2017 Malaysian Grand Prix

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Smith: Verstappen’s Malaysia win just the start of his roaring 20s

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Whatever you were you doing the day after your 20th birthday, it’s unlikely to have been as cool as what Max Verstappen was up to.

Try and cast your mind back. You’ve got 30 seconds.

After a season full of frustration and underperformance, F1’s blinding-bright star reminded us once again of his incredible talent with one of the most convincing victories we have seen this year in Malaysia.

While his maiden victory on debut for Red Bull at the age of 18 at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix may have been down to a dose of good fortune, this was the opposite. On Sunday, nobody was in the same league as Verstappen at the front.

It is a daunting sign of things to come from F1’s next big superstar. If this is how he has started his twenties, how will he finish them?

Right, time’s up. What were you doing the day after your 20th birthday? Nursing a hangover? Attending college? Let’s put it in different terms: can you remember which F1 weekend was the first of your twenties?

Mine was not that long ago. I turned 20 one week before the 2015 Spanish Grand Prix, which also happened to be the race where I first really spoke with Verstappen, who was then just 17.

The hubbub around the Dutch youngster had been brewing for some time, with the concerns about his readiness for F1 evaporating within his first two races as he became both the youngest race starter and the youngest points scorer in the sport’s history.

Spain was my first race of the season that year, and after missing Verstappen at testing where everyone wanted to speak with him, I found myself only with a couple of other journalists for his regular media session at Toro Rosso after qualifying.

What struck me from the outset was how mature and confident Verstappen was when talking. He was able to switch between the finer technical details of his car setup to more general color questions easily, seeming more comfortable than many of his peers who find it something of a chore.

Verstappen was even happy to joke around as a leading F1 political writer tried to pin down his nationality – despite racing under the Dutch flag, Verstappen was raised and resides in Belgium – with the most telling of tests: by asking him how he ate his pomme frites. I noted he was sporting a shorter, streamlined haircut, which he said was part of Toro Rosso’s major update package for the start of the European season.

It’s simple, but this encounter was an early glimpse of Verstappen’s personality. He’s a breath of fresh air; a millennial for a sport that is desperately working to try and capture the millennial generation.

To think of where Verstappen may be at the time he turns 30 is quite scary. He is already in a top team and a proven race winner, not needing to spend those awkward few years trying to prove himself as others have tried (and often failed) to do. Red Bull appears to be on the rise, and even if concerns about a future Honda supply prove founded, Ferrari and Mercedes will surely be interested in his services.

The great names of F1’s recent era will soon start to disappear. Kimi Raikkonen will likely be the first, followed by Fernando Alonso. Lewis Hamilton will go after that, before finally Sebastian Vettel. Afterwards, Daniel Ricciardo will likely be the oldest driver at the front of the field, maybe followed by Valtteri Bottas.

Thereafter, we are firmly into the youngsters of today: the Esteban Ocons, the Stoffel Vandoornes. And, of course, Max – and you can be sure he is going threading right the way through all of these eras.

Naturally it all depends on the car and the experience of title fights in F1 (Verstappen still lacks the latter), but it does not seem to be a question of if he is world champion; instead when and how many times over.

Lewis Hamilton recently broke Michael Schumacher’s pole position all-time record and appears to stand the best chance of even getting close to his tally of 91 wins. He has always been racing for a top team and never had a winless season, but only debuted at 22. Verstappen has two years to get further ahead of the game.

If we’re looking for a driver to depose Schumacher as statistically being F1’s greatest of all time, it is hard to find a better candidate right now than Verstappen. The same is true for a driver to really represent the future of F1.

Verstappen will not be alone, though. There was a nice media session in Malaysia where Ferrari youngster Charles Leclerc was asked who he thought the ‘big three’ drivers in F1 would be in 10 years’ time. He said he hoped himself, currently 19, McLaren junior Lando Norris, 17, and of course Verstappen.

All three are very switched on and very relatable for young people today. They are all very active on social media, but very courteous and engaging in person. They know the importance of being personable. And of course, they are all extremely talented.

Sustained success through a long career is a rarity in F1. There will be challenges for Verstappen. He will lose titles and race wins; and, let’s not forget, he is still growing up and learning about the world in general. His race-craft is ever-evolving and still has a way to go, and he is not blameless for all of the on-track clashes this season. But he is showing all of the right signs to make the next decade of his life truly extraordinary.

Quite where F1 will be in 2027 is impossible to predict. But perhaps the biggest certainty is that Verstappen will still be around with his army of orange-clad Dutch fans in tow. One imagines they will have plenty to celebrate in the coming years.