Can Verstappen resist Hamilton’s late surge and get his Red Bull over the line?
The 24-year-old enters the Saudi Arabian GP knowing he has a shot at sealing his maiden world title. But Mercedes has upgraded its performance over the season and now has the faster car, with two rounds to go. What’s more, Jeddah’s high-speed layout should suit it better this weekend
Ever since Max Verstappen began karting at the age of four, his entire life path was carefully charted out to get him to this point — fighting for the Formula One drivers’ championship.
And on Sunday, with the F1 circus in Jeddah for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Verstappen, for the first time in his career, will enter a race knowing he can seal his maiden title.
With an eight-point lead, he needs to outscore rival Lewis Hamilton by 18 points. That way, even if Hamilton scores 26 points (25 for a win + 1 for fastest lap) in Abu Dhabi’s season finale, Verstappen, with more race wins, will be crowned champion on countback.
The 24-year-old has been the season’s standout driver, with consistent performances right through. The high levels at which he is operating is not a huge surprise, considering racing runs in his blood — his father Jos is a former F1 driver and mother Sophie Kumpen an accomplished racer at karting level.
Once he made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2015, the youngest ever to do so, it was always a matter of when rather than if Verstappen would be fighting for a world title.
While it has taken six years for him to get the machinery to mount a challenge, it has also come at a time when he is at the peak of his powers as a racing driver. Promoted to the Red Bull seat early in 2016, after a stint with Scuderia Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), Verstappen made an instant impact, winning his first race in Barcelona with his new team. But over the next two years, he had to learn the hard way that his prodigious speed wasn’t enough if he kept clipping barriers and running into competitors.
In then teammate Daniel Ricciardo, he had one of the quickest drivers to keep him honest, and it took until the second half of 2018 for a new version of Verstappen to finally emerge — a complete driver with the rough edges sharpened. Once he got his head around the reality that battles aren’t won on the first lap or in one corner, the youngster has raised his game every single year.
Over the last two years, in the second-best car that was well behind Mercedes, he was comfortably third in the standings, with a few opportunistic wins on tracks where his Red Bull had a shot. It made him a well-rounded competitor, ready for when the chance to compete for the title came.
That opportunity presented itself this season. A key change in the regulations, pertaining to the floor of the car near the rear wheels, tripped up Mercedes. Red Bull’s philosophy of running a high rake — the car’s rear has a higher ground clearance and the nose dips closer to the ground — helped it cope better with the rule tweak.
Verstappen made the most of the advantage, hardly putting a foot wrong. In any other year, nine wins and seven second-place finishes out of twenty rounds would have given him a handy lead. But Verstappen has been a touch unfortunate: he has lost big points even when his own driving hasn’t been at fault. He had little control over the only time he finished outside the top two — in Hungary, he was hit from behind by Lando Norris in an incident triggered by Valtteri Bottas at the start. The Red Bull car suffered a huge performance loss from missing bits and finished ninth.
Two of his three non-finishes have seen him endure rotten luck. In Baku, he was forced to retire from the lead with a puncture. Then there was Silverstone, where he came out worse in the crash with Hamilton, whom the stewards found responsible. The seven-time world champion went on to win despite serving a penalty. It was the race in which Mercedes made a significant upgrade and has since been the fastest car by a small margin on average.
Even if one were to point out that Verstappen could have played the percentages better in Silverstone and maybe dropped only a few points, the misfortune in Baku and Hungary, where he could have got on the podium, has denied him around 40 points.
Hamilton in contrast made a few costly mistakes, including out-braking himself into the first corner after the safety car restart in Baku when fighting for the lead, causing him not to score any points. Earlier in the season, he was lucky with the timing of a red flag in Imola that allowed him to repair his front wing damage after he crashed into a wall, enabling him to come back and finish second.
But over the last two races, the reigning champion has responded to the challenge from the contender to his throne with scintillating but contrasting performances in Brazil and Qatar. It has also coincided with Red Bull losing ground to Mercedes in terms of pace, partly due to the circuit characteristics, which put more pressure on the Dutchman.
In Interlagos, Verstappen’s old habits reared their heads once again when he tried to push Hamilton out wide on a corner when braking even as the latter was trying to overtake him. It relied more on Hamilton backing out to avoid a huge crash.
In Qatar, during a weekend when his Red Bull was no match for Mercedes, Verstappen failed to obey double-yellow flags on his qualifying lap and did not slow down enough, incurring a five-place penalty. He still managed to finish second, the best result possible, but exhausted unnecessary mental and physical energy fighting his way from seventh and risked his title chances.
Of the remaining two rounds, Jeddah’s high-speed layout could favour Mercedes while Abu Dhabi is unknown territory, considering a new circuit will be used for the first time. On the old layout around Yas Marina, Red Bull would have been favoured; that track was rear-limited, with traction out of slow corners being the key to a good lap time — a strength of the Red Bull car.
But the upcoming weekend could also play into Verstappen’s hands. He is the only one who can win the title while Hamilton will be desperate to stay alive. It offers a window of opportunity for some smart driving: qualifying well, even leading the race for a bit and pressuring Mercedes to do something different.
Verstappen has hardly betrayed any nerves in his first title fight, but as the last two weekends have shown, he is not immune to moments of red mist. While the title race will still largely depend on whose car better suits the remaining tracks, it will be interesting to see how he handles the two most crucial races of his career. As the great Michael Schumacher found out, despite his seven championships, the stain of his first title in 1994, which came after taking out rival Damon Hill in the final race, and his failed attempt to do the same to Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 marred his legacy.
If Verstappen can keep it clean and do what he has done all year — extract the most out of his car — he will give himself the best chance of ending the season not only with his head held high but also as the world champion.