Everyone knows that sort of potential is within Verstappen too, as he evidenced in Budapest last year when his crash on the way to the grid preceded an excellent drive to second himself. And it’s exactly because of that potential that the small moments he had control of in Portugal deserve close scrutiny.
As Mark Hughes has already pointed out, there were other factors to Hamilton’s win on Sunday than simply errors from Verstappen, but there were mistakes that the Dutchman might not be able to afford in such a close title fight.
“I’m a bit amused because Max Verstappen is starting to understand better and better how good Lewis Hamilton is,” Nico Rosberg – the last man to beat Hamilton to a championship – said in his role as a Sky Sports pundit after the race. “He needs to do everything perfect to beat him in the championship and at the moment it’s two-one to Lewis.”
“Yeah, I don’t need Nico to make me realise how good Lewis is,” Verstappen responded. “I know he’s very good, otherwise you don’t win so many championships.”
But while Verstappen might not need Rosberg to tell him anything, that doesn’t mean Rosberg is wrong.
It can come down to things as small as a few degrees too much steering lock, or a single mile an hour too quick at the apex of a corner. Or not knowing the regulations well enough.
At the end of Q2, pole position looked a tall order for Verstappen. Mercedes was much more comfortable on the medium tyre in that session and well clear of Red Bull. But on the softs in the fight for pole it was a different matter, and Verstappen’s first lap would have been good enough for pole position, but for his snap of oversteer at Turn 4.
Verstappen said it was easy flat and that he was surprised to lose the rear, but nobody else suffered the same issue on their lap. Perhaps the tyres weren’t quite in the window, perhaps it was as simple as a gust of wind at an unfortunate moment, but regardless of whether the driver could have done anything different on that lap, he had another chance and had shown the lap time was in there.
On his final run, Verstappen was a little more tentative. He was within 0.1sec of his previous best for much of it, but it was going to be so close with the Mercedes pair until the final sector. He blamed Sebastian Vettel for being in his way, but the final few corners appeared slightly scruffy.
Hamilton wasn’t perfect either as Valtteri Bottas took pole, but both Mercedes drivers were closer to it as they got in clean first laps when the track conditions were arguably better.
As small as those incidents were, they left Verstappen having to pass two Mercedes cars on track rather than leading away from them from pole, and that would prove crucial on Sunday. Hamilton gave him half a chance by defending poorly on the Safety Car restart, but despite getting a second crack at being ahead of his rival, it was Verstappen this time who made another small error at Turn 14 that allowed Hamilton to regain the position.
Hamilton also showed he could follow and overtake both Verstappen and the Mercedes of Bottas better than either of his biggest threats as he decisively jumped the Finn into Turn 1 with a strong move.