You don’t make the impact on a cut-throat global sport as quickly as Max Verstappen has without ruffling a few feathers along the way.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE APRIL 2017 ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE.
Is Max Verstappen really F1’s Messiah, or is he just a very naughty boy? Depends on who you ask. The hordes of travelling fans who turned the hillsides at several European Grands Prix last year into a sea of orange to support their Dutch compatriot? Their view might be different to, say, his on-track rivals, team bosses outside of the Red Bull stable for whom the teenager drives, even former drivers who feel Verstappen’s robust style crosses the boundaries of acceptable sporting behaviour. Whatever your view, Verstappen, at just 19 years of age, has quickly and indisputably become F1’s future. How soon can he become its present? Perhaps as soon as 2017.
To understand where Verstappen might be going, it’s important to hit the rewind button and assess where he’s been. Back in the ‘olden days’ – as in 2014 – the 16-year-old son of moderately-successful former F1 racer Jos Verstappen was a karting prodigy, but had zero experience in single-seater cars. The hyper-competitive European F3 series is a tough introduction for drivers getting their car-racing feet wet, but Verstappen shone to such an extent that he won 10 of the 33 races and finished third in the championship.
F1 teams jostled for positon for his signature, with Mercedes especially keen. And then Red Bull made an audacious play, inking Verstappen to a contract in August that year and – stunningly – promoting him to its second-tier team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, for 2015. Red Bull motorsport consultant Dr Helmut Marko’s assertion that a kid who hadn’t even done 12 months of car racing reminded him of Ayrton Senna needed, for most, to be accompanied by a laugh track.
“Too young,” came the howls of protest from some, and the sport’s governing body, the FIA, concurred. In January 2015, the FIA amended its superlicence regulations for F1 drivers to put in a minimum age limit of 18 from the following season onwards, ensuring that Verstappen will remain the youngest driver in F1 history.
Verstappen didn’t waste any time adding to his ‘youngest-ever’ list; by finishing seventh in Malaysia in just his second F1 race in 2015, he became the youngest point-scorer in history at 17 years, 180 days, two-and-half years younger than the man he replaced at Toro Rosso, Daniil Kvyat. By the next race in China, where Verstappen had stormed through the field by overtaking one rival after another into the tricky hairpin at the Shanghai International Circuit, respected pundit Martin Brundle was convinced. “He is showing all the hallmarks of a Senna, of a (Michael) Schumacher, in my view,” Brundle gushed.
Fast-forward 12 months, and with Kvyat struggling to keep up with Daniel Ricciardo at the senior Red Bull team, Red Bull decided – again – to roll the dice. Four races into the 2016 campaign, Verstappen was in at Red Bull Racing, Kvyat jettisoned back to Toro Rosso. It seemed like a harsh call, but one that was immediately justified when Verstappen stepped out for the senior Bull team for the first time in Barcelona – and promptly won the Spanish Grand Prix. In the closing stages and with the Ferrari of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen breathing down his neck, the Dutch teenager didn’t flinch. From there, he was off, taking six further podiums for the year and finishing fifth in the championship.
Verstappen’s best podium was his last one, a stunning drive in Brazil. In horrendous weather better suited to boats than F1 machinery, Verstappen was called in for a late pit stop, and was 14th with 17 laps remaining. No matter; in a display of improvisational genius, Verstappen made passes on sections of the waterlogged Interlagos circuit his rivals wouldn’t have contemplated, finishing third after the most electrifying 25 minutes of driving the sport has seen for years. “Physics are being redefined,” marvelled Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, shaking his head.
What makes Verstappen’s car control so special? Peter Windsor, the former Williams and Ferrari team manager who has become one of the sport’s foremost media voices, says Verstappen’s precision is comparable only to three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton of today’s drivers.
“Max perfectly manipulates the car in the braking and corner-entry stage, creating a platform that makes the corner exit almost an after-thought,” Windsor explains.
“Imagine trying to keep a set of billiard balls in the centre of a ‘floating’, constantly-moving table by very delicately changing the weight on each corner. That’s what Max and Lewis do better than any drivers on the F1 grid.”
That’s the good, and it’s undeniably good. But you don’t make as much of an impact on a cut-throat global sport as quickly as Verstappen has without ruffling more than a few feathers along the way. And the Dutch teenager has certainly done that.
A common complaint among Verstappen’s rivals is his behaviour in the braking zones at the end of straights. Defending against a rival in their slipstream, the unofficial F1 drivers’ etiquette is to make one move, left or right, to defend, and if the trailing car is good enough to switch to the other side of the road to make the pass stick, then hats off to them. Verstappen’s modus operandi has been to cover off one side of the road, wait until the opponent tries for the opposite side, and then make a second blocking move to retain track position, running the risk of being harpooned by a startled rival.
In Belgium last season, when Verstappen moved over on Raikkonen along the 300km/h-plus Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps, the normally taciturn Finn spoke for many of his colleagues. “There could have been a big accident,” he fumed. “I had to brake from full speed, and I haven’t had that from any other driver.”
By October’s US Grand Prix in Austin, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had seen enough, issuing an amendment to the sport’s rulebook – unofficially termed ‘the Verstappen rule’ – to outlaw moving under braking, adding that penalties would result for those who breached it.
Whiting didn’t have to wait long. At the next race in Mexico, with Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo squabbling over the final podium place behind the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Verstappen brazenly cut the first corner when under pressure from Vettel to retain third position with three laps left. An apoplectic Vettel – repeatedly swearing at Whiting to take action over the radio – then came under attack from Ricciardo, and shoved the Australian off the road on the penultimate lap. Verstappen finished third, Vettel right in his wheeltracks as the pair crossed the line, the furious Ferrari driver giving his Dutch rival a one-fingered salute. Whiting later penalised both for their misdemeanours and Ricciardo inherited third place, a result that ensured he’d finish the season in the same position.
Ricciardo was the beneficiary of Verstappen’s actions that day, but what of the future? After all, Australian F1 fans would be wary of the last time the sport’s latest young gun was paired with the only Aussie on the grid at Red Bull. But the Verstappen/Ricciardo relationship hasn’t plumbed the depths of the Vettel/Mark Webber ‘partnership’ when Red Bull emerged as a world championship contender from 2009, and seems destined not to.
If anything, Verstappen’s arrival at Red Bull caused Ricciardo to raise his already-high level to new stratospheres. In their 17 races as teammates, Ricciardo out-qualified (11-6), out-raced (10-7) and out-scored (220 points to 191) the driver who is being earmarked for future championships, plural, before he reaches Ricciardo’s age of 27. It says much for Ricciardo’s 2016 season that he was, for most astute observers, the best driver in F1 last year, a season where Verstappen wowed fans from Austria to Australia and everywhere in between.
Where does that leave the relationship between the two? For now, it’s jokey, amicable and respectful. When Ricciardo and Verstappen locked horns in Malaysia last year – the same circuit where Vettel passed Webber late in the 2013 race against team instruction in the infamous ‘Multi-21’ controversy – the Red Bull pit wall held its breath, but the pair played hard and fair.
“At no point did I think ‘oh no, we’re going to crash here’,” Ricciardo said after taking his fourth Grand Prix victory. “Max gave me room, and was sensible and didn’t run it deep into me. When we came into Turn 5 … I’m sure the team was half-expecting us to spear off. It was nice to be given the chance to race like that and show that we can be sensible in the heat of the moment.”
Can that same common sense prevail if Red Bull is fighting for a bigger prize in 2017? It’s question that’s in play this year after three seasons of Mercedes running roughshod over the rest of the field. A raft of rule changes will mean that outright engine performance isn’t as dominant a factor this season as it has been since the V6 turbo hybrid powerplants first debuted in 2014, and for the first time since 2013, there’s more emphasis on aerodynamic performance than what’s underneath a drivers’ right foot – a regulation tweak that should be right up Red Bull’s alley.
If there was ever a chance for Red Bull stop the Silver Arrows stampede of the past few years, this is it. Which begs several key questions. Could Verstappen really become a world champion mere months after his 20th birthday? Sure. He has the talent. Can he beat his Australian teammate in the sister car? That isn’t so certain. Which is why Max Verstappen in 2017 will be compelling viewing.