By Michael Cords
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
This weekend thousands of Dutch fans descended upon the Spa circuit and qualifying gave them what they came to see. Their hero, Max Verstappen, had put his Red Bull on the front row with a blistering Q3 lap that lived up to the hype surrounding the teenager. Now the next step was to convert this qualifying performance into race form. Verstappen had just the tools to do so in the opening laps. He had set his Q2 time on the super-soft tyres and would start the race on the fast, yet fragile, rubber. Leading the opening lap was not only a possibility, but a necessity to make his race strategy work.
Prior to the start journalist Will Buxton reported that he spoke to Max regarding his lap 1 strategy. Max said he preferred to not lead at La Source, but wanted to follow Rosberg through Eau Rough and draft by on the Kemmel Straight. Smart, as history has shown a bit of bravery and speed through Eau Rough on cold tyres can give a huge advantage on the climb to Les Comb. Once in front, Max could put his super-softs to good use and exploit his gamble to start on the faster tyre. He’d need every bit of advantage over his rivals starting on the softs to compensate for a planned short first stint. But the best laid plans often go awry and it did so for the Dutchman once the red lights went out.
Too much wheel spin saw Rosberg move out of reach, and more worryingly, the two Ferraris in front. As the cars funneled into La Source Verstappen aggressively put his car up on the curb inside Kimi Raikkonen just as the Finn’s Ferrari teammate aggressively dove toward the apex from the outside. In a scene reminiscent of China earlier this year, Raikkonen found himself forced to leave room for a Red Bull on the inside while being given no room from Vettel on the outside. Red Bull’s Christian Horner summed it up thus, “He [Verstappen] got inside of Kimi into that turn but unfortunately he was squeezed from the outside by Sebastian and three into one quite simply doesn’t go.”
No, three into one won’t go. Had either Verstappen or Vettel backed out or conceded some ground, they would have avoided the inevitable contact. And it was inevitable. Each driver put too much reliance on another to make their move work. Verstappen no doubt saw his opening lap strategy slip away and tried to get it all back at once rather than realizing it was already gone.
If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver!
Many drivers live by this mantra, but it was spoken by Ayrton Senna to defend multiple instances of contact. Verstappen later said “I got up the inside for the first corner then got squeezed by the two Ferraris.” Factually correct, though the squeezing was always going to occur at this corner. Max may have had the right to go for the gap inside Kimi, but he had no guarantee it would succeed. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor.
Ultimately, Max Verstappen’s race did not fulfill the early promise of qualifying. He has many more front row starts in his future and if he can learn when to temper aggression with caution, he will give his legions of fans what they come to see.