By Stephen Williams
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article and please don't forget to comment.
The rise of young Max
Max Verstappen is without doubt one of the best young drivers on the grid. There is such expectancy on the young Dutchman, that when the opportunity arose earlier in the season, Red Bull decided to promote him to the top seat. Dropping Daniil Kvyat back to the sister team at Toro Rosso may have been extremely harsh on the Russian, but it allowed Red Bull to sign their latest protege on a long term contract, thus fending off interest from Ferrari and Mercedes, in their bid to steal F1's new star.
Even though Verstappen had only been racing cars for a year before his debut in 2015, it did not prevent him from making a positive impact in the sport. Despite being just seventeen years old, he certainly showed that he had an old head on young shoulders. In China, we saw the first glimpses of his superb race craft. Overtaking the Saubers almost at ease, Max showed how strong he was on the brakes when in combat. He revealed after the race that his strength when braking, was actually to apply the brakes earlier than usual, but to do this with less pressure, in order to glide past an opponent without the risk of locking up. He has shown this skill on a number of occasions so that he can overtake when on the inside of a corner, like his move on Pastor Maldonado at Monaco. His move on the other Lotus of Romain Grosjean was far less successful, leaving his braking too late, and colliding into the back of the Frenchman before hitting the wall hard.
Being on the outside of a corner does not seem to affect him either though. In Spa last year, he overtook Felipe Nasr around the outside of Blanchimont, one of the quickest and most dangerous corners on the track. It shows how brave, and perhaps, Mad, Max is. The slightest contact through that corner when speeds exceed 170mph could have resorted in an enormous accident, but he held his line so well, that he managed to complete the move at the final chicane.
Brazil was another example of his offensive race craft, with overtakes on the inside and the outside throughout the race. Max was quickly becoming one of the best overtakers in the history of the sport. Moves like this drew comparisons with the likes of Hamilton, Senna and Schumacher. With those comparisons though, becomes expectation. Incredibly, in Spain, his debut for the Red Bull team, he won his first race, at just eighteen years old. He once again showed great maturity by fending of the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen. He was able to hold off Raikkonen because he had a good understanding of the Ferrari power unit, due to his experiences with it in the back of the Toro Rosso. He realised when the Ferrari would charge its batteries, and when it would deploy its energy, so knew when he had to push to stay ahead, and when he could conserve his tyres.
Two races later in Canada, we got to see Max under pressure, and it was pressure from the quickest car on the grid. When Rosberg was pushed wide at the start, he was forced to fight his way through the field. In the closing stages, he was on the tail of Verstappen's Red Bull. It seemed a simple task for Rosberg to overtake the under-powered Red Bull, but it proved too difficult for the German, despite drs and the long straight. Max positioned his car well to keep the inside line into the final chicane. Relentless pressure for a number of laps may have seen the young man crack, but it was in fact Rosberg who made the error.
As strong as his race craft was in those races, the last two races have raised some question marks, especially from other drivers. During the British Grand Prix, Max fought once again with Rosberg. In the early stages of the race, Max hunted down Rosberg in the damp conditions. He caught up through the Maggots and Becketts section, and audaciously overtook Rosberg around the outside. The move has without doubt gone down as the overtake of the season so far. Later in the race he was chased by Rosberg, and appeared to change direction on the Hangar straight a number of times in an attempt to break the tow. There is a rule in Formula One that a driver is allowed to move once in a straight line to defend his position, so why was Max allowed to weave down the straight? Rosberg complained on the radio but there was no action from the race stewards.
The furious Iceman
At the next race in Hungary, Verstappen found himself defending from Kimi Raikkonen. This time Raikkonen looked much quicker on fresher tyres, and was certainly a lot closer. The Hungaroring is notoriously difficult to overtake on, so positioning a car well can keep a leading car ahead. Into turn two looked to be Kimi's best chance at overtaking. He looked to the inside, Max covered the move, then he darted to the outside and Max appeared once again to move. Kimi then ran into the back and damaged his front wing end plate. A few laps later, Kimi had another run at Max, this time into turn one. The outcome left Kimi behind, and furious. A late attempt at a move into the braking zone was blocked by Max again. Drivers are warned heavily about moving line in the braking zones, as it is incredibly dangerous to block a move as late as he did. Luckily, there was no contact but Kimi lost more time and was unable to find a way through.
Verstappen's driving is certainly aggressive, but being aggressive is what makes the Dutchman exciting to watch, and the talent that he is. There's no doubt that had Max not defended so aggressively, Kimi would have had a better chance at overtaking. The questions have to be, is Max's driving dangerous? Is it putting others at risk? Or is it pure genius? And the answer is yes to all of those. Motorsport is dangerous, and overtaking is supposed to be challenging. Since drs was introduced, we have become too accustomed to just seeing cars blast past each other on the straights. There has been little overtaking actually into the corners, where there is a higher level of skill involved in the overtake. The fact that the stewards did not even investigate Max's driving at the Hungarian Grand Prix suggests that they thought Max had done little wrong. In both the scenarios, Max was ahead and moved his car so that he could make the corner and fend off the Iceman, and it worked both times, what is so wrong about that?
What Max has done this year is send out a statement to the other drivers. Pass me at your peril.