Verstappen’s logical way these past few years, when he has invariably been the closest thing Mercedes has had to a rival but never in with a chance of prevailing over a season, has absolutely been to take no prisoners. It’s the natural way he’s always raced anyway and so it’s not been a stretch for him.
With the fastest car beneath him, it’s no longer the most appropriate way. The competitive situation between Red Bull-Honda and Mercedes has inverted the way Verstappen and Hamilton need to play their game. Hamilton realised this at Silverstone. Verstappen seemingly did not.
Max says he is not going to change how he races. But he’s almost obliged to say that. To say otherwise is sending a message that he will always back out of it if forced to choose. But in reality he has to switch his chip from against the odds race winner to championship winner. That’s if the Mercedes can even stay within striking distance as Red Bull continues to develop its car.
“I don’t plan to fight,” he said going into this Hungarian Grand Prix weekend. “I just plan to check out.” Check out as in set pole, win the start, dominate from the front. There will be plenty of weekends like those where he can just bag the maximum points haul on pure performance superiority and his approach won’t be tested. But the crucial points are going to be those where Hamilton can get within a sniff of taking him on, can get wheel-to-wheel. That’s where Verstappen may need to go against his natural instincts.
Bear in mind also that Hamilton’s previous strategy of always giving Verstappen room wasn’t his natural instinct. Hamilton running free races with bold abandon, loves ‘the dance’ as he calls wheel-to-wheel battling. It’s just rarely been the most appropriate approach for his situation. Verstappen has not actually encountered the natural Hamilton before. Because ever since Verstappen came into F1, Hamilton has been busy winning titles, of ensuring winnable championships were not lost. Either to complacency or to getting involved in fights he had no need to.
How Verstappen reacts to the post-Silverstone reality in those races where Hamilton can challenge him is going to be the dominant narrative of this season. There are either going to be more clashes between them – in which case the outcome of the title battle becomes almost random – or Verstappen relaxes into his new situation and shows the multiple dimensions of a natural champion rather than merely a natural racer.