Verstappen has Rosberg’s left hand to thank for making him the youngest ever winner of a Formula 1 grand prix. For it was with this hand that Nico was attempting to make some kind of engine adjustment just as Lewis Hamilton launched an opportunist attacking move into Turn 4, on lap one of the Spanish Grand Prix. Quite what Rosberg was doing, whether or not he was distracted by having to make the adjustment and why his engine mode was anyway incorrect, are points explored elsewhere ( see column, page 3). But whatever the cause and effect, the resulting shunt between Rosberg and Hamilton that wiped out both Mercedes, cleared the way for a fierce Ferrari-red Bull clash that was ultimately resolved in Verstappen’s favour.
In winning the 2016 edition of the race, he lowered the ‘youngest ever winner’ mark to an almost unfeasible level. At just 18 years and 227 days old, he blitzed the previous record of Sebastian Vettel, who famously won the 2008 Italian GP for Toro Rosso, aged 21 and 73 days. A 10-year old Verstappen was likely watching that grand prix, confidently expecting to one day be doing something similar. Maybe not quite so soon, however.
This win, like his stunning qualifying performance a day earlier, has now been perma-etched into the F1 annals, as a reference point for all future reporting of what must surely
become an epochal career. In 20 years’ time, aged 38, Verstappen could easily remain fit enough to be a frontline grand prix driver. Who knows how many race wins, titles and millions he’ll have earned by then?
There was a degree of good fortune about Verstappen’s victory, although that should not detract from the scale of his achievement; nor is it a comment on the flawless, utterly composed manner of his performance. He benefited, as already noted, from the retirement of two faster Mercedes. He also had the advantage of being left on a two-stop strategy (soft-medium-medium), while his marginally quicker team-mate Ricciardo ran a nominal three-stopper: soft-medium-soft-medium (there was an additional lap 65 stop after a late-race tyre failure, but this had nothing to do with race strategy).
Max, though, was always in the mix and proved himself well capable of resisting heavy late-race pressure from Raikkonen, whose SF16-H was quicker ‘down the chute’ and allowed him to close to within a car length of Verstappen’s RB12 at T1 for most of the last third of the race. Max was too cute for that: he used the RB12’S better traction and balance from Turns 2 through 16 to draw away around the lap and prevent Kimi from leaving the last corner close enough to mount a successful main straight pass. Had Raikkonen been able to get ahead, he would likely have pulled away, but unable to pass, he remained bottled up. It was a classic chassis-versus-power confrontation, neatly also being played out between the oldest and youngest drivers. “I raced against his dad in F1,” joked Kimi later.
So much speed and composure in one so young: phenomenal, in the truest sense of the word. And Verstappen made it all seem so easy, so matter-of-fact. Facing the press post race, there were wide smiles, of course, and talk of “surprise”. Yet the overwhelming impression was of a young man who was simply fulfilling the destiny that had been charted since his F1 driver dad hooked up with his karting champ mum.
“On the last laps I got a bit of cramp,” he said. “I was getting very excited with 10 laps to go, when I started to watch the pitboard. But then I stopped so that I could just focus on the tyres and bring it home. A great feeling. I absolutely didn’t expect this.”
The noise and fuss of his elevation to the senior Red Bull team, at the expense of the demoted Kvyat – himself a podium finisher only a few weeks ago – had forever been erased.
Only marginally less compelling than the tussle up front was the furious battle that raged almost race-long between Ricciardo and Vettel.
Ricciardo led early (and would lead 30 laps in total), sprinting away at the head of a Red Bull train that included Verstappen and Carlos Sainz – up to third after the early-race yellows prompted by the Mercs’ self-destruction. The Ferraris were faster, though, and by lap 10 a clear Red Bull-ferrari running order had been established that looked likely to parlay into a top-four result of Ricciardo, Verstappen, Vettel, Raikkonen.
That changed when Ferrari rolled the dice on lap 37 and brought Vettel in for a second set of mediums. This third stop was intended to undercut Ricciardo (which it did) and put Vettel in position for victory (which it didn’t). Why not? Because when Ricciardo was brought in on lap 43 to cover Vettel’s strategy both nominal ‘team leaders’ were doomed to slug it out for third and fourth. The mediums fitted to Verstappen and Raikkonen at their second (and final) stops on laps 34 and 35 would prove good enough to hang on till the chequered flag, more than 30 laps away.
That didn’t stop Ricciardo from having an almighty go at Vettel though and on lap 59 he did spear his way past into T1, although he overran and Vettel regained the position.
Vettel was unhappy at the the move, feeling he’d been the victim of ‘negative optioning’: “If I don’t play according to his move then I crash,” he noted. Both could feel aggrieved that their duel wasn’t for the lead.
But neither could deny Max Verstappen his moment of history.
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