Too much negative focus on Max Verstappen — he deserves credit for another fine drive
Whenever Max Verstappen puts in an excellent drive it seems it is soon overshadowed by other events. It is becoming a reoccurring theme for the Dutch teenager.
His record-setting win on debut for Red Bull Racing at the Spanish Grand Prix in May, following his promotion from Toro Rosso, garnered plenty of accolades, but the applause was drummed out by talk of a first-lap collision between the Mercedes-GP cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
Then, when he was the best of the non-Mercedes cars in Austria and Britain in July, it was controversy involving Rosberg that took centre stage both times.
He was superb in Malaysia last weekend, and was arguably the quicker Red Bull despite finishing behind teammate Daniel Ricciardo in the team’s first one-two finish in almost three years, but again the attention was on Hamilton, after a blown engine ended his race and allowed Ricciardo to capitalise.
When the focus has been on Verstappen, 19, it has often been for the wrong reasons, with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, rebuking him publicly for his defensive driving in both Hungary and Belgium.
More from the Japanese Grand Prix:
• Talking points: Max Verstappen on the edge and ‘what if?’ for Kimi Raikkonen
Verstappen’s defending of position was again the main talking point on Sunday, after Hamilton ran off the Suzuka track at the final chicane on the penultimate lap to avoid contact as they fought for second.
Mercedes protested Verstappen’s driving, claiming he had driven “erratically and in a dangerous manner”, though that was subsequently withdrawn after Hamilton revealed on social media he had no issue with what Verstappen did, despite complaining on the pit radio that the Dutchman moved in the braking zone.
The understanding between drivers is once you have chosen your line entering a corner on the brakes, be it inside or outside, you stick to it. Verstappen claimed he had seen Hamilton’s move and was entitled to move to the inside to defend the corner.
It was hard racing, but in reality, as Verstappen himself said, if he had left the inside wide open he would have left himself open to criticism of naivety. Yes, he did move under braking, but it was early enough into the corner for it not to be viewed as a block.
The fact he was spoken to, before news of a Mercedes protest, by Charlie Whiting, the FIA race director, shows motorsport’s ruling body had at least some concerns with the move, although no retrospective action was taken.
Whether Verstappen was in the wrong or not, the incident only detracts from an otherwise accomplished drive. It is the first time in six races, stretching back to July, that he had beaten Ricciardo in a race, and it was a great response after Malaysia.
Verstappen was faster in qualifying in Sepang, but fell behind his teammate at the start as he ran wide avoiding the aftermath of Sebastian Vettel’s collision with Rosberg.
He had been behind the Australian, but on fresher tyres, and had just gone wheel-to-wheel for a few corners, but crucially unable to get past, when Hamilton’s engine blew up.
Suddenly the fight for second was now for the win, but Red Bull, using the virtual safety car period that had been deployed due to Hamilton’s car being in an unsafe place, pitted both their drivers, and on fresh rubber, Ricciardo held on to win.
Verstappen had been a victim of circumstance in finishing behind Ricciardo, but didn’t complain. He celebrated with the team and kicked on with another fine drive on Sunday.
Ricciardo has said publicly that Verstappen has made him raise his game since he joined the team. This is coming from the only man to ever outscore Vettel, the four-time world champion, in the same car over a season.
In their 12 races together as teammates it is 176-152 to Ricciardo in points scored, but when both men have had problem-free weekends there has been little between them.
Verstappen only joined Red Bull in May, replacing Daniil Kyvat. How much better will he be in a car that he has had a full pre-season with and helped to develop?
Verstappen is only going to get stronger with more experience, and if Red Bull can close the gap to Mercedes over the winter, then a championship challenge, and the chance to be F1’s youngest world champion, is a very real prospect for 2017.
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Updated: October 10, 2016 04:00 AM