Three races have passed in the 2018 Formula 1 season, and for the third time in as many races, Max Verstappen has made a serious mistake which has compromised his grand prix result. For a driver equipped with one of the six top cars in a Red Bull, this cannot be acceptable. In his fourth season in F1, there cannot be any excuses for these performances.
In Australia, Verstappen carelessly spun and compromised his race as a result. In Bahrain, he collided with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and the subsequent damage ended his race. In addition to that, he crashed in qualifying due to his ‘right foot’. In China, he lost a place after running wide following a move which was never on – again on Hamilton. Later, he punted Sebastian Vettel off the road after another move which was never on and was subsequently given a time penalty in a race he could and should have won.
After a couple of poor races in 2016, Red Bull dropped Daniil Kvyat back to Toro Rosso. It was a demoralising move and the young Russian’s career never took back off afterwards. It effectively signalled the slow destruction of his career. Given that Verstappen has recently signed a lucrative deal with the Red Bull family worth a substantial amount of money and that Mercedes and Ferrari could well poach him, it seems unlikely that there will be a repeat of this action this time around.
There is no denying that the young Dutch superstar-in-the-making is jam-packed with the potential to become one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time. Look no further than his unbelievable performance at Interlagos in 2016 for evidence. That, and he solidly had the upper hand over team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in 2017 – even if the points tally at the conclusion of the season said otherwise. As Ricciardo is one of the absolute best in the business – twice since 2014 has he been my driver of the year, this is not something to overlook.
It is incredible to watch Verstappen drive. When the TV coverage cuts to an onboard or a reply of him, there is always the anticipation that something dramatic is about to occur, and that is usually the case. Some of his overtakes are exquisite, and there is just something about the way he goes about his driving that gives the same aura that the likes of Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna or (a young) Lewis Hamilton had. There is also a James Hunt-esque maverick feel about him. And as a result he is already becoming immensely popular worldwide, with the potential to be on the same level as the likes of Valentino Rossi.
But the start of this season has been incredibly scruffy from Verstappen. Sure, at just 20 years of age he remains very young. But with three full seasons at this level under his belt, there is no need to be making half-assed attempts at moves which are never on. These are moves which are likely to be seen much lower down the racing ladder – not at the pinnacle in one of the coveted machines on the grid.
Perhaps a bit of experience is what Verstappen is lacking. It is worth remembering that throughout his entire career in cars, he has started just over 100 races. That is not a massive amount. It is very uncommon for a driver to do just one year in cars before jumping straight into F1, but that is what Verstappen did ahead of the 2015 season. Now that he has a car capable of fighting with the absolute best – Vettel and Hamilton for two obvious examples, he is up against immensely-experienced drivers who are not going to simply move out of the way and wave him by.
Verstappen is continuing to learn how to race. He is still not the finished product. The other side of the garage is probably good evidence of this. Ricciardo is now 28 and was clinical with his overtaking at China after the late-race safety car, and this is what gave him the win. Ricciardo had five and a half years in racing before jumping to F1 with minnows HRT in 2011, before having two seasons at Toro Rosso. By the time he moved to Red Bull in 2014, he was effectively the complete driver already, as seen by how he crushed Vettel when they were team-mates.
It should not matter how old a driver is, or how much experience they have – be it in F1 or elsewhere, there should not be excuses for performances such as what we have seen from Verstappen early this season on a consist basis. It does toy the argument that Verstappen was moved into F1 and then to Red Bull a bit too early, and it is starting to show. The same was regularly said of Kvyat when he made the massive mistakes at the start of the 2016 season, and then swapped ironically with Verstappen.
So, what does Verstappen do from here? He claimed that he wouldn’t change his style after the Bahrain incident, and perhaps that aggressiveness is what prompted the China mistakes. He looked genuinely sorry after the race, so he may just re-think that one again. What he must not do is allow this to dent his confidence, otherwise his team-mate will absolutely destroy him mentally and on the track, and that is before any other four-time champion title rivals are mentioned. It’s an immense mental challenge for a 20-year-old.
The Red Bull is a car capable of fighting for the championship at this stage of the season, but Verstappen already finds himself 36 points off the championship lead after three races. Not a gap which is impossible to make up, but he is already on the back foot. Therefore, it is important that he knows how to pick up the results when it counts. In the constructors’ championship, Red Bull lost a likely 1-2 with Verstappen’s driving today, and now the team sits 30 points away from leaders Mercedes. Again, not a massive amount, but a deficit which is much more than it should be.
I hope that the excitement aspect of Verstappen never changes. Whether that idea is conceivable – given that he needs to refine himself – or not, is unclear. But if he is to have a significant say in this championship fight, he needs to learn when to pick his battles and how to deliver more than just excitement on the track, but consistent results. There is an immense talent there, and it should not be wasted through silly mistakes.