Just how significant was the Spanish Grand Prix of May 15 2016 in the history of Formula 1? Beyond the astounding ‘youngest ever’ record set by teenage race winner Max Verstappen, only time will tell. It will depend largely on the scope of the Dutchman’s final career imprint – but right now, the safer money is on a size more Michael Schumacher than Giancarlo Baghetti.
For context, we offer a snapshot of the youngest-ever records on page 40. What’s startling is by just how much Verstappen has lowered the mark for youthful Grand Prix winners. Sebastian Vettel was 21 years and 73 days old when he conquered a wet Monza in a Toro Rosso in 2008 – but Max has smashed that by a full two years and 210 days, by my reckoning. Not even close.
Such an achievement inevitably led some to pronounce that modern F1 is too easy if an 18-year-old kid can win, that he’d never have managed it in previous eras when racing cars were somewhat more ‘hairy’. I find that a little tedious. Firstly, it denigrates Max Verstappen without a shred of evidence. Who says he couldn’t have driven a DFV-powered ground-effects F1 car with a manual Hewland as fast as the likes of Alan Jones or Nelson Piquet? Modern conditioning means he’s in better physical nick than such heroes of the past ever were, and from what we’ve seen there’s no guarantee he’d have made old-school driving errors under pressure. Just ask Kimi Räikkönen (who also happens to be twice Verstappen’s age – I say again, astounding).
Instead of pitching modern drivers into some virtual past they can never know, we’d be better served to consider the Verstappen example for what it represents today. Countless prodigies have come before him, but Max has set the bar at a whole new level. Even the dad-and-lad Lewis Hamilton model required early years of graft, Anthony Hamilton famously scrapping for every penny before his boy’s fateful encounter with Ron Dennis. For Verstappen, the leg-up came even earlier – from birth.
Father Jos was a decent Grand Prix pedaller, from an era that to most of us seems like only yesterday (his final F1 race, for Minardi, was 2003, and he was racing high-powered A1GP cars as recently as 2006). Jos Verstappen’s knowledge and understanding of what it takes to cut it in F1 is surely as close as a father’s can be to ‘current’. That grounding, combined with a clear natural talent and the influence of an accomplished kart racing mother, were the perfect conditions to breed the ideal modern F1 driver. Mature, with just the right amount of volcanic passion sometimes to bubble through the cracks, Max even has a decent sense of humour. He’d be sickening if he wasn’t so likeable, proof that it is possible to be both manufactured and natural all at once – just like The Monkees!
The significance of this victory on his F1 rivals, particularly those who’ve been around the block a few times, was surely not lost in the aftermath of Barcelona. Naturally TV interviewers wanted their views on the new ‘sensation’ and, in return, they could be forgiven if their praise was offered through gritted teeth. After all, the young man had enjoyed a double dose of luck thanks to the implosion at Mercedes and the right-place, right-time, right-tyre split strategy pitwall call. But the likes of Räikkönen, Jenson Button, Felipe Massa… they’re looking down the barrel right now, and they know it. Meanwhile the usually sunny Daniel Ricciardo, hardly a grizzled veteran, appeared uncharacteristically ruffled. He’d just lost a win to this upstart and couldn’t hide his feelings – just minutes after stepping from the car – that his team had favoured the kid in its strategy call.
The dynamic at Red Bull is delicately poised for the balance of 2016. If Max is ‘the future’ for Helmut Marko and co, could it push the talented Australian into the arms of Ferrari as a replacement for Kimi in 2017? Such questions, beside those asked by Mark Hughes about Mercedes further on in this issue, offer tantalising possibilities for a changing of the guard for next season.
Rivals apart, Verstappen’s wonder-win was just what we all needed.
In Reflections this month, Nigel Roebuck laments the acceptance of ‘the chop’ in modern motor sport. Blocking was once considered motor racing’s equivalent to the professional foul but, as Nigel notes, now there’s even a regulation to forgive it.
The Rosberg/Hamilton incident in Barcelona inevitably split opinion, but for us at Motor Sport it boiled down to this. Nico had to dart right to defend, particularly in the context of their three-year niggly rivalry. And Lewis, being the natural-born racer he is, had to go for the gap when it presented itself – especially in the blood-rush of a first lap in which he’d already lost the lead. It’s only surprising such collisions haven’t occurred more often in the past few years. No big deal – as long as they don’t keep happening.
I’m glad neither received official sanction, even if my instinct was to regret, like Nigel, that Rosberg’s ruthless block is today deemed fair game. But I was surprised that when the subject came up with John Surtees, in a follow-up phone call to my story with the great man on page 134, he didn’t agree.
When I repeated my regret to John, prompting him to recall his own time behind the wheel, his answer suggested the past isn’t always as we remember it. “I’m not sure it was all that different,” he said quietly. So you would have swept across to defend like that, I asked? “Probably,” he answered.
I’d tweeted at the time that Rosberg’s move had shades of Clay Regazzoni, who gained notoriety for such ‘manners’ at the end of the 1960s. To John I suggested it had been “a bit Jack Brabham”. “With Jack, you wouldn’t know which way he’d go next,” Surtees agreed. “But that didn’t mean I respected him any less.”
And from Lewis’s perspective: would John have gone for the gap? “Oh yes, I probably would,” he said. “Although if it had been Jack ahead of me maybe I would have thought twice! Then again, on the first lap…”
Racing drivers. They haven’t really changed at all.
A postscript to my phone call with John Surtees. He’d just returned from a there-and-back drive to Maranello in a Ferrari FF – as you do at 82 years old – and was full of praise for the car. So how had his journey compared to the drives he’d made during the 1960s, in the days when he’d been on the Prancing Horse’s payroll?
“Oh, it takes much longer now,” he shot back. “Back then I’d leave Maranello in the morning and be home in the evening – 100mph most of the way, no problem. Straight roads, no motorways – and no speed limits or traffic either. Now it’s much more complicated.”
No wonder we tend to romanticise continental journeys as Denis Jenkinson used to report them. “I used my BMW 507 – the Old Man didn’t like me doing that,” recalled John. “I’d drive from Malpensa to Bromley, and to cross the channel I’d use Silver City Airways from Le Touquet to Lydd, where the RAC man would always wave me straight through. I’d average 70mph at 23 miles to the gallon. Fantastic.”
It really must have been.