VER­STAP­PEN WINS IT…

Red­bull’s new racer took a re­mark­able win as Mer­cedes self-de­struc­ted

Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY AN­THONY ROWLINSON

This was an un­for­get­table Span­ish Grand Prix, where an emer­gent su­per­star, Max Ver­stap­pen, claimed a land­mark vic­tory for youth. And there was so much more. Fra­t­ri­cide at Mer­cedes, an epic tus­sle be­tween Red Bull and Fer­rari, pad­dock theatre as the big bosses of all three ar­rived to add a twist of pres­sure to their al­ready highly strung teams… The 2016 Span­ish GP had it all.

Qual­i­fy­ing

It was ‘one of those days’. One of those days that will be noted and re­ferred back to as the F1 decades pass by – that May 14 when Max Ver­stap­pen con­firmed be­yond any doubt that he be­longs among the grand prix elite.

He qual­i­fied fourth for Red Bull Rac­ing on his team de­but, just 24 races into his ca­reer, still aged only 18. More than that bare stat, though, it was the man­ner of his qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion that marked him out as some­one we’ll be watch­ing – and writ­ing about – per­haps for the next 20 years. With six min­utes of the ses­sion re­main­ing he turned in a 1m23.087s lap that placed him P2, be­hind only Nico Ros­berg in the hith­erto dom­i­nant Mer­cedes W07 Hy­brid. That gave Max a pro­vi­sional front row start, in a car he hadn’t driven un­til the day be­fore and with which he ini­tially strug­gled to feel com­fort­able.

In the wake of the minutely dis­cussed seat swap be­tween Max and the de­moted (to Toro Rosso) Daniil Kvyat, Ver­stap­pen had only the Span­ish week­end’s free prac­tice ses­sions in which to ac­cli­ma­tise to the RB12 – a ma­chine with con­sid­er­ably more down­force than his for­mer steed, the STR11. His early prac­tice laps were no­tice­ably ‘darty’, as he ex­plored a chas­sis nailed to the Tar­mac and ca­pa­ble of re­act­ing with ex­treme alacrity to his com­mands.

Kvyat, by con­trast, found him­self seek­ing grip that sim­ply wasn’t there and missed mul­ti­ple brak­ing points on an un­wished-for jour­ney of dis­cov­ery into his new car’s lim­its.

As Max re­turned to his ‘looks fa­mil­iar’ garage af­ter his stel­lar tour, we were left to won­der if we might be about to wit­ness the first F1 front row for a teenager; only Lewis Hamil­ton – who had blown his first Q3 run with a lock-up at T10 – and Ver­stap­pen’s team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo seemed ca­pa­ble of de­mot­ing him.

Hamil­ton went first, aim­ing to re­deem his ear­lier er­ror, and he set about cre­at­ing a soft-com­pound stun­ner. His pole time of 1m22.000s was nearly three-tenths faster than Ros­berg’s pro­vi­sional pole time and showed the true mea­sure of what this man and ma­chine are ca­pa­ble of when prop­erly hooked up, free of me­chan­i­cal trauma.

A beam­ing Hamil­ton ex­plained later that he knew a ‘Ham­mer Time’ like this had been pos­si­ble even dur­ing his botched first run: “Nico was in­cred­i­bly strong as you can see,” he said, “so there were ar­eas where I knew I needed to pick up and that was re­ally what I was try­ing to do – and in Turn 10 a lit­tle bit too much. When I came in I was just laugh­ing, be­lieve it or not, be­cause the lap had [oth­er­wise] been so good. Be­tween those runs I was just gig­gling think­ing ‘it was such a good lap’. It would eas­ily have been pole.”

In the event, his sec­ond at­tempt set the mark, giv­ing Hamil­ton his 51st pole as he inches ever close to the stan­dards of Ayr­ton Senna (65) and Michael Schu­macher (68).

Just as im­pres­sive was the qual­i­fy­ing bomb dropped by Ric­cia­rdo to take third with his 1m22.680s, mak­ing him the only non-mer­cedes driver in the 22s. As with Hamil­ton, this had been a run he had to get right as he had only one set of softs with which to set the time. Rev­el­ling in the trac­tion, down­force and bal­ance of­fered by his RB12, and doubt­less even more than usu­ally de­ter­mined to set a time ahead of his ‘hot’ young team-mate, he cheered with sat­is­fac­tion as he crossed the line.

He knew he’d driven a blinder. “I never doubted my­self but I did leave it pretty late,” he said. “It could be in­ter­est­ing at Monaco in a cou­ple of weeks. Hope­fully we’ll be even closer.”

A bril­liant Q3 fi­nale then, with three out of four ex­cep­tional per­for­mances across the front two rows. Next came the Fer­rari pair, with Kimi Raikko­nen atyp­i­cally ahead of Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, but nei­ther look­ing as com­pet­i­tive as they had through­out free prac­tice. Around the long, climb­ing, right-hand swoop of T3, the SF16-H was a twitchy hand­ful and left both driv­ers un­able to ex­plain the loss of com­pet­i­tive­ness.

“It was a sur­prise to us as it was to you,” Vet­tel said. “I don’t think it was a gen­eral lack of speed – we proved in all ses­sions that we were quite com­pet­i­tive but the car was not be­hav­ing sim­i­larly to what we’d had all week­end. There was an over­all lack of grip.”

Four cars over the next four places showed just how tight the tus­sle is be­com­ing for next-best hon­ours. It was no sur­prise to see Valt­teri Bot­tas lead­ing the gag­gle in P7, nor for Car­los Sainz and Ser­gio Perez to crack the top 10 for Toro Rosso and Force In­dia. But Fernando Alonso’s P10 for Mclaren-honda was a sure sign of a team on the move.

Mclaren’s last Q3 foray was in Abu Dhabi, 2014, where Jen­son But­ton and Kevin Mag­nussen placed sixth and ninth. Just ahead of But­ton that day was a Toro Rosso hot-shot called Daniil Kvyat, in P5, equalling what was then his best-ever qual­i­fy­ing po­si­tion. Be­ing top Red Bull man on the day wasn’t a bad way to con­clude his rookie sea­son. As Kvyat sur­veyed the Barcelona timesheets, and found his name against ‘P13’, driv­ing for a team he thought he’d left, he must surely have won­dered where it had all gone wrong.

Ver­stap­pen: F1’s youngest win­ner

Bot­tas was best of the rest in fifth

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