In the pad­dock: Edd Straw

Max Ver­stap­pen has been very re­luc­tant to ad­mit he’s al­tered his ap­proach this sea­son, but at the root of his turn­around may be an ac­cep­tance of the need to not try too hard

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - EDD STRAW

Only the most com­mit­ted con­trar­ian would ar­gue that Lewis Hamil­ton hasn’t been the class of the For­mula 1 field this sea­son. No driver has come close to de­liv­er­ing his con­sis­tent pace, sound judge­ment and killer in­stinct on race day dur­ing 2018 – ex­cept per­haps one.

To be more pre­cise, we should say four-fifths of a driver. Max Ver­stap­pen has per­formed su­perbly since the first half-dozen races of the sea­son, when he closely re­sem­bled a pre­mium Pas­tor Mal­don­ado – bril­liantly fast but with a self-de­feat­ing streak that cost him two po­ten­tial vic­to­ries.‘mad Max’, as some rather pre­dictably dubbed him, was all over the place. Since the first

28% or so of the cam­paign, he’s been fan­tas­tic.

The 21-year old has spent much of the rest of the year in­sist­ing, em­phat­i­cally, that he has not changed his ap­proach one iota. Dur­ing a mem­o­rable press con­fer­ence at the Cana­dian Grand Prix, he joked he would“head­butt some­one”if asked one more ques­tion about how he had re­sponded to the er­rors. At least, it seemed like a joke…

And yet some­thing clearly did change in Ver­stap­pen. Per­haps he con­sid­ers the con­stant phrase“change of ap­proach”and its vari­ants to en­cap­su­late some­thing more fun­da­men­tal than what he has done. But what­ever you choose to call it, there has been a dif­fer­ence in him that’s had a very sig­nif­i­cant im­pact.

But af­ter his bril­liantly ex­e­cuted vic­tory in the Mex­i­can Grand Prix last month, Ver­stap­pen did con­cede there was a dif­fer­ence now to the dif­fi­cult early stages of the sea­son in his an­swer to a ques­tion from Autosport’s own Scott Mitchell.

“The dif­fer­ence is I just lis­ten to my­self,”said Ver­stap­pen.

“I do my own thing. If I was maybe over­driv­ing or some­thing, my dad would al­ways tell me,‘max, even if you think you are not go­ing fast enough, it’s still fast enough.’so ba­si­cally I just backed it out a lit­tle bit and that seems to make me a bit faster.”

You might boil that down to one sim­ple apho­rism: don’t try too hard. A sig­nif­i­cant les­son, and one that has been at the heart of many great cham­pi­ons ful­fill­ing their po­ten­tial.

That po­ten­tial is un­de­ni­able. Ver­stap­pen is not merely a fast, race-win­ning grand prix driver, but very likely will be­come more than that. It’s im­pos­si­ble to be cer­tain why Ver­stap­pen’s judge­ment was so badly awry early this sea­son. But it’s pos­si­ble that his ex­pec­ta­tions were for more than just the odd vic­tory, which per­haps played a part in the im­pa­tience of that pe­riod. Was it a re­fusal to ac­cept that he didn’t have a car wor­thy of his tal­ent? Did he try to force the is­sue too much?

Had Ver­stap­pen let it come to him, re­lied on the fact that in both cases he al­ready had prodi­gious speed and that he only needed to be at 99% to beat oth­ers at 100%, per­haps he’d have two more vic­to­ries to his name now. That’s the les­son.

Ver­stap­pen is very close to the level of a world cham­pion.

His speed is un­ques­tion­able, he’s a great tyre man­ager, he can ex­e­cute races well, rarely un­der­achieves in qual­i­fy­ing and can pull im­mense pass­ing moves out of the bag. But the big ques­tion is whether he can de­liver that con­sis­tently over 21 races and match Hamil­ton’s depend­abil­ity. Hamil­ton lets races come to him when he can, is en­tirely as­sured and com­fort­able in his abil­ity, and that’s what makes him such a for­mi­da­ble driver. The ag­gres­sion is con­trolled and de­ployed only when nec­es­sary.

But since that early-sea­son bad run, Ver­stap­pen has danced along that tightrope very ef­fec­tively. The first race af­ter that se­quence was in Canada, where he showed sound judge­ment by back­ing out of a po­ten­tial pass on Valt­teri Bot­tas. He seized his vic­tory chances in Aus­tria and Mex­ico bril­liantly, and might even have given Hamil­ton a run for his money in Sin­ga­pore had engine stut­ters on his fi­nal Q3 lap not de­nied him a shot at pole po­si­tion. And there have been plenty of other ex­cel­lent drives to top-six po­si­tions.

There have been a cou­ple of er­rors in that pe­riod. He still moves around in brak­ing zones too much, lead­ing to his penalty at Monza when he forced Bot­tas off the track, and care­less re­join­ing af­ter an off at the chi­cane at Suzuka led to him crowd­ing Kimi Raikko­nen off the cir­cuit and an­other five sec­onds were lost. This could be very costly in a ti­tle fight, where you must max­imise your re­sults week-in, week-out. Right now, Red Bull and Ver­stap­pen are snip­ing for race wins, which jus­ti­fies risk-tak­ing. In a ti­tle fight, he would need to be more like Hamil­ton in his judge­ment.

In the 13 races from Canada on­wards, Ver­stap­pen has largely driven su­perbly. Judged on this run of races, he’s sec­ond only to Hamil­ton in terms of his per­for­mance, and this is the form he will need to sus­tain to win a ti­tle. Elim­i­nate that ten­dency to at­tract penal­ties, and he could be un­beat­able.

There’s ev­ery chance that Ver­stap­pen will win a world cham­pi­onship in the fu­ture; prob­a­bly more than one. He’s hugely able, stun­ningly fast and, when he keeps the right side of the line, great in bat­tle. And if he does so, per­haps the ap­proach that he sup­pos­edly didn’t change af­ter the first half-dozen races, but clearly did, will be a big part in his story.


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