Verstappen win proves F1 is still magic

Formula Spy writer Thomas Maher on the 18-year-old's maiden grand Prix win

Max Verstappen

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands celebrates on the podium after winning the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Barcelona Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, May 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

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Max Verstappen’s Spanish Grand Prix win was one of those sporting moments where absolutely all the right circumstances came together and allowed Formula 1 to let the supposedly unthinkable happen. Just how did a young driver of just 18 years old pull off a victory in his first race in a competitive F1 car, holding off the continuous and relentless pressure from the veteran World Champion inches behind his gearbox?

The possibility of a Verstappen win began almost straight away in Friday practice, his first day ever to drive the Red Bull RB12, when he was immediately on the pace. Less than 0.2 seconds slower than teammate Daniel Ricciardo, he proved that he had gotten to grips with the car almost immediately. Going into qualifying, he was astonishing. P3 in both Q1 and Q2, only trailing the dominant Mercedes drivers, he already seemed to be justifying Red Bull’s decision to promote him to the seat. Daniel Ricciardo responded in Q3, going 0.4 seconds clear of Verstappen to take P3, with the teenager slotting into P4.

Raceday dawned, and there were many questions to be answered. Would Lewis Hamilton walk away with it? Could Nico Rosberg rise to the challenge of defeating Hamilton in a straight fight? Would Red Bull be swallowed up by Ferrari? The lights went out, and the race set about answering some of those questions.

Mercedes self-destruct

Lewis Hamilton, starting from pole, made a good start, as did Nico Rosberg. But, the run down to Turn 1 at the Spanish circuit is one of the longest in F1, and Rosberg used Hamilton’s slipstream to snake to the outside and outbrake the reigning Champion into Turn 1. Rosberg had taken the lead and, at Catalunya, that’s important – it’s one of the toughest tracks to overtake at.

Heading through Turn 3, Hamilton started quickly catching his teammate through the long right hander and darted to the inside approaching Turn 4. Rosberg, moving over to cover the inside, got in Hamilton’s way and Lewis lost control, heading onto the grass and sliding sideways. This resulted in him hitting the back of Rosberg’s car and both were immediately out, coming to a stop in an angry cloud of dust as Hamilton threw his steering wheel out of the car in fury.

Team boss Toto Wolff didn’t point the finger specifically at either driver, saying that he felt both were within their rights to make the moves that they had, although Merc’s Niki Lauda felt that Hamilton had been too aggressive. Further explanation revealed that Rosberg had been in the wrong engine setting at the start, remaining in his launch mode for longer than he was supposed to, allowing Hamilton to come back and challenge Rosberg through Turn 3.

Explaining the accident afterwards, Hamilton said:

“I got a good start but I was slipstreamed into Turn 1, through Turn 3 I was quicker than Nico.”

“Nico happened to be in the wrong engine mode, I was gaining on him, I had decent pace, where he positioned the car there was a car width to the right of the racing line and I had to decide whether to go left, which is the racing line, or to the right.

“The inside line is always the one you go for, it’s a much bigger gap so I went for it, I got there and I had part of my wheel and wing alongside within the white line but that diminished pretty quickly.

“I did what I could to avoid an incident but I was on the grass, and it all happened pretty quickly.”

“I got a great start and I was excited about taking the lead.” said a visibly annoyed Rosberg afterwards. “I noticed the engine was down at power coming around to Turn 3 and I was in an incorrect mode. I knew Lewis was closing in so I closed the door with a strong move and next thing I know, I was in the gravel trap.”

“I’m going to go with what the experts say, that it was a racing incident. I could change the setting back without looking, it’s just a button that I knew where it was, I was fully concentrating on the battle with Lewis. I was just surprised that he went for that inside gap.”

Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton of Britain, left, and Nico Rosberg of Germany enter the first curve during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Barcelona Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, May 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Whoever was to blame, it meant that the lead went straight to Daniel Ricciardo who led ahead of Max Verstappen, with Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz an astonishing P3 after making a great start from P8 to jump the two Ferraris. Sebastian Vettel was P4 with Kimi Raikkonen P5.

The Ferraris set about passing the Toro Rosso, succeeding quickly and meaning the order was Ricciardo, Verstappen, Vettel, Raikkonen with only small gaps between them. Ricciardo was the first to pit, stopping on Lap 11 and taking on a set of Medium tyres, followed the next lap by Verstappen and Raikkonen, both also taking the Mediums. Vettel stayed out a little longer, stopping on Lap 15.

The divergence in race strategies happened at the mid point of the race. Believing the two stop strategy to be the superior one, Ferrari and Red Bull brought in their leading drivers Ricciardo and Vettel on Laps 28 and 29 respectively. They left Verstappen and Raikkonen out, the Finn rapidly gaining on the young teenager as he utilised the Ferrari’s superior race pace. Verstappen pitted at the end of Lap 34, Raikkonen on Lap 35, coming out in P3 and P4. They moved up a place when Vettel pitted again on Lap 37, having run a short third stint on the Soft tyre before changing back to the Mediums to get to the end with better tyre life than the two stoppers. Ricciardo followed suit on Lap 43, with Vettel and Ricciardo supposedly in the prime positions to catch and pass Verstappen and Raikkonen who would be struggling with tyre life towards the end.


 Race winner Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands, centre, poses with 2nd placed Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland, left and 3rd placed Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany on the podium at the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at the Barcelona Catalunya racetrack in Montmelo, just outside Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, May 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

However, despite Vettel and Ricciardo gaining relatively quickly on the Verstappen/Raikkonen combo up front, they began squabbling with each other. Ricciardo dived past Vettel into Turn 1 on one lap, having used DRS to catch up down the main straight, but left it slightly too late and both hand to run wide to avoid hitting each other, prompting an incensed Vettel to exclaim over the radio “What are we doing here, racing or ping-pong?”.

Up front, Verstappen led from Raikkonen but the Ferrari driver had closed the gap down to within DRS range with almost twenty laps remaining. Surely, the young, inexperienced Verstappen in his first race in unfamiliar machinery couldn’t possibly hold off the veteran Raikkonen in his Ferrari? Lap after lap, Kimi stalked the Red Bull, probing to find a weakness and harry the pressured Red Bull driver. Quicker through Sector 1 & Sector 2, Raikkonen was tucked under the gearbox of Verstappen but, crucially, wasn’t able to get the traction out of the final corner that he needed to outdrag the Red Bull down the main straight. Crossing the line 0.5-0.6 seconds behind Verstappen every lap, he couldn’t get to 0.4 or less which would have allowed him to get alongside Max into the first corner. With five laps to go, Raikkonen’s tyres started to give up and Max eased clear, crossing the line to win his first F1 race, much to the delight of pretty much everyone in the paddock, apart from Ricciardo and the demoted Daniil Kvyat who drove Verstappen’s Red Bull up until two weeks ago.

The circumstances all came together nicely to allow the Red Bull driver to take the win but there was no doubt that he had put in a stellar drive. The Mercedes collision set up a direct Red Bull vs. Ferrari duel, and the diverging strategies were, no doubt, intended to set up Daniel Ricciardo for the victory against Ferrari’s Vettel. Instead, the two stopper proved the better strategy and meant Verstappen and Raikkonen were the stars of Sunday’s race.

Speaking afterwards, the 18 year old, who has won his first race at a younger age than anyone else has even ever started a Grand Prix, said:

“It’s a very special feeling. Of course I didn’t expect to win; after the Mercedes pair crashed then you’re targeting a podium, but in the end to come out on top, it’s incredible.

“To hear the Dutch national anthem for the first time in Formula One, I have to think about my dad for sure and I heard he was crying, so yeah it’s unbelievable. He invested a lot of time in me and this achievement is also because of him. I wasn’t nervous during the race, I was just trying to focus and drive the best I could.

“We focused a lot on keeping the tyres alive because at my last stop I still had to do 32 laps until the end, but it worked out well!

“With five laps to the end I saw Kimi was dropping off a bit, he tried a few times and of course it kills your tyres and from there I just like ‘okay, focus on the tyres now and bring it home’. I will for sure remember this and at the moment it’s just a great feeling. It’s amazing, I have no words for it. It was very good company on the podium, I mean Kimi even raced against my dad, so it’s very funny! I was celebrating a lot on the in lap and I got a bit of cramp, but that’s part of it!”