Grand Prix notebook

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Belgium, Italy & Singapore

Max Verstappen was just doing what comes naturally, but at Spa he became the lightning rod for two unrelated but very pertinent F1 issues: economics and safety. The clamour about his racing style, after he ruthlessly chopped Kimi Räikkönen at more than 200mph on the Kemmel Straight, had receded by the time of the following two races – in Monza and Singapore. But when even such a Verstappen-crazy, sold-out event fails to turn a solid profit, it highlights once again the sport’s difficult financial model. This took on a new dimension as the sport’s commercial rights changed hands between the Italian and Singapore races, with new owner Liberty Media set to revolutionise the whole way the sport generates its income.  

With the Dutch border close by and his adoption by many as Belgian, Verstappen’s exciting on-track performances since joining Red Bull earlier in the year attracted a mass of humanity to the Spa, which was untypically sunny the whole weekend. The venue was overflowing in a way it hasn’t been for a very long time. Filled to capacity, attendance was up 25 per cent on last year. 

Verstappen, 18, became the youngest-ever front-row qualifier when he put his Red Bull second-quickest to Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes (breaking the 55-year-old record of Ricardo Rodriguez, who was 19 when he achieved a similar feat at Monza in ’61). But Verstappen’s Spa troubles began within seconds of the start, as he dived for a gap inside Räikkönen’s Ferrari into La Source. With Sebastian Vettel to the Finn’s left, three-abreast didn’t fit and contact ensued; Vettel spun, Räikkönen and Verstappen would each be in the pits for a new set of tyres and replacement nose respectively. It took them out of the competitive picture as Rosberg enjoyed a relatively easy run to victory, but in their continuing dice further down the field Verstappen and Räikkönen continued to be the centre of attention. Using the DRS-assisted slipstream, the Ferrari was catching the Red Bull with a big speed advantage as they headed for the Les Combes braking zone. Verstappen stayed in the middle of the track until Räikkönen, travelling at 210mph, made for the inside, at which point the Red Bull moved that way too, forcing his rival to back out of the move to avoid catastrophe. The officials took no action but race director Charlie Whiting later suggested that a black and white warning flag might have been appropriate. 

After similar moves against Räikkönen, albeit at lower speeds in Hungary, Verstappen had been taken to task by several of his peers in the Hockenheim driver briefing, where his attitude in response was said to be unwavering. There is no sporting regulation specifically prohibiting Verstappen’s Schumacher-like practice of not committing to a side until after the following driver has done so, but there is a catch-all regulation stating that a driver must not endanger the life of another competitor. It remains to be seen how this conflict between his interpretation of the regulations and that of all the others plays out. 

At Monza and Singapore it wasn’t an issue. In Italy Verstappen’s out-powered, high-drag Red Bull was engaged in wheel-to-wheel action only late in the race, when he was on the attack and found a way past Sergio Pérez’s Force India for seventh. Rosberg, meanwhile, took an even easier victory than he had at Spa as his team-mate Lewis Hamilton was once more compromised. At Spa the championship leader had opted to introduce new engines and ERS components beyond his permitted seasonal allocation of five. He started from the back, then climbed to a good, damage-limitation third by the flag. But at Monza, having qualified on pole half a second faster than Rosberg, Hamilton’s clutch over-delivered on torque and his resultant wheel-spinning start put him down to fifth by the first corner. By the time he’d fought back to second, he was 15sec behind Rosberg and there were 35 laps still to go. Had he been able to maintain his half-second speed advantage over Rosberg, a fantastic contest might have unfolded. But this is racing in the era of tyres that – because of a flawed brief years ago – essentially fry once taken past a certain temperature threshold and, as a consequence, drivers often have to circulate a couple of seconds off the pace. 

So that 15sec gap remained 35 laps later and the contest between them lacked any real excitement – the Ferraris of Vettel and Räikkönen following in a very distant third and fourth. Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo pulled off arguably the pass of the season with a late move on the Williams of Valtteri Bottas into Rettifilio for fifth. Added to his second at Spa, that strengthened his third place in the championship.

Bernie Ecclestone arrived in the Singapore paddock in company with the sport’s new executive chairman Chase Carey, representing new owner Liberty Media and who has been described as ‘the maestro of sports rights monetisation’. The pair had given a slightly awkward joint interview on TV earlier in the week, their uncertain body language saying the opposite of their words. They insisted that Ecclestone would remain on board for the next three years to guide the sport through the transition. No one associated with Ecclestone believed this for one moment. He’s never worked alongside anyone, let alone reported to them. But they kept up appearances in Singapore, where Carey had informal meetings with leading team bosses. But Carey’s words about his management style will not have sat easily with Ecclestone, especially the bit where he said: “You cannot make everyone happy all the time, but you’ve got to understand what everyone wants and then find a path. Sure, that is not a task for a committee, as committees tend to become bureaucratic, but there also cannot be a dictatorship even if probably here they are used to it. They need leadership and leadership means you create a vision to create the right goals for the future.”  

While all this drama was playing out, a superb motor race was set to unfold. Although Rosberg ultimately took his third consecutive victory after a well-judged performance from pole on a two-stop strategy, he was being chased down fast by the three-stopping Red Bull of Ricciardo. 

With 14 laps to go Ricciardo was 25sec behind the Mercedes but on his fresh, softer tyres travelling at a vastly faster rate. The tension mounted as the chase ensued. Eventually the Red Bull’s tyre grip gave out just as Ricciardo had almost caught the Mercedes – and Rosberg was off the hook, back into the lead of the world championship, with title rival Hamilton finishing only third after a difficult weekend troubled by iffy reliability and handling. 

Räikkönen diced with Hamilton for most of the distance and took fourth, with Vettel in the sister Ferrari a superb fifth from the back of the grid after failing to set a time in qualifying. Verstappen? He got a slow, wheel-spinning start from the second row and triggered a shunt (which put Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India hard into the pit wall), fell back many places but fought back up to sixth, putting some fantastically inventive overtaking moves on his rivals along the way. He remains a scintillating performer who will surely be central to the sport’s appeal in the coming years.    

After a fantastic race at one of the calendar’s most spectacular venues, CVC’s former F1 chief Donald Mackenzie looked on and a team principal jokingly said: “You sold too soon, Donald.”