When Max Verstappen was brought from Toro Rosso to Red Bull by Helmut Marko in 2016, the Dutchman knew he would not be competing for the world title that season. Although he won the first race immediately, his subsequent victories each time took a relatively long time to materialise.
The reason: the dominance of Mercedes and in particular that of Lewis Hamilton. Sporadically, Verstappen won a race, providing his Red Bull was strong enough to compete with Mercedes, or if tensions spiralled at the Silver Arrows.
Out of the 17 races that took place during the COVID-19 affected season in 2020, only four were not won by a Mercedes driver – two of which were won by Verstappen.
The Dutchman had the advantage of not needing to think of a world title during this period, which enabled him to take more risks when going for victories.
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End of dominance
Everything changed in 2021, when Verstappen finally had equipment with which he could really make life difficult for Hamilton almost every weekend.
Mercedes were still strong, but Red Bull had largely closed the gap. It would be a memorable season with many iconic battles.
In the early stages, it was Verstappen who had the slightly inferior car and so had to squeeze the utmost out of his challenger to still make things difficult for Hamilton. Every opportunity Verstappen saw, he tried to grab it with both hands.
When Hamilton started from pole for the 100th time in Spain and later Imola, both times saw Verstappen elbowing his way into the first corner to take first place.
Hamilton was still cautious, knowing he had the better race car, but his careful way of going about his racing enabled him to take victory in Spain.
Turning the tables
Halfway through the 2021 season, there is a period when Verstappen emerges as the fastest.
After three Verstappen victories in a row, the moment arrives when Hamilton knows that he must now be the more aggressive of the two. It results in a huge crash at the British Grand Prix when the Mercedes driver attempts to overtake Verstappen at Copse Corner.
It was Hamilton who dived into the gap, while Verstappen defended his line and the pair met in the middle. The Red Bull driver came off worse when the tyre blew off his rear wheel rim, while Hamilton was able to continue without suffering damage.
It was a turning point for the season, as the form pendulum swung once again in Hamilton's favour. It was now Verstappen who had to be the more aggressive of the two, to still have a chance of winning the title.
In Brazil the pair were on the limit when Hamilton battled his way through the field with the help of a new power unit. In Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, it was Verstappen who had to be aggressive to snatch the world title from Hamilton.
But since last year, everything has changed. Verstappen, especially today, has the fastest car and doesn't have to worry about his position on the first lap. As long as he qualifies well and maintains a gap on the opening lap of a race, he can win the race.
Only Sergio Perez could throw a spanner in his works at this point, but this year we have only seen one race in which both drivers started at the front of the field. In Bahrain, it was Verstappen who was by far the fastest of the two. No opposition came from Perez.
And so last Sunday in Melbourne, we saw Verstappen become the Hamilton of the 2014-2020 period. He did not fare well in the first laps. George Russell and later Hamilton drove aggressively and were past him within three corners.
In what will likely be a close title race with Perez, it seems Verstappen had a lot to lose, while Mercedes have little at risk as they chase more performance.
"I was careful, because I had a lot to lose and they had a lot to win," said Verstappen after the Australian GP.
"I think I could have been a little bit more aggressive. But on the other hand, I didn't want to have any damage on my car, because I knew that we had a quick car, right? So even losing one or two spots was not the end of the world."
And so today we see a different Verstappen than we saw before 2021. More calculated, smarter, calmer, because he can be. And now Hamilton suddenly has to be the aggressive one. How the tables have turned.
Balve Baines is joined by RacingNews365.com Editorial Director Dieter Rencken and Asia Correspondent Michael Butterworth to dissect the key talking points from the Australian Grand Prix.