Is it unfair to say all three of the Dutchman’s titles are "tainted" to one extent or another, though through no fault of his own.

His first in 2021 featured arguably his greatest performances, but everything was subsumed by the controversy of the final and title-deciding race in Abu Dhabi.

Then there was the budget shenanigans of 2022. Red Bull were fined and punished for overspending but it has coloured everything they have done since.

The team claims the extra money was only spent on sausage rolls, lint and pension payments but rivals believe they are still paying the price today for the advantage Red Bull built then.

Given those extraordinary performances it seems unfair to question Verstappen’s place in history.

It is also fair to ask: Who has Verstappen really beaten? On equal terms? In the same equipment?

Isn’t that the ultimate measure of talent?

Hamilton has partnered three champions: Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg and, to be fair. beaten, as well as been beaten by, all three.

Senna raced Alain Prost in the same car; Prost raced Nigel Mansell; Nelson Piquet, a triple champion, raced Mansell, too. Mika Hakkinen raced Senna. Even Schumacher partnered triple champion Piquet.

By these criteria Verstappen has beaten Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly, Carlos Sainz, Daniel Ricciardo and annihilated Sergio Perez. Hardly stellar names. And Perez has certainly not made the grade

Of all the teams aren’t Red Bull the outliers? The rebel rousers? The ones who are all about the journey rather than the destination? Red Bull Gives you Wings and all that?

The drinks brand is about adventure, flirting with danger, not playing it safe. And yet in F1 they do.

By failing to team Verstappen with a real star they are dodging the essence of their brand and everything F1 is about.

The bulk of casual F1 fans remember the rivalries, the battles, the rows. All but the essence of boring record runs fades from memory like a bad smell.

The Senna and Prost years, Nikki Lauda and James Hunt, Hamilton and Alonso, created spectacular sporting histories. They also made modern McLaren as a brand.

Of course, if Red Bull team boss Christian Horner could pluck up the courage to pick up the phone, Alonso himself would probably be glad to fill that chasm for a modest fee.

Updated: October 09, 2023, 6:26 AM