3 MAX VERSTAPPEN BREAKS THROUGH
WHEN: ALL YEAR WHERE: EVERYWHERE
Just over two years ago, the world was asking whether teenager Max Verstappen was ready for F1. At the end of the 2016 campaign, the question is whether F1 was truly ready for the Flying Dutchman.
He already had an impressive maiden season for Toro Rosso alongside Carlos Sainz under his belt and scored 31 more points than his Spanish rival.
But the whirlwind was about to hit top gear in 2016 – thanks, in part, to Daniil Kvyat’s struggles with Red Bull. The Russian’s clumsy home grand prix, where he twice cannoned into Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari during the fourth round of the season, spelled the end of his time with the top team. He was forced to perform a swap with Verstappen and headed to Toro Rosso.
The collateral damage of Verstappen’s rising star was both Kvyat and Sainz. Both had been leapfrogged in the pecking order, and it is hard to see how either of them will truly recover from that.
The Verstappen fairytale didn’t stop there: just 10 days after joining his new team, he was a grand prix winner, profiting when Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg decided to have each other off at the Spanish grand prix.
From there on, Verstappen’s star loomed large over F1. Although he only outqualified team-mate Daniel Ricciardo six times during their 17 races together, he did land six other podiums alongside his Barcelona breakthrough and finished fifth in the points table.
But it wasn’t just the pure results that set Verstappen apart this season. It was his racecraft – and he wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers when he was doing it either.
There had been signs of his prowess in 2015, when he had put his Toro Rosso in places that very few other drivers would have tried.
But there was even more of that in 2016. Some of the most memorable moments of the season are the epic overtaking moves, such as the one he pulled on Nico Rosberg at Silverstone and the run around the outside of the world champion elect at Interlagos.
There were hushed tones after the way he ripped up the racetrack in Brazil. His mastery in the changeable conditions drew comparisons with some of the sport’s truly legendary drivers, including Ayrton Senna.
He played down those comparisons himself. “It’s very nice that people say those things, but for me the most important thing is just to focus on myself and stay very neutral on all those comments,” he said.
“Always try to improve yourself and fly high. It’s important in the car to stay with two feet on the ground – not only try, just do it.”
Then there was his defending that, ironically, also stirred up memories of Senna. He rewrote his own interpretation of the ‘one move under braking’ ethos that F1 drivers have to adhere to. His tactic was to make a very positive and definitive move, but to do it very late in the braking zone. It certainly provoked some furrowed brows amongst his rivals.
Verstappen has turned the heads of other drivers on the grid and has been a huge hit with the fans too. At the moment, he is at the very start of his career.
The question is: how far can he go? It is very likely that he will be occupying top spot in this list for many years to come. MJ