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
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.
“BASICALLY I JUST BACKED IT OUT A LITTLE AND THAT SEEMS TO MAKE ME A BIT FASTER”