Speculation about Max Verstappen’s latest misstep have not been easy to absorb for a Briton of our vintage who takes a fair bit of pleasure in the apparent ease and elegance of modern racing.
Verstappen has consistently produced speeds well beyond his years, lapping almost 35 seconds quicker than any of his rivals in last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. These are feats achieved by professionals at the best clubs and universities in the world but if you know anything about young drivers it is an impressive achievement, all the more so when you consider that Verstappen’s family was only married on 11 September. A scholarship in Monaco cost over a million pounds.
Last Sunday’s lap from start to finish was 6.969 seconds faster than anybody else, and more than 50 seconds quicker than the Spaniard who finished second, Lewis Hamilton. What does one make of such feats? They are all the more remarkable when you consider how young they are.
If there are doubts about Verstappen’s talent and intellect, however, there is none about his tenacity. Most drivers would have acquiesced to some aesthetic punishment like spinning off at 200mph, when there is always a question mark about how much of the track they might drift around or whether they might slip sideways under braking.
We know he is a canny learner and that cannyness has been exploited at times, but you know when someone is in their element and when they have the confidence of their choice. There is no doubt Verstappen is a confident driver and he does not have to do what seems the obvious. The word “Vettel-esque” was used in reference to him. Verstappen seemed to stop listening to his team principals at the Malaysian Grand Prix when his car overheated and he had to qualify 13th. He could have been as low as 12th but in truth he should not have qualified that low. Two days later he was at full throttle into the final chicane in Spa and survived a furious crash to finish seventh.
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The 24-year-old crashed into the wall at high speed going into a turn yet showed no fear and drove the whole way back into the pits with only minor damage. On a weather-affected dry track on the other side of the street some reporters called it “complicated”. But it made sense, as this was both a schoolboy driving and a racing driver with a serious point to prove. Of all the teams in Formula One and an exceptional driver, Verstappen is the least visibly confident. I remember once there were five teenage men in the first row who were dropped after collecting just one point between them. Verstappen has the potential to reach such an exalted level but it is not necessarily easy to achieve.
Never mind his age, he has the appearance of a man who has had to become a top racer at an early age and have to cope with the expectations that will always surround him, in his case, especially in this generation. Verstappen is the story of modern Formula One. His introduction to the sport has been built up by an entire media and fuelled by a series of explosive encounters with his critics. He is a danger for his fellow drivers but I remember being less concerned about Pirelli than when he was told he would never win and nobody believed him.
There are a lot of regrets to be made on Hamilton’s victory in Spa. The four-times world champion is clearly the best driver in the world and he deserved to be there to celebrate. Fernando Alonso might as well have got an egg on his face, given how much he needs points to stay in the title race. On the other hand Verstappen is a pleasure to watch, maybe even a thrill to hear, and for that his spirit and talent is to be applauded.