F1 2018 Straight talk: Could Max Verstappen end up like Jacques Villeneuve?
Jacques Villeneuve was once regarded as one of the brightest talents in motorsport, but his career took a nosedive. Could the same fate befall Max Verstappen?
Meet the new Jacques Villeneuve – his name is Max Verstappen. And, like our beloved Canadian cult hero did long ago, he stands at an intersection leading one way to glory and the other to ruin.
Oddly, Villeneuve trod both paths and Max may do the same. His trajectory has dipped in 2018 after scaling the heights of greatness during the previous three seasons. Jacques’ journey was not so different: a sustained, blistering rise to the absolute pinnacle of motorsport followed by a cannonball-like descent into the abyss of disappointment. Max’s recent actions suggests he may also suffer the latter fate.
A blistering start
Villeneuve has done little right since his 1997 championship win and he didn’t do everything right that year, either. He won often enough to mitigate the crashes, taking advantage of a low point in Schumacher’s career while highlighting his own supreme talent.
Before joining F1, he was the racing protégé. An Indianapolis 500 win (after a mid-race two-lap penalty!), followed by a CART championship led to an invitation to drive for Williams.
In 1996, a mechanical issue cost him a win on his F1 debut, while a retirement in the final race ended his chances of a championship in his rookie season. So, it was no surprise when he started the 1997 campaign with pole in five of the first six races, his determination and speed on full display.
Unfortunately, he also had as many retirements as wins (five) over the first 11 races. A slight dip in form in Belgium and Italy was followed by two wins and a disqualification in Japan. Meanwhile, his main title rival, Michael Schumacher, remained steady – leaving Jacques one point adrift of the championship lead with one race to go.
Over the early part of his career, Villeneuve had shown incredible grit, speed and race talent at every opportunity so his dramatic move down the inside of Schumacher’s race-leading Ferrari at Jerez felt inevitable.
His eventual third place finish, coupled with the German’s ignominious retirement following intentional contact, sealed a stunning championship win. It is no wonder Villeneuve is still a Canadian hero.
But for a lack of maturity and ability to think over three seconds ahead, we may well be discussing the Quebecois as a multiple champion and F1 legend. Sadly, it did not work out that way. Today, rather than being remembered for his exploits on the track, Jacques is often regarded as a laughingstock thanks to the crazy things says.
Last week there was an exception, a brief step into the light of credibility. Villeneuve identified Daniel Ricciardo as the superior driver in the Red Bull team. And he’s not wrong. His comments, throwing shade at the Dutchman, prompted a rare torrent of support.
Like Villeneuve in 1996, Verstappen is widely considered as the finest driving talent in a generation. Not all share that opinion – just as Villeneuve had his detractors in the late 90s – but even his harshest critics cannot deny the considerable talent the kid possesses. If only it wasn’t combined with a well of race-killing narcissism.
The double move on the aforementioned Ricciardo in Azerbaijan was more than stupid. He has been in F1 long enough to know the front end grip of the trailing Red Bull would have lightened if he took away its downforce with a move back in front after his teammate sold him a top-notch dummy. His immaturity and stubbornness caused that crash and everyone at Red Bull knows it.
That is the keynote incident routinely pointed out as a microcosm of Verstappen’s season so far. He has the car to win – when the big boys at Ferrari and Mercedes bungle their strategy or have their advantages nullified by track conditions – and yet; he languishes in sixth place in the championship while his teammate is being discussed as a title contender.
He has hurt his own results in every race this season with a varying array of incidents. Some stupid, some careless, mostly immature and all based on the idea he is without compare. If this continues – and his comments so far have only hinted at inner reflection – the only pathway leads down.
As it stands, on the eve of the race bearing Villeneuve’s father’s name, Verstappen’s future hangs in the balance. Not just because of the incidents, but because of his insistence he will not change the way he races.
Jacques’ more volatile and brash personality also carried with it a sense of omnipotence, like he could make any car do whatever he wanted it to without having to force it. And Max talks this way too.
Villeneuve’s story is written and his post-Williams years, at the time filled with promise, are a disappointment. If Max cannot overcome his aggressive demons, his post-Red Bull years may bear resemblance.
Lessons from peers
The Dutchman could take a cue from another generational talent on the grid, Charles Leclerc. His early season woes, spinning every weekend, were quickly identified and the results speak for themselves. Rarely does a driver freely admit what he was doing was causing his mediocrity, but Leclerc did. It’s called maturity and when combined with a natural talent, it leads to points, podiums and wins. If anyone has the attributes of a future F1 champion, it is the young Monegasque driver not the Dutchman.
Moments of greatness
Perhaps Verstappen will see the error of his ways and finally live up to his potential. If he doesn’t, those moments of greatness will be lost. Gone will be the stunning drive in the wet in Brazil 2016 where his skill and superiority left race fans in awe. Devalued will be the win at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix on his Red Bull debut. Forgotten will be all the electrifying passes and fierce defences of position.
What remains will be a career that only Jacques Villeneuve could recognise. One that marvelled in the beginning but ended full of ‘what-ifs?’