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F1 Racing (UK) - - INSIDER -

here’s a method­ol­ogy for eas­ing a rookie into F1. The trick is to lift the weight. Ex­pec­ta­tions must be low­ered, hope down­played. It’s a tough job and a tough en­vi­ron­ment. The em­pha­sis should be on the learn­ing curve, not the re­sults. Fail­ures are to be ex­pected. This is, af­ter all, a novice – not some­one who should be ex­pected to pull up trees from the get-go.

Or you could take the ap­proach cho­sen by Red Bull mo­tor­sports ad­vi­sor Dr Hel­mut Marko, in the case of Max Verstappen: an­nounce that your new charge should be com­pet­i­tive from his first­fifi lap and com­pare him to a young Ayr­ton Senna. Off you go Max, no pres­sure.

The be­lief that the usual rules do not ap­ply to Max Verstappen has spread through the F1 pad­dock. There are al­ways ru­mours of a ‘next Senna’ or a ‘next Schu­macher’ tear­ing up the ju­nior for­mu­lae, but they rarely gain trac­tion. Re­al­ity even­tu­ally catches up and the driver finds their level. That hasn’t yet hap­pened with Max.

“You’re look­ing at a fu­ture cham­pion,” is the view of grand-prix-win­ner-turned­com­men­ta­tor David Coulthard. “In his rookie sea­son what re­ally stood out was his rac­ing. There are lots of quick rac­ing driv­ers who can turn it on for one week­end, but his wheel-to-wheel com­bat rac­ing was ex­cep­tional. There’s no doubt he’ll win grands prix and cham­pi­onships in the fu­ture.”

Coulthard’s is not a lone voice. “To be hon­est, I’m flab­ber­gasted,” says Da­mon Hill. “If you had put me, aged 17, in F1, I would have looked a com­plete twit. I hadn’t got a clue what I was do­ing, or where I was go­ing. Max’s de­but has been stun­ning, it re­ally has.”

The show needs he­roes to sell, and were these com­ments com­ing from the usual pur­vey­ors of hype they could be ig­nored. But they’re not. They’re com­ing from se­ri­ous voices and se­ri­ous rac­ers; peo­ple who have made their judge­ments watch­ing Verstappen at­tack a cor­ner, not a pho­to­call.

“He has an abil­ity to brake and steer the car in a way that it’s al­most like Schu­macher in the Benet­ton days,” muses for­mer F1 driver Karun Chand­hok. “Michael used to be able to steer the car on the brakes and Max has that too – it’s al­most a kart­ing style.

“He loads up the car on cor­ner en­try and, be­cause of that, he can get a lot of the cor­ner done in terms of the car’s an­gle rel­a­tive to the apex. He then opens up the steer­ing wheel from mid-cor­ner on­wards. That means he won’t eat the tyres. This con­fi­dence to al­most brake-steer the car is one of his strengths, and the fact that he’s had a car that’s let him to do that has helped.

“He also has supreme con­fi­dence on the brakes. It’s rem­i­nis­cent of what we see with Lewis – a great abil­ity to feel the load through the left leg and feel the tyre and get the car stopped for the low-speed cor­ners. That’s a huge asset when it comes to over­tak­ing peo­ple. Max has supreme brak­ing feel, when he’s off-line, or on a dusty, un­even sur­face, so he can al­ways get the car stopped. This gives him the con­fi­dence to out­brake some­one, and be­cause of that he makes the big moves. This is what has caught peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion: he over­takes peo­ple and does a good job. He didn’t out­qual­ify Carlos Sainz in year one – but his con­fi­dence to race and pass peo­ple ap­peals to every­one watch­ing.”

Verstappen is fre­quently de­scribed as “ma­ture” – usu­ally with the at­tached caveat “for his age”. It’s a term that does him a dis­ser­vice. His ma­tu­rity is per­sonal, rather than pro­fes­sional, ex­hib­ited in the wry con­fi­dence with which he speaks when out of the cock­pit. In the seat, how­ever, the speed and abil­ity he demon­strated in 2015 wasn’t the man­i­fes­ta­tion of a ma­tu­rity be­yond his years. What gets the pad­dock sali­vat­ing is that the speed and car con­trol come from what is still a very raw pack­age. Al­ready good enough to com­pete at the sharp end of F1, imag­ine where he’ll be once he de­vel­ops his race craft, learns about cars and cir­cuits and be­comes a more cun­ning an­i­mal.

Those who know Max are cer­tain there’s more to come. Frits van Amers­foort, epony­mous boss of the Van Amers­foort Rac­ing team that ran Verstappen (and also Max’s fa­ther, Jos) in For­mula 3, phrased it thus: “He’s a long way from his peak. He can only get bet­ter. He’s like Roger Fed­erer. He was good enough when he ar­rived, but just got bet­ter and bet­ter and bet­ter. Max is that sort of sports­man. I reckon he’s one of those rare peo­ple who has just been put to­gether for what he’s do­ing. That’s what it seems like when you watch him in the car.”

Closer to home, James Key, Toro Rosso’s tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, rea­sons that Verstappen will get quicker as a nat­u­ral con­se­quence of ex­pe­ri­ence. “Last year there were bits and pieces, pro­cesses you’d ob­serve a rookie go­ing through that a guy wouldn’t if he’d been do­ing it for a few years. Qual­i­fy­ing is a good ex­am­ple: you need to get that ex­tra three or four-tenths with ev­ery new set of tyres you run. That’s a dif­fi­cult thing to do. That’s what ex­pe­ri­ence is. That’s what Max has got to add to all that re­ally good stuff he did in his first year, to be­come a more com­plete driver for the fu­ture.”

Where ma­tu­rity of per­son­al­ity does count for some­thing in the car is not in the speed but rather the abil­ity to shrug off the set­backs, of which there have been a few, and main­tain self-be­lief. Martin Brun­dle summed it up very well on stage at last year’s Au­tosport Awards: “What has im­pressed me about Max is his con­fi­dence,” Brun­dle opined. “He had a few crashes and some dif­fi­cult times and some­how just re­bounded from that. It has re­minded me of Michael Schu­macher crash­ing Nel­son Pi­quet’s spare Benet­ton at Suzuka in 1991. I thought: ‘Okay, now we’ll see how good Michael is’. Pi­quet was livid that he had crashed his car. And the next lap, through 130R, Schu­macher was flatout. He was even faster that lap in his own car. It is that con­fi­dence, self-be­lief and sheer speed that I see in this young man.”

In terms of strict re­sults, how­ever, the high­lights of Max Verstappen’s ca­reer so far are two fourth-place fin­ishes. Last year’s Toro Rosso STR10 was a de­cent enough car but per­haps not good enough to claim those fin­ishes on tech­ni­cal merit alone. So they’re a ma­jor plau­dit for the driver. More than that though, the real suc­cess of Verstappen in 2015 was that, one year into his F1 ca­reer and with 19 races un­der his belt, no one in the pad­dock was pre­pared to de­bunk Marko’s orig­i­nal as­sess­ment. In fact, there are more and more will­ing to buy into the idea that Max Verstappen re­ally is wor­thy of the com­par­isons with Senna, Schu­macher – and Roger Fed­erer.

Have fun storm­ing the cas­tle, Max.

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