F1

F1 2018 Max Verstappen Debate (P2): Mad Max – Fury Road

In the second part of our double-header about under-fire Max Verstappen, Tommy Wharton tells us why the Dutchman is on his way to never winning an F1 championship.

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(Photo credit: Paul Williams)

You can read Part One of the debate: ‘Why Criticism of the Dutchman is Unfair’  – here.

Many F1 fans and pundits have painted Max Verstappen with a destined for greatness brush without a second thought, including me. Unbelievable wet-weather driving, fierce defensive moves, aggressive passes, race wins in less-than-best machinery and ability far beyond his age have been honest achievements of the young Dutchman. However, only three races into 2018, that paint is saturated with doubt and peeling. 

Max threw away the race win last Sunday in Shanghai – a cardinal sin in F1. As is colliding with your teammate on the track – which he’s also accomplished in the last 12 months. In each of the first three races of 2018, Max has had at least one moment of immaturity bordering on stupidity. Daniil Kvyat, admittedly an inferior talent, lost his Red Bull racing seat for far less than Verstappen has done. 

A hat-trick of errors

Max’s spin in Australia could be excused, as we saw the steady Valtteri Bottas get caught out by the same kerb during qualifying. His crash in Bahrain – that he claimed was caused by an unexpected power surge to the rear wheels, an assertion countered by Christian Horner who blamed sloppy footwork – was rookie-level driving. A later setback in the race, caused by an over-eager passing attempt on Lewis Hamilton, could be called a racing incident if looked at as a single issue. But, in his body of work for 2018, it fits an unfortunate pattern. And Hamilton’s thoughts on the pass were clear.

The Red Bull team had an incredible weekend in China. Their performance in getting Daniel Ricciardo’s car built in time for qualifying was a ridiculous undertaking that should not be under-appreciated. In the race, the pit wall did their part in reacting to the safety car to put their drivers on an unstoppable strategy, while the pit crew double-stacked their pit stops to get all eight wheels changed – twice

It should have been a Red Bull one-two finish and one of the most complete weekends an F1 team has ever assembled. Instead, Max got anxious with 17 laps remaining and moved to the outside of Hamilton – who would never let him past from that position – and ran wide while losing a place to his teammate. Why he was going for it there on a dry track is beyond explaining. There was no contact between the two drivers, only sharp elbows from Hamilton’s Mercedes that justifiably ran Verstappen off the track. Considering the tyre compound he was on and the speed the Red Bulls were lapping with, it was obvious he should have backed off and tried at the next appropriate corner. 

Appropriately, his teammate passed him and then made easy work of Hamilton on his way to winning the race (it is worth noting here that Ricciardo carved off what was probably an easy eventuality in his typically scintillating way). Max then made a further rookie mistake colliding with Sebastian Vettel at the hairpin to cost them both points. Vettel was fading at the time because of some bad luck and poor strategy and Max would have dispatched him at the end of the next straight. Instead, he lost control of his car under braking and ploughed into the side of a four-time champion who was winning races and championships at the experience level that Verstappen now has.

Comparison to Vettel

The comparison to Vettel is useful at this point in their respective careers. Horner recalled this week when Vettel was given the nickname crash kid’ in 2010 for a lesser infraction. Now, Vettel is highly rated in the paddock and while his 2017 Azerbaijan and Malaysia shunts were wide outliers and regressions in maturity, he rarely gets into contact situations with other drivers. He was also a young prodigy who needed something more than just talent (that said, few drivers have come into F1 with the fireworks Verstappen has). Vettel won his first championship in 2010 by following the logical progression of highly talented racing prospects, more racing, more maturity and fewer wasted chances. Max languishes in a holding pattern.

A problematic sticking point for those who defend Max so vehemently for his 2018 infractions is that it is nothing new. He is heading in the wrong direction for success. In 2015, there was a strain with Red Bull’s other young talent, Carlos Sainz, which could easily be seen as whining and arrogance. The following year saw a season-long debate about Max’s passes and moving under braking. So continual and loud was the discussion it led to a directive being issued by the FIA. The directive would later be repealed but how brash do you have to be to have a directive specifically aimed at you in your second season of F1?

Protesting his innocence

The aforementioned crash with his teammate was, as with this season, all about shoving his foot in a door that wasn’t open. And, with nearly every incident he has been involved in, there are defensive comments and proclamations of innocence. Until his apology to Vettel following last week’s Grand Prix, he had only previously admitted fault when it involved his teammate. And one gets the feeling he doesn’t really believe he has done wrong.

In 2017, Singapore was the pivotal moment of the championship and much has been made of Vettel’s bewildering conduct in that race.  Covering off a rival at the start, as he was doing, is a frequent occurrence in a Grand Prix. Lewis Hamilton does it nearly as often as Vettel does and they have eight championships between them. The difference in Singapore was that that rival, Verstappen, wound up in the middle because the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen made a blistering start up the inside. Vettel is surely at fault here, as he was in China in covering off his own teammate for no benefit, but Max was the only driver with a full view of what was happening. In the interest of self-preservation he could have backed off, lost one place, and everyone would have continued. 

Capitulation is not in the heart of many competitors but he was beaten and should have recognised it. He might not have been the one to start that problem, but he was the only driver with a legitimate chance to back out. Sure, there is nothing wrong with chasing the lead down the front straight, track position is king. However, a more mature driver would likely have lifted his right foot and bided his time for a few corners without losing much. Hamilton, for one, excels at this. Sure-footed patience in the opening lap can pay dividends down the road and he knows it. It is a stretch to drag Verstappen down with Vettel’s blame, but it goes to show that even with impending doom, his natural aggressiveness will not let him back out. As in China, a little pause would have put him
in a situation he could have won.

A less aggressive approach

There is no questioning the potential that Verstappen has and no denying what he has accomplished in F1 at such a young age. But, as always, talent alone guarantees nothing. Incidents in his early years could be written off as growing pains but not anymore. Harsh Renault reliability problems keeping the Red Bulls off-track and out of the championship fight from early in 2017 may have masked what we are seeing this year: Max throwing away chances with an immature and overly aggressive driving style. If the same gremlins affect the team this season, he might rue slam dunking the places he has already lost into the garbage. 

If Verstappen continues the career arc he’s on, one where he continues to be obtuse about the mistakes made on track, he will find himself on the outside looking in at career championships. He would be near the top of the points this year if he only eliminated a little aggressiveness. As it is, he is sitting in 8th position, one place up on Pierre Gasly. I struggle to think of a comparable racing talent with an equivalent ability to squander it.

What do you think about Verstappen? Does he deserve the criticism? Let us know in the comments below!

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