1997 Formula 1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve believes that Max Verstappen is still very much at the top of his game after last season’s championship success.
The Dutchman dramatically beat Sir Lewis Hamilton to the crown after a tumultuous season that saw the pair win 18 of the 22 races between them in an exhausting 2021.
Tiredness has evidently not been a factor in the early going of the 2022 season though, and he has won three of the first five grand prix, including the last one in Miami.
Better reliability might have put him ahead of Charles Leclerc in the championship instead of 19 points behind.
Villeneuve has been impressed with the reigning champion’s capacity to carry his form from last season over to this year.
“Max has been impressive from the start of the season. He is driving like he drove last year,” he said.
“Normally you might be a bit tired after a championship year, but you can see that nothing has changed. In fact, he’s just got stronger.
“He’s been released from that championship pressure – he’s shown that he can win a title.”
The 24-year-old’s victory in 2021 was marred by controversy after a bizarre Safety Car restart by now former race director Michael Masi in Abu Dhabi, but the former Williams driver maintains that Verstappen’s current form is exemplifying why he is a champion on merit.
“In the last two races, Max has certainly shown that he deserved the title. A car can always break down, but apart from that, he’s always competing for the win,” said the Canadian.
“He drives almost flawlessly, and when he makes an error, he corrects it. He drives at the peak of his abilities, on the edge. He makes the best of what he can control.
“There has not been a single race in which he’s given less than the best – we saw that again in Miami.”
Mercedes’ George Russell has enjoyed one or two slices of fortune this year while finishing the last four races ahead of team-mate Sir Lewis Hamilton, but his consistent pace since he joined the Silver Arrows has impressed Villeneuve, who believes that the Briton is beginning to take the initiative as team leader.
“I think we have seen the final changing of the guard at Mercedes,” he explained.
“George Russell is riding the wave, Lewis Hamilton is trying not to drown. After many years of winning without competition, it’s hard to wake up and realise it’s not that easy.
“He now has to drive like he did in his first two years in Formula 1, which is what Russell is doing now. In the race Russell took the decision: leave me out, maybe a safety car will come – and it paid off.”
The 51-year-old acknowledges that bad luck has befallen the seven-time champion in the early going of this year but, while he recognises that Hamilton is an all-time great champion, he reckons the manner in which he lost the title in 2021 still weighs on him.
“Lewis’ champion’s luck seems to have left him. He doesn’t have the momentum and nothing’s going his way,” he added.
“It’s going to be a tough fight, but Lewis is a racer and a champion. He knows what needs to be done and we’ll see if he still has the energy to do it.
“But I think missing the world title last year is a heavy burden for him that he carried with him all winter.
“He was bitter and feels that he was robbed. But you can see from the way Max drives that he didn’t steal the title at all and is a deserved champion.”
Hamilton’s sixth-placed finish in Miami last weekend saw him break back into the top six in the Drivers’ Championship, but he now finds himself 68 points behind leader Leclerc.