After his stunning maiden victory in the Spanish GP, if anyone didn’t think Max Verstappen was the real deal – and potential World Champion material – they do now, says Charles Bradley.
Last Sunday was a seminal one for Formula 1. At his first attempt in a top-three Grand Prix car, an 18-year-old wonderkid won in convincing style.
But how to judge it? How seriously should his F1 opposition actually fear Max Verstappen?
For a start, the manner of his promotion to Red Bull’s A-Team should have started the alarm bells. To demote a driver who finished on the podium two races ago was F1 at its most brutal.
And for all the reasons that Red Bull came up with, they all sounded like excuses for its prime rationale: when he starts winning races we want it to be with us.
Put simply, it was swapping a good driver for a potentially great one.
Taking his very first big chance
Unless you had a third eye, this wasn’t a victory you could see coming. It depended absolutely on two main factors: The intra-Mercedes-Benz implosion, and falling on the correct side of a 50/50 split on tyre strategy.
I would have been writing this about a stunning first podium by the teenage sensation had Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg not come together on the run towards Turn 4.
He wouldn’t even have made the top three if teammate Daniel Ricciardo hadn’t pitted on lap 28, consigning himself to a three-stop strategy. As Ricciardo/Vettel peeled off to contest their personal duel, with Vettel himself the actual catalyst for this choice which Red Bull felt compelled to follow, it was now down to Verstappen v Kimi Raikkonen.
There was no miracle call from Max – this was a reaction call from the pitwall.
But the Mercedes duo did implode, and the favoured tyre strategy turned out to be a two stopper. The stars aligned, and youth would triumph over experience – as Raikkonen was unable to force an error from Red Bull's new star.
Yet for this unexpected unravelling of circumstances, it didn’t feel like Pastor Maldonado’s race oddity for Williams at the Circuit de Catalunya four years earlier. Part of me didn’t feel incredulous as Verstappen’s car crossed the finishing line.
“Like driving on ice,” said Max of his final laps on well-worn, eventually 32-lap-old, medium tyres on Sunday. Yet he executed a difficult strategy, and held off the most experienced F1 driver in the field.
He’s achieved this at a ridiculously early age. It’s a fact that the FIA has changed its criteria in the junior formulae because of Max Verstappen: “We can’t let the exception become the rule,” is the governing body’s line.
This is unprecedented and, as per the new rules, now unrepeatable for anyone else.
Any chinks in his armour?
Not really. A stroppiness towards team orders, and a fearless approach that has led to a humungous shunt in his first-ever Monaco Grand Prix – that he simply shrugged off. And that’s about it.
All his hallmarks so far have been first rate. He’s transitioned seamlessly from karts to F3 to midfield F1 to frontrunning F1 like it’s, well, easy.
Perhaps, in hindsight, the last thing F1 should have done is handed its most precocious talent for years such a relatively straightforward opportunity to convert his first victory.
Who knows what he might achieve when the odds get stacked against him? How many Grands Prix might he win by his 21st birthday – when the previous youngest driver Sebastian Vettel won his first?
A Grand Prix winner at the age of 18 gives rise to the potential for the longest-ever top-line racing career.
And that is why F1 should be scared of Max Verstappen.