The Inside Line #98: Age is just a number

TILI Logo Print1997. For some of us, 1997 doesn’t seem like that long ago, so to think we have a driver on this year’s F1 grid that was born the year of Jacques Villeneuve’s world title almost seems impossible. But Max Verstappen, born on September 30 of that year, has made the transition to F1 look relatively simple. Sure, the drivers’ standings say he’s scored just six points in the opening quartet of races, but at no stage have I watched him on-track and thought “well, he’s just 17”. No, he’s just a Formula One driver, a promising one at that, and someone who looks like he belongs already. And perhaps one with that something special, that little bit extra that’s hard to define, but makes perfect sense when you see it.

You hold your breath with some drivers in wheel-to-wheel combat – I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my seat whenever Pastor Maldonado is about to find himself in a dice [1] – but others have it down pat. Remember how many times Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso found themselves disputing the same piece of tarmac late in Webber’s career? Sure, it was usually because Webber had made a horrific start and was returning the Red Bull to its rightful position near the head of the field while Alonso was driving the wheels of a Ferrari that had no business being near the front, but it was regular and it was compelling. And it wasn’t just at Eau Rouge in 2011 either [2]; the two good mates seemed to be forever squabbling as they tried, usually in vain, to chase after Sebastian Vettel. Never once did you think they’d hit one another; they had the right combination of talent, bravery, class and composure to ensure a hard, tough scrap could also be a fair one, and one where both drivers would be able to continue their races once it was over.

It’s only been four races, but Verstappen has shown signs already that we should be able to enjoy his overtaking for the next decade or more. His race in China was sublime, one pass after another coming before (no, really) a Renault engine detonation halted his charge to the points [3]. Add his decisiveness in traffic to his obvious speed and body language that exudes confidence, and he’s a keeper. Just whom he drives for in the future will be fascinating as the older drivers move on and the balance of power between constructors shifts. Red Bull is his next obvious destination, assuming he’d want to go there at the moment or if the team still exists … [4]

A look at the rise of Verstappen is the focus of Episode 98 of ‘The Inside Line’, while another newcomer, Felipe Nasr, takes us behind the scenes of Sauber’s factory in Hinwil, amongst other features in this week’s show.

You can see the show on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] Takuma Sato, who I always had a soft spot for as he was one of the most decent drivers in a paddock not exactly overflowing with them, was like that too. “I will do 100 per cent maximum attack!” when asked of his plans off the start for most of his races with Super Aguri was the best.

[2] The more times you watch this, the more bonkers it is. The ramifications of this being out by even 2cm don’t bear thinking about.

[3] And produced the comedy moment of the year when the Chinese marshals attempted to get Verstappen’s car into the pit lane by repeatedly bashing it against the concrete wall, presumably to remove pesky bits of front wing that were getting in the way.

[4] A link from a few weeks ago, but well worth a read by Will Buxton, a journo who always tells it as it is. For those keeping score at home, Red Bull now hasn’t won a Grand Prix for – gasp – 11 races. By contrast, McLaren’s last win came at the US Grand Prix of 2012 (43 races ago); Williams has won a single Grand Prix since Brazil 2004. Just stating the facts …

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