By Stephen Williams
Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article.
The 2017 season is fast approaching and with new regulations on the horizon, it could bring an end to the Mercedes domination of the past three seasons. These changes could suit Red Bull with cars travelling approximately five seconds a lap quicker, due to wider tyres and more aggressive aerodynamics. This could give Max Verstappen a chance to win his first Driver's Championship, but how can he do it?
1. A competitive car
No matter how good a driver may be, he can not win the title unless he is in a car that is close to the most competitive one on the grid. Car performance in both qualifying and race trim is important, and so too is reliability. Potentially, Mercedes and Red Bull will be the team's to beat so Verstappen cannot afford to drop 25 points to his championship rivals through poor reliability, as it may prove difficult to make up. The impact of having good reliability in a title fight was shown last season.
We are building our 2017 writing team. Interested in writing for a fun low pressure site with ambition? contact me firstname.lastname@example.org— Spanners Ready (@SpannersReady) December 23, 2016
Mercedes are still tipped to have the better car next season, but the gap to the pack may well decrease, especially given Adrian Newey's influence on the Red Bull's aerodynamics. Also, if Renault continue to develop their engine at the same rate, they could well be on equal terms with Mercedes at some, if not most races in 2017, which will give Max Verstappen opportunity to score maximum points in the races.
2. Knowing when to fight
There was a number of times when Max was involved in fights that could be seen as reckless in 2016. Most notably when battling Kimi Raikkonen in Hungary and Belgium. If Verstappen is fighting for the championship, then he needs to be looking at the bigger picture, not necessarily keeping one driver behind, but scoring the most points available to him in the safest way, something Lewis Hamilton has developed and understood over the past few season. Title fights are often decided by the smallest of margins, so it is better to score some points than risk scoring none.
Verstappen has shown that he has a mature head on young shoulders. In Spain, when he won his first race he used his knowledge of the Ferrari power unit to keep Raikkonen behind. At the penultimate round in Brazil, he fought his way back to third making great use of the "karting line" in the rain to overtake. Mature performance like this will help him to outscore his rivals next season, but, he needs to avoid unnecessary confrontation that will risk damage and dropped points.
3. Improved qualifying performances
Verstappen has usually had better race pace than qualifying pace. If cars are difficult to overtake under the new regulations then qualifying may become just as important as the races. Qualifying on the front row is important in order to have a chance of leading the first lap, having pit stop and strategy advantages over his teammate.
Last season Daniel Ricciardo outqualified Max Verstappen 11-6 in the qualifying head to head. This statistic may not be that accurate though, as Verstappen would have spent time adjusting to the performance of the car, following his mid season move from Toro Rosso. In fact, it took him six races until he finally outqualified Ricciardo, who has been renowned for his one lap pace. Onward from the British Grand Prix, the Red Bull's qualifying results were in fact even.
4. Number one status at Red Bull
This is unlikely to be given at the start of the season, but, Verstappen needs to find himself in a position where Red Bull are forced into favouring him over Ricciardo. Gaining an early points lead over Ricciardo is important as he could potentially just be racing one of the Mercedes drivers and Ricciardo for the championship. If Mercedes choose to favour Hamilton over Bottas as predicted, he would be likely to score more points than Verstappen if the Dutchman is not given a helping hand from Red Bull, because he would have the best strategy from his team.
Some strong performances early on may put Red Bull in a position where they need to focus on Verstappen, if they want to win the Driver's World Championship, as well as the Constructor's Championship.
At times in 2016 Max was slightly hot headed and made some clumsy mistakes. Mistakes that could cost a driver who is fighting for the world championship. In Melbourne, through frustration and aggressive driving, he ran into the back of teammate Carlos Sainz. After his win in Spain he crashed three times at next race in Monaco. He also needs to improve his starts. In Belgium, after a slow get away, he then made an ambition move on the Ferraris into turn 1, which caused damage to all three drivers. The ambitious move robbed him of a great result in front of the Dutch fans in attendance.
Max Verstappen is a very good Formula One driver, and Red Bull may have the strongest driver line up on the grid, but Max is still very young. If he is going to go on to become a multiple world champion as predicted, he will need to mature as a driver, and quickly. 2017 is likely to be his best chance of winning the title, and in only his third season. Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher won the title in their third full season's of Formula One. Can Max Verstappen go on to match that feat?