INTO THE HOME STRETCH
Speed and luck were in Max Verstappen’s favour as he pipped Lewis Hamilton in Zandvoort and Charles Leclerc in Monza to close in on his second world title.
In 2013, Sebastian Vettel produced one of the most astonishing records in Formula One. He won nine consecutive races, all after the summer break on his way to his fourth world title.
Nine years later, another Red Bull driver has a chance to equal that record. Max Verstappen has now won the last five races, including the triple-header after the summer break — the Belgian, Dutch and Italian Grands Prix.
The reigning champion now sits 116 points clear of his nearest rival Charles Leclerc with just 164 points left in the season.
Over the last two weekends, Verstappen stamped his authority yet again. He took a popular victory in front of his adoring home crowd in Zandvoort, and followed it up by defeating Ferrari in front of the ‘Tifosi’ in Monza.
The Dutch Grand Prix had been revived last year due to Verstappen’s popularity, and the local hero produced a dominant performance. This year, the contest was tighter as Mercedes showed good pace around the track. However, Verstappen was more than ready for it by snatching pole position ahead of Leclerc in the Ferrari.
Once he fended off Leclerc at the start, Verstappen built a comfortable lead in the first stint before the two drivers pitted for their first stop.
While he had the measure of the Ferrari, a bigger challenge was set to come from the two Mercedes cars of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell. Unlike Verstappen and Leclerc, who were going to be stopping twice, the Mercs were going to stop only once and now led 1-2 ahead of Verstappen and Leclerc.
Verstappen retook the lead when Hamilton stopped on lap 29, but the latter took on the durable hard tyres that would have taken him to the end of the race. Verstappen now had to stop again, come behind the two Mercedes, and use his fresh-tyre advantage to hunt Russell and Hamilton down.
However, fortune favoured the home hero when a virtual safety car (VSC) was introduced on lap 49 after Yuki Tsunoda stopped on track due to a mechanical issue. This allowed Verstappen to pit and come out ahead of Hamilton as the cars on track had to drive at a controlled speed.
Hamilton, too, stopped behind the VSC to take on fresh medium tyres that would have given him a pace advantage to hunt down Verstappen. But on lap 57, a full Safety Car was introduced to remove Valtteri Bottas’ car that retired on the main straight.
It was here that Red Bull chose the aggressive option to stop for fresh soft tyres for the final 15 laps. It gave up the lead while Hamilton stayed out on older tyres.
More importantly, Hamilton’s teammate Russell, too, stopped for fresh tyres which meant Verstappen would be right on Hamilton’s tail at the restart.
Expectedly, Verstappen breezed past Hamilton to take the lead, and the main grandstand roared in delight. Verstappen cruised home to take his 10th win of the season. After not having won a race since the Austrian Grand Prix in July, Ferrari hoped to do well at its home race in Monza.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the track and the 75th anniversary of Ferrari, and the stage was all set for a repeat of 2019 when Leclerc won the most important race for his team in style.
Ferrari started the weekend well with Leclerc taking pole, while Verstappen started seventh after taking a five-place grid penalty for using power unit components outside of the mandated number allowed.
But within the first few laps, it became evident that Ferrari did not have the pace to win. Verstappen came through the field like a hot knife on butter to climb up to third by the third lap. He then passed George Russell’s Mercedes on lap five to take second.
Leclerc’s chance of winning hinged on the speed of his laps when Verstappen was behind him. But the Ferrari only had a twosecond lead to the Red Bull despite starting six places ahead.
There was a VSC on lap 12, and Ferrari brought in Leclerc for an early stop to take advantage of a smaller pit-loss time.
Verstappen stayed out and stopped on lap 26, at the halfway stage of the 53-lap race. The championship leader came back 13 seconds behind Leclerc but quickly ate into the Ferrari’s lead, lapping almost a second faster.
Ferrari and Leclerc then switched to a two-stop strategy, Leclerc stopping on lap 34. He was 19 seconds behind with as many laps left in the race. Despite having faster soft tyres, Leclerc was barely a few tenths faster than Verstappen, and it became evident that he was going to finish by more than 10 seconds behind the Red Bull.
A late safety car on lap 47 gave a chance to wipe out Verstappen’s 16-second lead with the leaders stopping to take fresh tyres. Unfortunately, a delay in recovering Daniel Ricciardo’s stricken Mclaren meant the race never resumed and finished behind the Safety Car, leaving a sour taste for the fans across the world.
Though it would have not changed the outcome of the result, any hope of a 2021 Abu Dhabi style last-lap dash was extinguished by the delay in moving the Mclaren out of the way.
With six races to go, it is now a matter of where he will seal the title and not if. The next race in Singapore will be the first chance for Verstappen to become a twotime champion, provided he outscores Leclerc by 22 points, Sergio Perez by 13 points, and Russell by six points.
Also, he needs to ensure Carlos Sainz doesn't outscore him by 11 points. If Verstappen can have a 13■-point lead over his rivals, he will be crowned champion in Singapore.
With 11 wins in the season so far, Verstappen is also on course to break the record for the most number of wins in a season – 13, a record held by Michael Schumacher (2004) and Sebastian Vettel (2013).
The 24-year-old Verstappen might have had an asterisk attached to his first world title but has now almost ensured that the second one is put to bed.