Up close with F1's youngest ever race winner - Max Verstappen
On big days I always like to get down onto the grid before a Grand Prix and look the protagonist in the eyes.
On big days I always like to get down onto the grid before a Grand Prix and look the protagonist in the eyes. I've done it with Senna, Prost, Mansell, Schumacher, Hamilton, Vettel and many others down the years.
Today it was all about Max Verstappen's first race for Red Bull Racing, starting from fourth place on the grid. It was from this spot in 2011 that Fernando Alonso charged into the lead on the opening corner.
So Verstappen was in a position to challenge and I wanted to see how he was handling the pressure.
His car arrived on the grid slowly, pushed by the Red Bull mechanics into its grid slot. He climbed out, removed his helmet and ear plugs and had a close up chat with Gianpiero Lambiase, his new race engineer, who worked with Daniil Kvyat until last week.
Two things struck me; his calmness and his confidence. You could see it in his eyes and his body language. Surrounded by around 10 photographers in a semi circle, no more than three of four metres away he had TV and radio reporters hovvering too.
The brief conference with Lambiase concluded, he was grabbed first by BBC 5 Live, then by a German TV interviewer who moved seemlessly into position. David Coulthard was lurking just behind, waiting to give Channel 4 viewers a word with F1's hot new thing. As soon as the German had wound up, Coulthard pounced and fired a series of questions at the 18 year old, who switched back into English to answer. 15 minutes to go to the start of the most important race of his life and Verstappen has processed the requests and now has to make his way to the front of the grid for the national anthem.
You can tell when a driver is nervous and the difference between nervous and keyed-up is also obvious. Verstappen was neither. He looked calm and he looked extremely confident.
I grabbed a quick chat with Lambiase, "He's a cool customer," I observed.
"Amazing," said the engineer, who went on to talk about how he had come to Milton Keynes and got through all the work and adaptation as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
The race came to him, of course, after Mercedes retired and Red Bull split the strategies in the face of a Ferrari car that was clearly a shade faster. It turned out that the two stopper was the way to go and that the three stopper was not competitive. You need a bit of luck to win in F1.
But what was most extraordinary about Verstappen's performance was that the strategy called for him to do 32 laps on a set of medium tyres to the finish. This is quite a challenge in itself for a rookie, one of the toughest things to master about Pirelli era F1.
But to do it in a car you've never raced before and only had limited testing time on Friday, is astonishing. With more worn tyres than Raikkonen behind him, a locked brake or a slide on corner exit would have given the Finn an opportunuty to pounce.
Verstappen worked on ensuring that he had a good exit from the slow chicane at the end of Sector 3 and that meant that he was 0.7s ahead of Raikkonen across the start line. Even with DRS and a little more power, it didn't give the Ferrari driver enough to work with. As he sat in the Dutchman's wheel tracks, his tyres lost their edge and the race was Verstappen's.
He walked into the post race press conference room with a smile on his face, but not euphoric. It all seemed quite natural to him and as Sebastian Vettel coached him in some of the protocols of the Top 3 interviews, he just dealt with it and spoke of his feelings:
"It’s amazing. I mean, this race felt like an endurance race to me, especially the last 10 laps. I couldn't believe that I was leading the race. And yeah, today just everything went well. I could hold on to the tyres and I think we did the best strategy possible and yeah, unbelievable, I can’t believe it.
"It is a very big surprise. Of course I didn’t expect that. On the first stint on the soft I could keep up quite well after the two Mercedes crashed. But at one point, if you are so close behind the first you start to destroy your tyres so yeah I lost a bit of ground there and we decided to pit and again there, when we went onto the medium tyre, the car felt great.
"From there on I was just managing my speed, my tyres; I was just managing everything. At the end I think we did the best strategy possible. Especially in the last stint I got quite a bit of pressure from Kimi behind, but on this track it’s quite difficult to overtake so for me it was a case of not making mistakes, no front locking, so that’s what I tried to do and it worked. This feeling to be first… I was targeting a podium but then to win straight away, it’s an amazing feeling."
F1 is a hype driven sport and one that has a constant running social media commentary. Verstappen already has some anti fans, who dislike his 'entitlement' or feel that he and his father have pushed Kvyat out of a race winning car. There are probably even a few out there who think that Red Bull deliberately moved Ricciardo onto a three stop strategy, knowing it was the wrong way to go, to open up the chance for the golden boy to shine.
There's nothing you can do about these things.
Christian Horner said he reminds him of Sebastian Vettel when he arrived at the team. To me he carries himself more like Schumacher, although he drives differently. It's that innate confidence that catches the eye. Schumacher won on his 18th F1 start, Verstappen on his 24th.
But Max Verstappen has real quality and above all he has the nerve to be a race winner and a champion in this sport.That is what we learned today.
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