VERSTAPPEN WINS IT…
Redbull’s new racer took a remarkable win as Mercedes self-destructed
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.
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