Feature: Max Verstappen - why the kid is alright
“We need to reset after this weekend. To get a different result you’ve got to have a different input. We’ve got to take a breath and change something going into future races.”
You may recognise these as the words of Red Bull boss Christian Horner, said as he stood on the starting grid before the latest Monaco Grand Prix. And you’ll have guessed who they were said of. His young charge – and increasing F1 pariah – Max Verstappen
Having been apparently at rock bottom already in 2018, in Monaco Max found a trap door underneath the carpet and jumped through it. A potential race-winning weekend – particularly given how things transpired – was dashed by wiping his Red Bull out against a swimming pool section barrier in Saturday morning practice, meaning he missed qualifying and had to start at the back. At the last track you’d choose to. Causing his boss to go further than ever before in imploring Max to mend his ways.
Verstappen disputed the specific ‘six crashes in six rounds’ figure floating about, but he was splitting hairs. Reactions aren’t helped either by that we have cause to doubt the extent that he’s learning. Which in turn is not helped by Max’s unflinching ‘who me?’ exterior after many of the incidents in question. It didn’t help either that after his Monaco mishap someone on Twitter posted side by side footage with a virtually indistinguishable qualifying prang by Max on the same Monaco barrier two years previously.
It’s not all that outlandish either to say that without the errors Max could be leading the championship. Without a mistake in Australia’s qualifying he’d have started second. Red Bull was convinced it had a car to win in Bahrain and Max erred in both quali and the race. In China before his adventures started he was ahead of eventual winner Daniel Ricciardo. Monaco we’ve mentioned.
He just needs a little bit of conversation to put him in the right direction - Felipe Massa
But even so perhaps we need to cool our jets a little. As possibly, on a few levels, we are overreacting.
The first point to make is that Max is not alone. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton both had phases where they could barely stop making contact with others and with the scenery – and sure enough it didn’t take long for witch hunts to form. In Lewis’s case a rumour even swirled that some drivers wanted to convene a special meeting to discuss the matter of his driving…
In other words, it can happen. Driving an F1 car is like anything else – mastering it is not so much the extent you can maximise things rather whether you can best construct a delicate balance of compromises. And the delicate balance can sometimes slip a little out of balance – and has to be corrected. Lewis and Seb have shown it’s entirely possible to come out of the other side.
Reflecting this the advice of those watching on is of tweaks rather than Max making wholesale changes. “He just needs a little bit of conversation to put him in the right direction,” said Felipe Massa on the subject over the Monaco weekend.
Unfortunately for Verstappen though F1 is good at overreacting, and has a long previous of overreacting in rounding on young and raw – and aggressive and quick – driving talent. It was a factor in Hamilton’s and Vettel’s cases, and countless others before in addition (Montoya, Patrese…). And there is a common theme, that the target is a threat to many of those doing the complaining.
“I always look at each incident individually,” said Anthony Davidson, who partially defended Max after the incident on the grounds he was slightly put off by Carlos Sainz’s Renault, “and I think people get emotionally attached to it and [say] ‘yeah he’s a bit of a bad boy at the moment’.
“The drivers tend not to like him as he’s good, he’s fast, he’s ruthless out on the track, he takes big risks, he’s aggressive, so naturally they don’t like him. So they like to point at him when he makes mistakes.”
Sometimes I wish it were the dull as ditchwater cruise and collect pilots who had the opprobrium reserved for them, but there you go.
The drivers tend not to like him as he’s good, he’s fast, he’s ruthless out on the track, he takes big risks, he’s aggressive, so naturally they don’t like him. So they like to point at him when he makes mistakes - Anthony Davidson
Jolyon Palmer also defended Verstappen somewhat. “Practice is not there for poodling round,” he said, “you can’t have an inch of margin, two inches of margin. This is Formula One – you’re pushing flat out from the word go, by the time you’re in FP3 you can’t afford to be not putting it all on the line – because you can’t be finding more and more in qualifying, it’s too late by then.”
We also need to filter out the nonsensical noise. Parallels with Daniil Kvyat – the man shuffled back to Toro Rosso mid-season to make way for Verstappen at Red Bull – have been drawn, but they’re erroneous. For one thing it’s a myth that Kvyat was dropped for crashing – that was the point of departure but he was dropped because he was nowhere near Ricciardo on pace, a charge that hardly can be levelled at Max.
And in F1 lap times don’t half make other problems disappear. Max’s extraordinary raw speed ensures he’ll be persevered with far longer.
Reflecting this Massa said a Max demotion “will never happen” because “he has the talent” and “everybody would love to have a driver like him.
“It’s not easy to find another driver with the talent that he has,” he added. Indeed the first folk who’d thank Red Bull for such a move would be Mercedes and Ferrari, who within a blink would be knocking on Max’s door waving a chequebook.
“Verstappen is such a huge talent – Red Bull will be delighted he’s on a long term deal,” added Palmer.
“On pure pace he’s phenomenally quick – it’ll take a brave man in the paddock to say he’s not a future champion. This will be a little blip in his career but he’s got time to learn; time to develop.”
Even so none of this takes away from that Verstappen undoubtedly needs to learn from his errors, and in short order. It’s not exaggeration to say that what happens next is vital for his reputation that will stretch through his F1 career. Are these creases to be ironed out in his development or fundamental flaws? And F1 likes to make its collective mind up quickly.
On pure pace he’s phenomenally quick, it’ll take a brave man in the paddock to say he’s not a future champion. This will be a little blip in his career but he’s got time to learn - Jolyon Palmer
“He needs to change his approach, it’s too much and it’s costing him so much,” said Nico Rosberg in the Principality, reflecting the consensus view. “I hope that he’ll learn. He has to.”
Verstappen’s post Monaco comments suggest though that he is minded of making the required recalibrations.
“I didn’t want to go too risky and have a crash,” he said after the race. “I did everything with a certain margin.
“I know very well what went wrong and what needs to go better. In this instance [in Monaco] it’s ‘don’t touch the wall’.
“Of course, these are not nice moments to learn from. But sometimes you do need to have these.”
And rather than the example of the former occupant of his seat Max would perhaps be best served to look at the example of its former former occupant, the afore-mentioned Sebastian Vettel.
I take you back to the Belgian Grand Prix of 2010. It may seem random, but it is where the roots of the Seb we are familiar with sprouted. His race and that of McLaren’s Jenson Button were ruined by a collision which was entirely the young Seb’s fault. And it was the latest in a succession of incidents, some of which were Vettel’s errors, that squandered much of the technical advantage conferred by his Red Bull.
And after the race it was open season on Seb, with many – especially those from the McLaren camp – lining up to trash him. A number of McLaren mechanics went out into the pitlane to perform a ‘passive aggressive’ stance as Vettel completed his resultant drive through. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh afterwards twisted the knife, describing Vettel’s move as “more reminiscent of junior formulae” and his punishment as “pretty light”. Referring to the notorious incident with stable mate Mark Webber earlier that year in Turkey, Whitmarsh added “I would rather he did it [collided] with his team-mates rather than do it with us”.
Even the mild-mannered Jenson joined in, calling Vettel’s move “weird” and alleging that Vettel was “rattled” and “confused”. McLaren acolytes and others derided Vettel routinely as the ‘crash kid’.
But if this was all intended to destroy Vettel then it can be said to have backfired spectacularly, as Seb went through his long dark night of the soul and came out far stronger. In that year’s remaining races he went on a stellar run to win the title. Then he won the three titles after that too. As for McLaren? Well we know what’s happened to it.
You know what they say about crises and opportunities. Max amid his crisis has an opportunity to make the early weeks of 2018 his very own Spa 2010. And perhaps his rivals should be careful what they wish for – as a Max that cuts out the errors will be a driving phenomenon.
He is far from done yet.