FORMULA 1

Max Verstappen hits 21 and skips from boy racer to seasoned F1 veteran | Giles Richards | Sport

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Strong-willed, opinionated, uncompromising: Max Verstappen has always insisted that when it came to his driving only one person knew best – Max. Even under a barrage of criticism this season Verstappen vowed he would not change his style.

A command performance at the last round in Russia was the latest in a series of races that seemed to justify his self-belief. Yet it also suggests the emergence of a new Verstappen, one that is establishing the broader credentials needed to win the world championship.

He goes into this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, where he has finished second for the last two years, on a roll. His race last week at Sochi, where he went from 19th to fifth, was a tour de force. With his Red Bull at the back because of grid penalties, the Dutchman scythed through the field. He was up to 13th by the end of lap one. By lap seven, when he passed Charles Leclerc for fifth, only the Ferraris and Mercedes remained in front.

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, likened the performance to that of a veteran. “It was one of the most outstanding first few laps I’ve seen for a long time,” he said. “I think he’s had some great races but this was an attacking race.”

What stood out was the clinical precision with which Verstappen drove. His moves, particularly through turn 13 – no easy place to pass – were executed decisively and cleanly. This was a world away from the clumsy, poor judgment that blighted his opening races and led to calls for him to change his approach.

That had reached a nadir with the crash in practice at Monaco which cost him a place in qualifying. Afterwards Horner joined those hoping he would learn from his mistakes. Verstappen tired of talking about it; he would answer his critics on the track, he declared, and he did so in the following races.

At the next round in Canada, he had a superb start from third and went wheel to wheel with Valtteri Bottas through the opening corners. It could have ended messily but wise heads prevailed and Verstappen kept it clean to be rewarded with a podium finish. He was then second in France and followed it with a win in Austria.

Max Verstappen has finished ahead of his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying for the last 10 grands prix.



Max Verstappen has finished ahead of his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying for the last 10 grands prix. Photograph: Charles Coates/Getty Images

The retirement of the two Mercedes was crucial at the Red Bull Ring but Verstappen put himself in position to take advantage after an opening lap battle with Kimi Raikkonen. It was hard racing, the pair banged wheels but both kept their heads and Verstappen came out in front. He won with a combination of honed aggression and patience.

Before the race he believed he had already made his point in sticking to his guns. “I know I will always be right,” he told me. “Of course there will be difficult times and there will be more in the future but I know what I have to do in the car.”

Further strong races seemed to vindicate him, including a fourth-place finish in Germany and third at Spa. Moreover he was consistently outpacing his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. Since Monaco he has out-qualified the Australian 10-0, a remarkable record against a talented driver.

However it is Singapore that stands out. Verstappen’s race there demonstrated that despite the protestations something has actually changed behind the wheel. His qualifying lap was outstanding, just three-tenths from Lewis Hamilton who had put in the run of his career to take pole. Indeed Verstappen might have been closer but for a software-induced engine misfire.

Starting from second he had to battle a determined Sebastian Vettel through Raffles Avenue. Verstappen fought him hard but, inches apart, finally ceded the pace into turn seven. It was a wise decision to play the percentages and fight on and proved advantageous. He stuck to the team’s plan and regained his place through the pit stops. Then, chasing Hamilton in the final third as they encountered traffic there was a sniff of a chance to go for the lead. He said afterwards he knew he had an opportunity but “didn’t want to take the risk”.

It was the right call, he held on for second and it was probably his best race of the year, exemplified not by overconfident adventure but careful, considered and sophisticated racecraft. This is not to say he has changed his style but that he has learned to adapt and evaluate situations with greater effectiveness and act on them with a cool head. A trait shared by champions.

Horner identified this after Russia, saying Verstappen has developed simply through growing up. “Since after the Monaco Grand Prix if you look at his season it has been very, very strong,” Horner said. “He’s driven some great races, I think he’s maturing.”

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Verstappen said before the 2017 season he was “always learning and nobody is a finished product”, an admission reiterated in Austria of his travails this year. “This has been character-building,” he said. “This was another step. Sometimes it is not enjoyable but sometimes you need it.”

An ill-judged defensive block against Bottas at Monza was a reminder that he has not yet tamed his heart over his head but the indications are that, having celebrated his 21st birthday in Russia, Verstappen is beginning to come of age.

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