Why Max Verstappen needs to be perfect in order to beat Lewis Hamilton


It's two-one in Lewis Hamilton's favour and Chris Medland says minor errors from Max Verstappen underline how perfect the Red Bull man needs to be to win the 2021 title


Fine margins and familiar errors have prevented a championship lead for Verstappen so far


I’m about to be really harsh on Max Verstappen, but then he’s harsh on himself so I’m sure he won’t mind.

The Red Bull driver has more than played his part in what has been a thrilling start to the new season, with three races on the bounce that have seen either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton take victory, but more importantly, both look capable of doing so at each race.

We could quite conceivably be sitting here now with Hamilton having won all three races or Verstappen taking a hat-trick, but as neither driver has produced perfection the wins are split. Yet it’s Hamilton who has come closer to it more often, and that’s the standard Verstappen has to hit.

When we look back to the Bahrain Grand Prix – already feeling long ago – it’s clear where Verstappen’s error was. If he’d kept it clean around the outside of Turn 4 and remained within track limits he would have won the race. He had to nail that opportunity, and he didn’t.

Sure, he bounced back in Imola, but his own error on his final run in qualifying made life harder for himself as he lined up third on the grid, and it took an excellent start to rectify that one.

Luck is obviously going to play a major part, too, and Hamilton got more than a fair slice when he went off chasing Verstappen in the wet, dropping a lap down before the red flag that afforded him the opportunity to climb back up to second place with a hugely impressive recovery.

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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.

Lewis Hamilton, 2021 Portuguese GP

Hamilton fought back against Verstappen to retake position on the restart after a small error at the exit of Turn 14


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.

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“I had to make the move early on, before the tyres were destroyed and I managed to just get him in Turn 1, just right on the limit,” Hamilton said afterwards of the overtake around the outside.

Think back to Bahrain, and Verstappen got one chance to overtake Hamilton in similar fashion but didn’t execute it cleanly. Reverse the situation and have Max pulling it off in the first race and Lewis failing to in the second, and the swing is 21 points.

But even one extra point could prove crucial this year, and Verstappen should have salvaged it with his final flying lap of the race on Sunday. It needed to be perfect – he initially beat Bottas’ time by just 0.016sec – but it wasn’t as he ran wide at Turn 14. This time it seemed to be a choice as he got on the throttle and opened the steering earlier, allowing the car to drift out there “because they were not checking track limits in 14”.

Except they were.

Verstappen was the only driver to see a lap time deleted for running wide at Turn 14 in the race, but the race director’s event notes had been updated on Saturday morning and it was clearly being policed.“The track limits at the exit of Turn 14 are defined as when no part of the car remains in contact with the red and white kerb,” the update read.

Such small things add up, and they add up quickly. If we just take the Bahrain incident and final lap in Portimao – the two directly in Verstappen’s control – you could argue he has cost himself 15 points in three races and helped Hamilton pick up seven. Extend that to the hypothetical pole lap and it becomes 25, but also pegs Hamilton’s total back by at least 14 points.

It isn’t a massive reach to suggest we could be talking about Verstappen holding a 31-point advantage at this stage of the year. I told you I was going to be really harsh…

It’s brilliant that such small moments will potentially play a pivotal role in the outcome of this season’s championship because it shows just how close things are between Hamilton and Verstappen, and how both need to be striving for perfection to come out on top. That’s exactly how a drivers’ championship battle should be.