By Spanners Ready
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
By his recent standards Max Verstappen had a very quiet race. To the disappointment of those seeking ammo to attack F1’s current panto villain, Max kept it clean and quietly recovered from his nightmare start to finish a respectable 7th at a track that could have been designed to stop Red Bull performance. A Reflective Max said, “I went into anti-stall at the start. I don’t know what happened there so I have to analyse that. After that it was just very difficult, because you have to push harder on the tyres to get past people and that compromises your strategy, but in the end our last stint was very positive”.
The only time he really bothered the TV control room was his overtake on Sergio Perez. A standard overtake that should have been nothing to write home about, but in fact revealed a lot about the effect Master Verstappen has had on the field. The Red Bull driver took the inside line to claim the apex well ahead of the struggling Force India, yet after a token defensive move Sergio Perez leaped out of the way, throwing his car nearly 90 degrees into the run off area. Perhaps Perez was surprised with how far alongside Verstappen was able to get or perhaps he felt, going into Ascari, that there would be a chance he could still claim the Apex. Once it was clear that Max would claim the part of the corner Sergio was going for, The Mexican’s dramatic avoiding action betrayed an instinctive primordial emotion, fear. He wanted to keep all four wheels attached to his car and something in his instincts told him that to do this he needed to be as far away from Max Verstappen as possible.
Despite the cruel gods blessing me with a physique most hobbits would mock, I have always been a keen (and if I may be so bold, an able) sportsman. What I lack in natural talent I’ve always tried to make up for by playing my opponent as well as playing the rules of the game. In Cricket I would attempt to undo batsmen from the slips by offering them enthusiastic encouragement and advice, as if I was their team-mate, or I might casually inquire as to the well-being of their mother. In Football I would look to engage early 50/50 tackles as hard as possible so that my opponent would associate me with pain and give me half a yard next time we went for the ball. In Badminton I have often defeated a much fitter opponent by concentrating not on scoring points but on moving him around the court to equalize our energy levels allowing me to take later sets. All these aspects of sport are important. So important that I wonder if any truly successful sportsman has emerged without being a master of them.
But that’s enough about me, Podcast listeners will know that it pains me to talk about myself at length so let us focus back on Max. What Max is doing both on and off the track is utterly ruthless and frighteningly cold. On track he is testing the boundaries of what is acceptable. It’s really come to light this season but his habit of putting others in a position to yield or crash was already apparent in F1 as early as last year’s China GP where he turned a few wild lock ups into improvised overtakes. This season he has pulled off moves that I personally would have thought of as outside the rules, however he hasn’t been penalised so what is he to think? If he isn’t punished then it tells him that so far he’s done nothing wrong.
It feels like the current defence to his aggressive on track behaviour is for the drivers and media to try and shame him into following some moral code that is as yet undefined. If Max was here to make friends then this could well make him realise that to be part of the gang he needs to play nice with the other kids.
But the Verstappen family is not here to make friends. They are here to make history. It is well documented that Joss pushed Max extremely hard and well beyond how I feel I could treat my own son. Max it seems was forged rather than raised. This is not a team that will be guilt tripped into not pressing every advantage. While other drivers accept that you sometimes have to allow a car to pass easily to not harm your own race, Max fights for every single inch of the race track.
Off the track he is equally ruthless. Totally unimpressed by the reputation or experience of his detractors he is quick to put down other drivers who have crossed his (often zig zagging) path. He was quick to shoot down Kimi and Nico after on track contact and has been unapologetic for his racing tactics. Most recently and most controversially he used a historic death of a marshal to strike back at criticism from Jacque Villeneuve. Those comments seem unlikely to have been made off the top of his head as he was not born at the time it happened. Perhaps he is a keen study of F1 history but I find it more likely that this counter argument was given to him by an equally ruthless advisor in his camp and then repeated for the press.
The Verstappen Media machine and PR machine is every bit as cold and unyielding as the on track warfare. People react differently to Max then they would to any other driver. He’ll get given an extra yard now that other drivers don’t get and maybe people like Villeneuve will pause before taking criticism to the press knowing that there will almost certainly be a personal and savage response.
Whether he is right or wrong to behave in such a way we cannot deny that he is a growing and looming feature in Formula 1 with the potential to change the way the game is played. If he fails, he won’t fail meekly.