Record-breaking Max Verstappen already an F1 great at 25

MEXICO CITY -- Dominance by a single driver is common in Formula One, but that doesn't mean it's easy to attain. Many of the greats have enjoyed a season -- or multiple seasons -- of unbeatable form, but the ease with which the victories fall always belies the hard work with which they were achieved.

For the now double world champion Max Verstappen, his first season of total dominance has come at the relatively young age of 25. By winning the Mexican Grand Prix on Sunday, his 14th of the year, Verstappen set a new record for race victories in a single season.

The previous record of 13 was set in 2004 by Michael Schumacher during his dominant Ferrari years and equaled in 2013 by Sebastian Vettel while driving for Red Bull. With two races remaining in 2022, there is every chance Verstappen raises the bar to 16.

Not that the man himself is interested in the numbers.

"I was never really interested in stats," Verstappen said after securing his victory in Mexico. "I just live in the moment, try to do the best I can every single weekend.

"I try to win the races -- that for me is the most important thing that when I go home I can say to myself that I maximized the performance and if I'm close to that I'm happy.

"But a lot in Formula One depends on the whole package and we have a great package [right now]. I'm just enjoying the moment and I'm not that interested in keeping in touch with every stat.

"But of course it has been an amazing season and of course I am very happy winning so many races."

As Verstappen has pointed out before, comparing records across eras in Formula One is fraught with inconsistencies. Schumacher achieved his 13 wins in an 18-race season, Vettel scored his in a 19-race season and Verstappen secured his first 13 wins of 2022 in 20 race period before taking No. 14 at the 21st race of the year.

But while Verstappen's season may be statistically less impressive (with two races left to run), he has arguably had a less dominant car than Schumacher and Vettel enjoyed in their record years. What's more, he has secured a number of his 14 wins in a more spectacular fashion.

While the Red Bull is clearly the class of the field at this stage of the season, Ferrari was a genuine threat for victories at every race in the early rounds of 2022. Looking at it one way, you could argue the Italian team has gifted Verstappen additional wins - most notably in Spain when Charles Leclerc broke down and then in France when Leclerc crashed out of the lead -- but the counter argument is that Verstappen has consistently been in a position to take advantage.

More impressively, he has won races from lowly grid positions, which was rarely the case for the other Vettel and Schumacher. Vettel won all of his 13 races in 2013 from the front row of the grid while Schumacher won 11 of his 13 from the first two grid positions. Verstappen, however, has won six of his 14 from grid positions outside the top two, and two of those were from way back in 10th and 14th on the grid in Hungary and Belgium.

At a glance that could reflect negatively on his qualifying performance, but his three lowliest grid positions that led to victories were all at races where he had either grid penalties for engine component changes (Italy and Belgium) or a power unit issue in qualifying (Hungary).

On top of that, Ferrari has had a quicker car in qualifying at a number of races this year, which was not the case among Vettel's and Schumacher's rivals when they were dominating. It means Verstappen has had to fight harder for the front row starting positions he has earned, and to underline that point, a surprising statistic from this year is that Leclerc has a higher average starting position (2.65) than Verstappen's (2.70) while also securing nine poles to Verstappen's seven.

Again, the comparison between eras is far from perfect, but there is no doubt Verstappen has already put himself among the sport's greatest drivers with many fruitful years of his career still to run. His team boss, Christian Horner, who is in a position to directly compare the newly-crowned two-time champion with four-time champion Vettel, gave a valid perspective on the two on Sunday night.

"They are two very different drivers, two phenomenally successful drivers, and I think what Sebastian has achieved in his career puts him among the greats and the most successful drivers in the sport," he said on Sunday evening in Mexico. "But I think Max, what we are seeing today and this year, we are actually witnessing something very special.

"I sometimes think that his achievements perhaps don't receive the plaudits that they should, because what we have witnessed this year is an absolutely outstanding performance from a driver who is at the top of his game."

Asked if Verstappen's was the most impressive season-long performance from a driver Horner has seen, he added: "There's been years of domination with Mercedes, but I think as an individual driver probably yes.

"He has won the most grands prix in a year now within 21 races. On top of that, he has won two sprint races, and he has not won all of them from pole position.

"He's had to fight and race for a lot of those victories. When we look back at the end of the year, it is an absolutely outstanding year that Max has driven.

"He hasn't put a wheel wrong. He has been perfect throughout the season and it's incredible the level of consistency he has been able to achieve."

Of course, that's the opinion of a very proud team boss with a naturally biased viewpoint, but even if Verstappen retired tomorrow, it would be hard to deny his position among the top drivers in F1 history after this year's performance.

There will be some that point to Red Bull's breach of last year's cost cap as a reason to diminish Verstappen's achievement in 2022. But even the most exaggerated claims of how much performance Red Bull gained in the development of this year's car by overspending last year would fall short of cancelling out his advantage over the rest of the field. Like him or not, Verstappen's performance this year has been truly exceptional.

Was there a way for Mercedes to ruin the party?

In the early part of Sunday's Mexican Grand Prix, it looked like Mercedes might have the pace to challenge Verstappen for victory. However, an aggressive -- and ultimately correct -- tyre strategy from Red Bull won the race and allowed Verstappen to maximize the performance of his car.

Ultimately, Mercedes believed ahead of the race that a one-stop strategy on soft and medium tyres would be more marginal than it proved to be and its more conservative medium-hard strategy ruled both drivers out of contention. It's not the first time a team has misread the tyres this year, but it completely hamstrung Lewis Hamilton and George Russell on what the team admits was its best shot at victory this year.

The decision to start the race on medium tyres was taken in the belief it would give the drivers the most flexibility between a one-stop and two-stop. But slightly cooler conditions on Sunday meant the soft tyre was more resilient than expected and could be used as part of a one-stop strategy that Mercedes felt wouldn't be possible before the race. Alongside Red Bull's soft-medium strategy, several drivers made a medium-soft strategy work, but that wasn't an option for Hamilton, who would have lost track position to the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez had he extended his first stint on the mediums long enough to allow a switch to the less resilient soft tyre at the end.

Hamilton admits he knew the odds were stacked against him the moment the tyre blankets came off the cars on the grid.

"I think ultimately they still have the upper hand," Hamilton said. "They're still a little bit quicker.

"Maybe today we were the closest that we've ever been and perhaps if we were on the same tyre maybe it was a couple of tenths a lap perhaps. But they're quite quick in a straight line and not losing through the corners. I was in his tow and I was struggling just to keep up so they've definitely got a little bit more in the tank than we do.

"But we're getting closer. I think if we had started on the soft, maybe I would have been the same distance behind in that first stint.

"Perhaps we would have tried the undercut and ultimately that would have been much more enjoyable to try something like that. But, yeah, hindsight is a great thing. I'm just grateful for the progress we have made as a team and the fact that we are now in between the Red Bulls. I think that's huge."

Had Mercedes started on softs, the race would have been all about who took the lead into the first corner. Had Mercedes got one of its drivers ahead of Verstappen, which seemed unlikely regardless of tyre selection given the straightline performance of the Red Bull, a win may have been possible.

Mercedes believes it was roughly 0.2s per lap slower than Red Bull on race pace, which could have been a small enough deficit to defend the lead had Hamilton got ahead of Verstappen on the opening lap. But if Mercedes found itself behind Verstappen at the first corner, it was also a big enough deficit to ensure there would have been very little chance of taking the lead later in the race.

"I don't think that we could have overtaken them, because the gap would basically be too big," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. "Going with the soft-medium may have given us a bit of an advantage into Turn 1, but with Lewis on the outside you never know how it would have gone. But, yes, we would have been closer with this strategy."

It's likely Mercedes will be less competitive relative to Red Bull at the final two races, with Ferrari also expected to come back into the fold. Mexico City's altitude, sitting at over 2,200 metres above sea-level, was the key factor in Mercedes' performance and Ferrari's lack of it on Sunday.

The Mercedes has worked exceptionally well at circuits where the penalty for aerodynamic drag is minimized, which was the case in Mexico, while Ferrari's relatively small turbocharger - an element of the engine's design that is never exposed in the richer air at most other venues - meant it was unable to produce it's normal power output in the thinner air of Mexico City.

Yet the smart money remains on Verstappen extending the record for wins in a season to 16 at the final two races of the season.