Verstappen – Saint or Sinner?

By Michael Cords

When the red lights extinguished for the 2016 Japanese Grand Prix, the fortunes of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton could not have been more different. While Lewis bogged down off the line and was swamped by the cars behind, Max surged forward and followed leader Nico Rosberg into the sweeping turn 1. From there, Lewis had to play catch up as Max lead the vanguard to the Mercedes attack. In the first stint, Nico maintained his lead but could not pull away at the rate expected. Verstappen stayed within reach and kept the German honest.

By all measure it was a valiant charge from the Red Bull driver as he made good on his promise from weekend practice. Since cars took to the track on Friday, Verstappen was on it and gave warning to his potential. After a strong drive in Malaysia in which he could not quite dispatch teammate Daniel Ricciardo, this weekend he flexed his muscles to lay claim as the fastest Red Bull driver. Lining up third on the grid, he converted this to 2nd place in the opening laps. After various issues in the recent races, now all was going well and he could deliver once again on the immense hype surrounding his arrival in to Formula One.

And the hype has been immense. Sure, his age – just 17 when he made his F1 debut in 2015 – is a large part. But his pedigree from karting is as good as it gets. I first became aware of the young phenom in 2013 as rumors began to circulate of his impending debut in a proper racing car. I had heard of him years before being former F1 driver Jos Verstappen’s son, but not following the karting world I didn't know much more than that. His debut in the Florida Winter Series proved the transition to cars would be no issue. And 10 victories in F3 paved the path to the Red Bull F1 team.

Such rapid success comes with both unabashed praise and vitriolic criticism. It’s not a bad thing in and of itself. All successful drivers eventually find themselves at the sharp end of public criticism. By virtue of success one becomes the object of controversy. And Max definitely is surrounded by controversy. This year he has come under sharp critique for his defensive moves in both Hungary and Belgium. His successes are praised as otherworldly, and his failures are condemned as unacceptable. Is this fair? The hype machine surrounding the young Dutchman is partly to blame. A driver’s reputation, or perceived status, has a large influence on how they are judged. The same moves by a journeyman driver would hardly gather the same comments.

Star drivers are treated different. At the end of 1983 one could sympathize with John Watson as he was dismissed from the McLaren team. He had finished ahead of teammate Nikki Lauda in the championship, yet that winter saw the Austrian retained while the likable Ulsterman was dropped. A member of the team summed it up best by stating that, while fast and competitive, Watson wasn’t a “star” in the way Lauda was. That is, some drivers are surrounded by an aura of being in a tier above other drivers. Harsh, but probably true. When the MP4/2 proved to be a championship contender, Lauda stepped up his game and defeated Alain Prost.

Max Verstappen is also pegged with this star status. Looking objectively, he is very good indeed but his skills are not unprecedented. In 2015 he was paired with Carlos Sainz, another F1 rookie. There was not a whole lot to choose between them considering that Sainz had previously been dropped from the Red Bull stable. Other rookie drivers have made stronger impressions. Hamilton is a good example with his competitiveness against the reigning World Champion, Fernando Alonso, in 2007. In 2016 thus far, Verstappen has been out-scored and out-raced by Daniel Ricciardo. “But he is only 19 years old,” cry Verstappen’s supporters. Yes, Verstappen has achieved more at a younger age than any other F1 driver. But other F1 drivers have achieved more with less experience. I can think of world champions who didn’t even start karting until their late teens. Every child phenom eventually ages and becomes just another competitor. We must judge Verstappen on his actual ability without the qualifier of his age.

But we can’t ignore his age completely. Perhaps we can attribute to immaturity Max’s remarks about Jacques Villeneuve following the Canadian’s criticisms of his aggressive driving. Max’s remarks were ill-advised at best and cast a pall over his reputation. To be fair, it cannot be easy to face the world press and represent a multi-million pound team every fortnight. Though when he gets it right, it is hard not to like the young man. His drive in Spain was superb and his jovial interactions with teammate Ricciardo following a tough loss at Malaysia were the signs of maturity and confidence.

This brings us back to this weekend’s Japanese GP. After falling as low as 8th, Lewis Hamilton surged forward toward the podium. He rejoined just ahead of fourth placed Vettel after his last pit stop. Over the next several laps he cut the gap to Verstappen until, on the penultimate lap, their races converged. Coming out of 130R the Mercedes driver was as close as he had ever been and pulled out to pass on the inside under braking for the Casio chicane. After Lewis made his move to the inside, Max jinked right to block. Lewis had to jerk to the left to avoid the back of the Red Bull and take the escape road before rejoining. The fight was over, the time lost meant Hamilton had to settle for third at the checkered flag. Max described it as normal saying, “Lewis was obviously a bit quicker in the final stages and I knew he was going to catch me. Into the last chicane I saw him coming in my mirrors so I defended my position.”

To Max’s critics, it was more proof that he drives dirty when defending. To his supporters, it was an opportunistic defense within the letter of the law. In the heat of the moment, Lewis complained over the radio but had calmed after the race. In the World Champion’s Twitter feed he said, “Max drove well. End of. We move on.” Mercedes filed an official protest but withdrew after Lewis declined to support the action.

How serious was Verstappen’s move? Not the devilish driving his critics claim and not the “nothing to see here” move his supporters assert. But if Lewis can live with it, so can I. That said, Max is starting to show a worrying propensity for not choosing a line to defend, but waiting until the car behind commits before moving to block. His previously mentioned defenses in Hungary and Belgium are not as easily defended as the recent move at Suzuka. Verstappen is too good to race this way. Last week in Malaysia he proved that he can race tough but fair.

Max Verstappen is still at the beginning of his career with time to forge his legacy. He has the talent to place himself among the greats. But there is a difference in being compared with Fangio or Clark and being compared with Senna or Schumacher. Max must decide what kind of driver he wants to be.