Calm aggression set him apart when he entered F1, aged 17, but Max Verstappen has lately made headlines for other reasons
Form is temporary, class is permanent.
But there was something not gelling for Max Verstappen. Something inside his head. Is he even aware of it? Something that’s making him not perform naturally, as if he’s aware of a status and is trying to live up to it. Like trying to walk normally when you know a customs officer is watching you. Is this where the fault line of extreme youth finally shows up in an otherwise remarkable and air-tight performer? As he deals with the status of being the favoured one, who’s been signed to a super-lucrative long-term deal, the driver around whom the team nailed its colours to the mast – not Daniel Ricciardo but him – but who has then been out-performed by Ricciardo?
Because that’s all that’s changed since he didn’t habitually crash or get tangled in silly incidents – as he’d done all season prior to Canada. Crashing out of Saturday practice at Monaco, ensuring that he’d start at the back in a Red Bull that was the fastest thing of all between the barriers, seemed to bring the problem to a head. He was starting last in a race he could potentially have won. Although his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase was quick to support his man with a, “Just one of those things. That’s Monaco,” over the radio, the reception from Helmut Marko and Christian Horner when he walked back to the garage was somewhat frostier. And that was a new thing.
In Melbourne he lost a place at the start to Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and around such a track it was impossible to overtake. Refusing to accept that, he hustled and attacked until eventually running over the punishing kerbs at the exit of Turn 12, damaging his diffuser. Which contributed to his later spin under braking into Turn 1 as he again attacked the Haas. The harder he tried, the farther back he fell. But that was just one of those things, the way it can play out sometimes when you’re a driver that refuses to accept defeat, who would rather risk losing what he has than surrender to mediocrity. This attacking style, coupled with immense and very visible talent, is what has made him perhaps the most exciting driver to arrive in F1 for a very long time. So on that day it didn’t work out. So what? The attitude, he would say, would win him more races than it would lose him. Races that might not otherwise be won. Like Malaysia last year, when he ambushed Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes out of nowhere.
That move had created a bit of niggle in Hamilton. He referred to it a week later after winning in Japan, chased home by Verstappen. He seemed very much aware that his status of king of the pride was being challenged by this strong, assertive young blood. So there was maybe a bit of that involved as the pair of them collided in Bahrain, two weeks after Melbourne as Verstappen attempted a pass. It was one of those 50/50 incidents where pride and status might have played a part. But it meant retirement from the race. Again, no particular big deal. Just one of those things.
But then China. He should have won that race, would have won that race had it not been for that crazy move he attempted around Hamilton’s outside at Turn Seven – an impossible place to pass a car of similar performance without the guy in front facilitating it. All Verstappen needed to have done was wait four corners more and he’d have breezed by, so much more grip did he have on the fresh tyres the VSC had gifted him. This was more than just one of those things. This was ill-judged, imbalanced, crazy. In the moment, Hamilton had almost certainly played him, leaving a tempting little gap and then taking up his line as Max went for it. But there was no reason for him to be tempted. It was as if he his mind was full of red, and he compounded the error in trying to make amends with an over-late dive down Sebastian Vettel’s inside that resulted in a collision – for which he immediately apologised. But perhaps worst of all, was his errors had gifted Ricciardo what would have been his victory.
That was the unsaid backdrop to their collision in Baku two weeks later where Verstappen’s defence of his place crossed the boundary of ‘hard’ into ‘foul’ – against his team-mate. Something wasn’t right here, and the disturbed equilibrium would not have been helped by whatever inevitable, and justified, fury was let loose on him by Horner and Marko in the aftermath behind closed doors.
Every time it’s gone wrong, he’s simply dug deeper into the deep well of talent, asked more, become more extreme in his moves. The same as before – but more. Except there is no more, he was already on the edge. But being able to balance there more comfortably arguably than any other driver is what made him so special. It’s what he’s always done – and always brilliantly well. This current crash period is the outlier, not the controlled audacity.
He drives on top of the car, dominating it, as you suspect he would even if it had 2,000 bhp and twice the grip, such is his confidence and attitude. Not for him the style of relaxing into the car, guiding it with minimal effort. That’s just his way. But there is no more to squeeze from it – and that’s what he’s been trying to do, triggered perhaps by feeling he has to live up to his status, helped maybe by Hamilton’s little on-track mind games with him.
But partly Verstappen’s problem is to do with how underrated Ricciardo still is. He’s arguably the best F1 driver in the world but perceived merely as a very good driver – and Verstappen is good enough to be trouncing a merely very good driver.
“That faith might have been damaged by Baku. The official line was equal blame between the two. The reality was different”
There’s the status question. There’s the Ricciardo the competitor question – and how those two things are intertwined. There’s the father Jos question – is it helpful still to have dad around, the dominant character that has so strongly directed and guided him since the start? And in the wake of the crashes, so there’s the team question, the way Horner and Marko are reacting to that.
Their patience finally wore thin in Monaco after holding firm, probably for longer than anyone else would have been given.
“It’s just a run of bad luck,” said Marko in Monaco, before the accident. He’s a shrewd enough racing man to know that wasn’t the case, but was just trying to deflect some of the pressure away in the hope that Verstappen’s crazy high-wire balance would soon be restored. That faith may have been damaged by what happened in Baku. The official line was equal blame between the two drivers, the reality was different.
The over-ruling of the team’s interests, the priority Max gave to his personal ambition and his almost skewed extreme determination not to be beaten by his team-mate, did not go down well. All of a sudden there are a whirl of factors building around him, creating a negative pressure that he cannot but feel. It will permeate even that headstrong thick skin that is both nature and nurture.
“It feels totally natural to have my dad around. That’s how it’s always been,” he says.
“This won’t change my approach,” he said after an incident-filled race in the Melbourne season-opener.
But those things are easy to say when you’re on an even keel. A string of accidents suggests the keel is listing somehow and the more he crashes the more it lists further.
“At some point you have to recognise that doing the same thing and getting the same outcome isn’t working,” said Horner in Monaco. “We’ve talked and I think he knows that he needs somehow to change his approach.”
But doesn’t that threaten to make the driver feel even more self-conscious? Romain Grosjean went through a similar process after his rash of accidents in 2012 and his subsequent one-race ban. He came back at ground zero, stripped away any aggression, made staying out of trouble his priority, even to the point of exaggeration. And rebuilt from there. With the help of a psychiatrist. It worked and in the second half of 2013 he was better than he’d ever been, every bit as swashbuckling as before but with the overriding control that hadn’t previously been there. It’s a phenomenon seen in many of the most mentally demanding of sports where the sub-conscious can wreak havoc on the form of tennis players or golfers. It comes out of nowhere, ambushing the competitor – and is all the more bewildering for that. The fact that he’s been ambushed and doesn’t understand why just makes it even harder to pull out of it, like the ground’s been pulled away. But he must do this while retaining that inner crazy balance – he must remain true to his racing self, somehow to get back to where he was, not be some impersonation of a different type of driver. For a guy who won’t accept defeat, won’t accept that fourth is the best the car can do today, he has to define the physical parameters and have the discipline to stay within them, even when raging against that reality. Because it’s there, in that tiny window, that his magic is found.
It’s a delicate situation. Genius often is balanced so. His talent doesn’t have the breadth of some rivals, but it does have amazing depth.
This sticky spell is temporary. It may spiral down right to the bottom, but it will eventually end. As the mind re-adjusts. How far down is the floor? Has he reached it? Or is there further to go, more re-assessing to happen? Does that re-assessment include changing key parts of his life?
But it will end. In time the opening few races of 2018 will be just a distant memory.