Amid dominant form that means he could take the crown at next weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix, it’s easy to forget the dramas that overshadowed the start of the campaign.
In fact, early in the year it looked like his championship challenge could be over before he started, as a wave of reliability drama allowed main rival Charles Leclerc to take a pretty hefty advantage in the Drivers’ Championship.
When Red Bull finally got the reliability of his RB18 in order, Verstappen found himself dealing with a number of car characteristics that he did not like.
Instead, the weak front of the car seemed to fit perfectly with what team-mate Sergio Perez likes the car, and there was a phase around the Monaco Grand Prix where it looked like the Mexican would even be the main title threat.
As the 2022 season progressed, it was good to see that both Red Bull and Verstappen managed to find another gear, especially on Sunday.
While the Ferrari F1-75 still appears to be a faster car over a single lap, the progress the RB18 has made with its tire degradation is impressive.
And it is that factor that has played into the team’s hands perfectly, preventing Verstappen from losing ground when he started lower in the ranking.
But more importantly, to seal his championship lead, he seemed increasingly comfortable with the way the RB18 was being developed, which also took the car away from what Perez liked.
This shift has led to some suggestions the team has deliberately made for an upgrade push that favored Verstappen.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18, 1st position, takes the checkered flag
Photo By: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
However, the reality is that the car came more to Verstappen simply through its natural evolution to get better, and more specifically through opening setup windows that were not available in infancy.
The real breakthrough for Verstappen wasn’t some aero development or a custom set-up brought in to help him turn a profit – it was just that, when Red Bull got the weight off, that then went double. yielded a profit.
First, the loss of most of what was thought to be up to 10kg overweight at the start of the season resulted in an automatic speed advantage.
In F1, every 10kg of weight is said to be worth 0.3 seconds per lap, so a rough estimate means a few tenths were won.
But perhaps more importantly for Verstappen, a driver known for a sharp front end of a car, the added weight of the car meant there were finally some options for moving ballast.
Even a few pounds of extra weight shifted to the rear of the car would have been enough to choose a lazy front — and bring the handling close to what Verstappen craves.
As he recently explained at Monza, “The car was very heavy, it was just the wrong place on the car and too heavy, so that’s why it was just a lot more understeer and prone to locking up in the front.”
Red Bull technical director Pierre Wache explained that as the freedom to be more aggressive with the set-up opener played more to let Verstappen get what he wanted from the car.
“At the start of the season we didn’t have the ability to move the weight, and it was part of the set-up,” he said.
“But I think it’s all together and after you found your performance somewhere and it’s a bit more difficult to set up the car, it went in Max’s favour.
“I think he can drive any car. Now we have to find a way to give Sergio a car to perform and compete.”
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB18
Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool
A solution for Perez
While Verstappen is completely at one with the RB18, more needs to be done to help Perez feel more comfortable.
Wache says the situation is easy to understand: Perez isn’t as happy with the settlement as he was earlier in the campaign. But the hardest part is coming up with a solution that won’t slow down the car.
“The most important factor is clearly the balance of the car and the confidence with a car, compared to the beginning of the year when the car was a bit more balanced for him and a bit less for Max,” he said.
“And after the development potential we’ve put on the car during the season, maybe that’s part of it.
“After we find the right set-up for him, it’s quite difficult to make him as confident as possible to beat or fight with Max.”
In the end, Wache admits that perhaps the only way forward may be to sacrifice an ultimate lap time that can be reclaimed by making Perez happier.
“Every time [it is] difficult when you’re trying to develop the car theoretically for performance, and after you’re stuck in terms of set-up tools to rebalance the car,” he said.
“Then it means you have to sacrifice a little bit of performance. To get the right balance, the desired one, I’d say you normally lose a little bit of performance to make it better. It doesn’t mean it’s a lot, but it is this kind of direction, yeah.”