Don't Verstappen Me Now! Using data visualization to benchmark Max Verstappen against the F1 Greats
The recent US Grand Prix marked 100 races (or in certain corners of sports parlance, a century) for Max Verstappen. At the tender age of 22, this is quite an achievement, particularly considering that there are only 19 to 21 races per season in modern day Formula 1. The son of former racing driver Jos Verstappen has been earmarked as a future World Champion ever since he burst onto the scene in Japan at the back end of 2014 when he raced as a test driver for Toro Rosso in a practice session.
The racing world is ripe for analytics and data visualization. Huge amounts of telemetry data is collected by the teams during practice and race sessions, all for the purpose of gaining a fraction of a second advantage over competitors. Just beyond the surface of his century of races, it’s possible to dive deeper into the statistics of Verstappen’s performance and assess more closely whether the apparently prodigious young Dutchman will fulfill his potential after all.
To begin with, let’s look at some of the headline numbers at 100 races. Impressively, Verstappen secures a top 3 finish in just under a third of the races he starts. This rate improves if you take a subset of the most recent 50; as he has matured as a driver, he has finished races more consistently, and finished them on the podium (between the 2018 & 2019 Belgian GP, Verstappen’s lowest finish was 5th).
The next two figures, however, are lower than you might expect for a driver that is held in such high regard. Much of this is down to the dominance of Mercedes in the v6 hybrid turbo era which started in the 2014 season; Verstappen’s Red Bull have finished 3rd in the Constructor rankings every year that he has raced with them — Max’s car simply isn’t as competitive as the Mercedes & Ferrari packages.
This article will now explore the data story behind these headlines numbers, assessing their prominence and benchmarking them against the best F1 drivers from past and present.
Giving Max his Wings
Before comparing Verstappen with other World Champions, it’s worth analysing his performance within the Red Bull Racing Group. Verstappen’s first drive came with Red Bull’s sister team, Toro Rosso, at the first race of the 2015 season. On that occasion, he was robbed of a debut points finish due to engine failure late in the race. He didn’t have to wait long for his first points finish, however, driving to seventh place in Malaysia in the next Grand Prix. 2015 continued to produce some impressive results, including fourth place finishes in the Hungarian & US Grand Prix. By the time the winter break came round there were no shortage of rumours linking him to a seat at the parent team.
Despite Verstappen’s promise, Red Bull opted to continue with the incumbent and slightly more experienced driver, Daniil Kvyat, into 2016. It didn’t take long for this to be rectified. Following the Russian GP in 2016, Red Bull announced that from that point forward, Verstappen would replace Kvyat as a Red Bull driver. Christian Horner, Red Bull Team Principal, stated the following:
“Max has proven to be an outstanding young talent. His performance at Toro Rosso has been impressive so far, and we are pleased to give him the opportunity to drive for Red Bull Racing.”
At the next race, the Spanish GP 2016, Verstappen didn’t let Horner down, becoming the youngest race winner in F1’s history at 18 years and 228 days. Considering the below chart, he hasn’t eased up since then.
Since winning the Spanish GP in 2016, Verstappen has gone on to win six further races and cemented himself as Red Bull’s number one driver. In the past four seasons, his share of the total points has gradually increased, notably beating talented teammate Daniel Ricciardo in 2018 and dominating newcomer Pierre Gasly in 2019. In the same way that Verstappen gained his seat in 2016, emerging Thai driver Alex Albon became Verstappen’s new teammate and challenger for the 2019 Belgian GP and has since proved more of a match for Verstappen than his predecessor, a fascinating battle that will continue to be played out in 2020.
Verstappen vs the Elite
Let us now turn our attention to how Verstappen compares to a select group of F1’s greatest drivers past and present. Included in this group are the usual names that float to the surface whenever the ‘Greatest of all time’ debate is discussed, as well as Charles Leclerc, who has had an impressive first year with Ferrari and is being touted as Verstappen’s major rival in years to come.
The following three charts display how Verstappen has performed against this group at the 100 race mark in their respective careers. In terms of points, Verstappen shapes up very well — sitting behind only Vettel after 100 races.
As in any F1 analysis involving points scored, however, points must be normalised across eras due to multiple changes in the point scoring system over time. This avoids favouring drivers racing in a system where more points are awarded for a win. So when you retroactively apply the 2019 points scoring system (first=25, second=18, etc.) to the position finishes of the aforementioned drivers, the view changes dramatically. Verstappen plummets to the second lowest ranked driver in this elite group.
Putting Verstappen aside for a moment, it is astonishing how tightly packed the very top drivers end up after 100 races. Excluding Verstappen & Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen (the two lowest ranked racers), the drivers all average between 10–12.5 normalised points per race, with the exception of Juan Manuel Fangio, who scored an astonishing 876 normalised points in 51 races at a rate of 17.1 points (out of a maximum of 25) per race.
When we look at race wins rather than overall points, Verstappen slots into last place, falling below Raikkonen and lagging behind the majority of the other drivers by a considerable margin. To put this into context, Fangio had won the same number of races as Verstappen in just over a fifth of the time, Hamilton in a quarter of the time, while Alonso, Prost, Vettel & Senna took around half the number of races to reach seven wins.
It is a similar story when we look at number of podiums (top three finishes). Verstappen and Raikkonen bring up the rear at a podium in roughly every three races, while the remaining drivers are clustered around a rate of just below a podium every other race. Hamilton’s line shows his phenomenal start to life as an F1 driver with nine podiums on the trot.
Based on normalised points, wins and podiums after 100 races, it would be fair to deduce that Verstappen, in actuality, lags well behind the proven, multiple World Championship winning group to which he is being compared. So why is he being spoken about as being the next big thing? The dominant force for years to come? Jenson Button was recently quoted as saying
“I think he is the fastest driver that has ever driven an F1 car, I really do.”
The stats so far pose an interesting question: Is Max Verstappen overrated?
When I was 17, it was a very good year …
Perhaps we need to switch our focus to uncover the answer to this question. So far, we’ve concentrated on number of races as a means of benchmarking drivers at the same point. It is a fixed variable which, to an extent, allows us to explore trends across different era and teams. Let us switch this variable with each driver’s age.
Verstappen made history at the Australian GP in March 2015 when he became the youngest driver to ever start a race, aged 17 years and 166 days. This smashed the previous record, held by Jaime Alguersuari, by almost two years. It is also a record that will likely stand for some time, given that the FIA changed the regulation in 2016, raising the age limit to hold a license to drive to a minimum of 18 years old.
Using age as the relative variable to compare drivers creates a completely different story. Within our elite group, there is a clear trend of driver’s starting their careers at a young age; serial winners almost always start young in F1 (Fangio excluded).
The gap between these drivers’ starting age and Verstappen is considerable. Schumacher and Hamilton were the same age that Verstappen is now (22) on their racing debuts, while Prost & Senna were 24. Of our select group, Vettel & Alonso were closest in age to Verstappen on their respective debuts, and even they were over two years older than him. What this effectively means, is that Verstappen has had a three- to five-year headstart on the titans of F1.
Max is in virtually uncharted territory here. Put another way: Verstappen could change his name today and start his career from scratch, and he wouldn’t have lost any time to the multiple Wold Championship winning drivers to whom he aspires.
Now that we have switched our comparison variable from number of races to age, let’s revisit race wins. The drivers in the histograms above have been sorted in descending order by the date they made their debut.
The shape of each driver’s histogram indicates that the most prolific period of a driver’s career is roughly between 25 and 35, consistent with the ‘golden years’ of many other sporting careers. It’s an age range which balances youth and experience.
One way of looking at this is that Verstappen has already gained enough experience and maturity to bring forward the lower band. Even in 2019, we saw a more consistent, level headed Verstappen who would race hard but without risking the kind of collisions that were more common place in the earlier stages of his career. This would suggest a histogram more similar in shape to that of Vettel, who experienced a huge amount of success early on in his career, before regressing in his late twenties.
Another way of looking at it might be that Verstappen, still being three years off the lower band of this range, will continue to pick up a few wins per season and then take really come into his own in three to four years time. Incidentally, Hamilton and Vettel, two of the most decorated drivers of all time, will be closing in on 40 by then and may well be leaning towards retirement.
Either way, when dissected by age, the future certainly does look bright for Verstappen. The Dutchman’s seven race wins and 29 podiums can now be considered a bonus when being used in comparison to our elite group. Not all first 100 races are created equal, and it would certainly be interesting to sample Verstappen’s next 100 races and compare again.
What’s Leclerc got to do with it?
What obstacles might Verstappen face in his quest to be considered amongst the greats? At 22, Verstappen has now won more races than any other driver at that age. It is now a question of what, or who, is able to stop him from winning more.
One person that might have something to say about it is Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque driver debuted at Sauber (Alfa Romeo’s racing group) at the age of 21 in 2018. Leclerc outdrove his mid to lower field Sauber race car throughout the 2018 season, smashing his teammate Marcus Ericsson in the head to head record and grabbing several points-scoring finishes. This ultimately earned him a seat at Ferrari for the 2019 season in place of the outgoing Kimi Raikkonen.
Leclerc has undoubtedly made the most of his promotion, currently placing third in the Championship and outscoring his much more experienced teammate Vettel, as well as Verstappen. What’s more, this total would have been higher had he not suffered several mechanical faults and questionable strategic calls that were no fault of his own (notably at events in Bahrain and Germany).
Verstappen and Leclerc have already tussled several times in the 2019 season. Excited comparisons are already being made to a Senna/Prost or Hunt/Lauda style rivalry due to the parallels of their youth combined with their aggressive and exciting racing style. The rivalry and surrounding fervor came to a head in the thrilling finish at the Austrian GP, where Verstappen and Leclerc battled tightly for the lead, made contact, and Verstappen ultimately going on to win the race.
However, more than just Charles Leclerc stands in Verstappen’s way. It is reasonable to ask if Max is also being held back by his own team’s racing package. As per the chart below, showing percentage of total points in each season won by the different Constructors, Leclerc currently has the advantage of the better racing package at Ferrari. The Italian giant currently sits second in the Constructor standings behind Mercedes, and one spot ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull Racing Team. This is an issue for Verstappen & Red Bull, who have remained threatening in spurts without truly challenging Mercedes’ dominance in recent years.
To that point, it also seems strange to be discussing the next generation of challengers so soon after Lewis Hamilton, a Mercedes racer, wrapped up a sixth and typically dominant World Championship. (This is not dissimilar to the desire to anoint the next generation in tennis, despite the Big Three of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic continuing to hold a vice grip on the competition.) Nor is Hamilton showing any sign of stopping, as he now has a number of Schumacher’s all time F1 records in his sights, including the record for total wins (91) and a seventh World Championship.
With Leclerc and Hamilton in the picture at more dominant Constructors, it may be that Verstappen has no choice to bide his time until he has the opportunity to truly establish himself as a dominant force in F1. Consider the conditions in which Vettel, Hamilton and Schumacher all won consecutive titles: a single, dominant car package and a significant driver skill advantage over their teammate. Verstappen has achieved the latter, but is still waiting on the former — a package which will allow him to start making headway into the F1 record books, a truly dominant Championship winning car.
Lewis Hamilton was 23 when he won his first World Championship, Schumacher was 24. Max Verstappen still has age on his side and can afford to remain at Red Bull until the regulation change in 2021, but whether he becomes one of the greats hinges on making the right move at the most decisive point in his career.
That decision may well be to remain at Red Bull, if he is confident that they can roll back the years to the early 2010s and become the dominant package once again. He may feel, however, that he needs to twist and move on from Red Bull to fulfill his ambitions. With Leclerc under contract at Ferrari until ‘at least 2022’ according to Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene, it currently seems unlikely that Verstappen will get the chance to battle Leclerc within the same team, given Ferrari’s tendency to stick to a primary and secondary driver set up. The idea of a Hamilton/Verstappen partnership at Mercedes is a mouthwatering one, though not one that Hamilton would necessarily sanction, nor one that Toto Wolff and the Mercedes team would welcome given the potential for fireworks between the personalities. Verstappen may well opt to follow former teammate Daniel Ricciardo’s approach and join Renault or a resurgent McLaren in the hope that he will be at the head of the dawning era of a new dominant force.
There is little doubting Max’s talent, but the competitiveness of whichever team Verstappen ends up at during the summit of his career will go a long way to determining whether he can truly join the pantheon of all-time great racers.
The data for this article was scraped & prepared in R using the Ergast Developer API and visualized in Tableau.