Why F1 Needs To Be Scared Of Max Verstappen

The 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix showcased the best and worst of Max Verstappen; enough proof of why the sport needs to fear his talent…and anger!

“I hope I can’t find Ocon,” radio-ed Max Verstappen moments after he crossed the finish line of the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix in 2nd place. There is little doubt that Verstappen should have won the race — his first back-to-back wins in Formula 1. But an unwanted tangle with Force India’s Esteban Ocon saw him spin out while in the lead of the race; a moment that allowed pole sitter and reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton to reclaim the lead. Hamilton did well to maintain position hereon and race away to victory, his 10th of the season. This was also the first time Hamilton won a race after winning the World Championship in the same season.

Mercedes’ Dominance In Numbers

On Saturday, Hamilton clinched his 10th pole position of the season, also sealing Mercedes’ 100th pole in the sport. Mercedes’ 1st and 5th (for Valtteri Bottas) place finishes saw the team clinch their 5th Constructors’ Championship on the trot. The German team maintained its 100 percent win record in the hybrid-turbo (2014 onwards) era.
In fact, their dominance is best explained statistically, some of which are scary. The Hamilton-Mercedes partnership has won more than 50 percent of the races contested in this era. Additionally, Mercedes have 73 percent race wins and an 84 percent pole position record. In contrast, Ferrari had a 67 percent and 60 percent record during their era of dominance (2000-2004), while Red Bull Racing’s score (between 2010-13) was 53 percent and 68 percent respectively.

But it was the Verstappen-Ocon show that made headlines in Brazil. First, the two racers came together on track, eerily enough on lap 44 (Hamilton’s car number), followed by their coming together while undergoing mandatory post-race weight checks by the FIA. Ocon was given a 10-second stop-go penalty for his transgressions on track — the highest penalty before being actually disqualified. There is no doubt that Ocon erred — possibly his first mistake in an otherwise clean Formula 1 career; one that rightfully attracted heavy criticism from all quarters. He was a lap down and had no business in meddling with the race leader’s race, despite being quicker at that moment. The FIA were correct in their swift decision to penalise Ocon. However, it was Verstappen’s behaviour with Ocon that was shameful.

The Verstappen-Ocon Story

While not played on the world feed, one of the camera crews ended up catching a heated and visibly upset Verstappen gesticulating towards Ocon before physically pushing him several times over. Ocon, who was seen to be engaging in a dialogue with Verstappen, had to eventually call the FIA Stewards to control an angry Verstappen and his actions. The two drivers, who have had previous history of rivalry while racing in Formula 3, were eventually summoned by the FIA Stewards. The Stewards found Verstappen guilty of a breach of the regulations and awarded two days of social service as a result. Apart from the obvious drama, Verstappen would be wondering what if he actually gave Ocon a bit more room or patiently waited a few corners for the blue flags to be shown since he was comfortably in the lead of the race? Interestingly, Lewis Hamilton was found schooling Verstappen in the cooling down room.

There have been several instances in Formula 1 where rivals have used physical force to settle scores, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard in Spa or Ayrton Senna and Eddie Irvine in Suzuka in the late 90s, for example. However, we have also seen greater rivalries between legends that were restricted to the race tracks — Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel being the most recent. Verstappen could definitely take a leaf out of their book as he progresses towards becoming one of the sport’s greats.

Towards this episode, Christian Horner’s (Verstappen’s boss) reaction was shocking when he expressed that Ocon was lucky to get away with only a push! Red Bull Racing will be the long-term beneficiary if they are able to tame Verstappen’s anger fuelled tantrums. Ironically, it was at the 2001 Brazilian Grand Prix where Jos Verstappen (Max’s father) had taken out the race leader Juan Pablo Montoya while being lapped!

Aside from Verstappen’s anger, his racecraft deserves a worthy mention. After starting 5th, Verstappen drove a clinical race using his Red Bull Racing car’s kindness over the Pirelli tyres to good advantage. His overtaking moves on the supposedly faster Mercedes and Ferrari cars were typically Verstappen-like and that allowed him to make the most of the different tyre strategy that his team had opted for. Surprisingly, both the Red Bull Racing cars could make their super-soft tyres last longer in the race than the softs that were used by Ferrari and Mercedes. Daniel Ricciardo started 11th and used a similar strategy to Verstappen’s to get within fighting distance of the final podium spot which was eventually claimed by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

After claiming a double podium at the last race in Mexico, Vettel announced that Ferrari were back to being comfortable with their car — a statement that raised hopes of their fans. However, in Brazil, Vettel could only manage 6th — four positions lower than when he started the race. Maurizio Arrivabene explained post-race that Vettel’s race was compromised due to a faulty sensor that the team diagnosed on the formation lap itself. In fact, Vettel’s lacklustre race pace saw the team order a swap between their two drivers allowing Raikkonen to chase Valtteri Bottas for 3rd place. In all, Raikkonen has scored more podiums this season than Sebastian Vettel. 

‘Best of the Rest’ – Who Will It Be?

Charles Leclerc, Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen and Sergio Perez claimed the remaining points scoring positions. Leclerc’s 7th place finish now sees Sauber only six points away from Force India in 7th place. While only one race remains, Sauber’s resurgence could mean good news for the sport — the mid-field battles will only get tighter next season and then of course, Kimi Raikkonen could have a competitive car too. Haas’ double points finish and Renault’s no score means that the American-owned team are now 14 points away from 4th place – a position that will need a miracle from them in Abu Dhabi to claim. In Force India’s case, Ocon’s three consecutive non-points scoring finishes have cost them dear in their chase of McLaren.
Finally, while McLaren look to rebuild their Formula 1 operations, the team also announced a one-off entry for next year’s Indy 500 race with Fernando Alonso. This is with the clear intention to help Alonso win the Triple Crown of Motorsport. But for now, all eyes are on Abu Dhabi where the thrilling and 21-race long 2018 Formula 1 Season will come to an end.

This post was first published on Firstpost

Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited Formula 1 journalist who has been reporting on Formula 1 for nearly two decades. He worked with the Force India Formula 1 Team for 6 seasons in Marketing, Sponsorship and Commercial roles. As a former single-seater racer, he was responsible for Force India's grassroots talent program, One from a Billion Hunt. Presently, he co-writes a regular Formula 1 column for Firstpost, speaks on Inside Line F1 Podcast & Pits to Podium and produces broadcast/OTT content for NENT Group (Viasport & Viaplay).

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