There are not many who can achieve greatness from the get-go, to leave the box at full whack and continue the pace to victory. For most it takes time, persistence, determination, inevitable set-backs and failures from which to learn before they can sit back and enjoy all the puzzle pieces fitting together nicely. But in only his second season of driving in motorsport’s highest echelon, and at the grand age of eighteen, Max Verstappen has proved that for some, winning just seems to come naturally, almost by accident.
Of course, we are only one race into the young man’s career at a top-flight team, and even then, the dominance of Mercedes will certainly curtail the continuance of his new ability to be victorious. But mark my words, when those puzzle pieces fall – and they have started already – they will only continue to fall in just the right way.
Making his debut in Formula One at the record-breaking age of seventeen, Max was already hailed as something special, his results in lower formulae suggesting the kid had something about him that marked him out from the rest. For certain his surname has helped, as it has done for others over the years; Hill, Villeneuve, Rosberg et al… but when the visor is lowered, the clutch engaged and the throttle squeezed, it comes down to one person and one person alone.
Max’s victory at yesterday’s Spanish Grand Prix showed that despite the recent change in rules (a minimum age of eighteen, introduced because of Max himself), it is possible for a young man to be calm, mature and cool-headed in an environment where injury and even death can and do occur. The coolness of Verstappen Jr. is only highlighted given the circumstances in which he drove himself to the top step of the podium. A sudden change in Red Bull’s driver line-up meant that Max, at the time driving for sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso, received a promotion to the quadruple championship winning squad, while Daniil Kvyat was forced down a step and demoted to Verstappen’s former seat.
So up until Friday 13th May, Max had never driven the Red Bull car. Yes, he had utilised the hi-tech simulator at the team’s headquarters, and yes, all Formula One cars look the same to a casual viewer. But the Red Bull machine is actually an independently designed and built car which is an evolution of the previous car and so on…
The 2016 RB12 undoubtedly has more mechanical grip, uses it’s tyres differently (as in, degradation, or wear rate), is powered by a Renault V6 engine as opposed to a Ferrari in the back of the Toro Rosso and among the many other thousands of differences, Max himself admitted to having to learn a new steering wheel set-up. Drivers of course learn where all the buttons are in order to press without having to look down.
In a machine that he had barely driven, Max was charged with igniting his Formula One career, but nobody foresaw what was about to happen. Of course Verstappen’s charge was hugely helped by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg slamming their Mercedes together at Turn Four on the opening lap – their elimination just made every other team boss salivate uncontrollably. In reality though, it was only going to be one of two teams that took the victory, and they dully finished in the top four positions. But it was the manner in which Max, on a better strategy than his team mate, drove his car to the chequered flag while being hounded by a former world champion in arguably a better car.
It is actually a little odd that when houndee Kimi Raikkonen made his Formula One debut in 2001 – at the time causing concern because of his young age and little experience – he actually raced Verstappen Snr. Yes, Kimi raced at a time when Max’s father – Jos the boss Verstappen – was still charging around in an Arrows. Max was three years old at the time. Now a world champion, in the twilight of his career but still regarded as a capable driver, Kimi (who is pretty much twice Max’s age) found himself following Verstappen Jr. and failing to find a way past. Kimi’s tyres were essentially the same age as Max’s, and certainly the Ferrari was ultimately faster. But track position is king, and Verstappen had it. As much as Raikkonen closed the gap, weaved, darted and pressured Max, he couldn’t force a mistake. In fact, Verstappen barely put a foot wrong all weekend. He was, quite simply, sublime.
Sunday was a day to remember. Not only a driver’s maiden victory, but a young man’s journey to stardom that will only ever grow from this point onwards. Almost certainly locked into a water-tight contract with Red Bull (his promotion was probably put in place to fend off the advances from other teams), Max Verstappen just needs to hope that Red Bull can work their way out of the little mess they got themselves into last year and that Renault can reproduce the glorious power plants that powered Raikkonen’s now team mate to four consecutive championships, taking the Red Bull team with him. Sebastian Vettel was among the first to congratulate Verstappen, along with fellow champions Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button. Even Kimi Raikkonen, who doggedly tried to find a way pass the Red Bull for thirty-odd laps squeaked out a little well done.
Mark my words, this kid has some talent. And I think in the twenty-odd years I have been following Formula One, I have only ever said that… not even a handful of times.
And if you think I’m exaggerating…
The outside of a 200mph left turn called Blanchimont at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. A flat-out left turn where there is only one line. And the kid, in his debut year, leans it out, nudges the nose up while completely off-line (and almost off-circuit) and perfectly prepares his Scuderia Toro Rosso for the following tight right-hander. As former Formula One driver Martin Brundle says in the commentary, he knows no fear.