Max Verstappen’s victory at the Spanish Grand Prix left me stunned – yet entirely unsurprised. I’ve been convinced of his incredible talent since we shared a racetrack in Florida two-and-a-half years ago. I have always stated I believe him to be something special, someone who was going to change the way we viewed the sport we love. But while one swallow does not a summer make, to have taken the gilt-edged opportunity of a step up to a world championship-winning team and to have won on debut is about as emphatic an exclamation mark to the doubters as one could envisage.
In my last column I expressed an opinion of Max which didn’t sit well with some commenters online who, hiding behind that ever-comforting veil of anonymity, decried it as anything from “idiotic” to “irresponsible” and “negligent.” One even said I should be suspended from my work on television. For having an opinion. Was it hyperbolic? To those who disagreed with the sentiment, perhaps it seemed so. But it is, and has long been, my opinion.
Raw ability and what some might call “God-given” talent is not something easily quantified. I dislike drawing comparisons, as to do so one must reach across generations, thus making the very comparison useless. The argument of how many grands prix it takes for a driver to win depends not only on the competitiveness of the car and the field, but the length of the season. While today the 24 F1 races it took Verstappen to win is barely more than a single season, in Juan Manuel Fangio’s day it would have been two-and-a-half. Technology is different. Race tracks are different. So too are tires, engines, race length, points awarded and qualifying systems. It’s not just comparing apples and oranges; it’s apples and chicken wings.
Statistics are the easy fallback position for anyone who wants to argue that their favorite driver is better than your favorite driver. But statistics only reflect results. They do not tell you anything about the manner in which those results were achieved or the racing merits of the driver who achieved them. There have been supreme talents in this sport who never won a race. Stirling Moss and Gilles Villeneueve never won an F1 world championship and yet are revered as two of the greatest Formula 1 drivers of all time. Would anyone deny this because they don’t have the word ‘champion’ aligned to them?
There is a difference between looking at numbers and watching a driver control a car. There is a difference between results and potential, talent and statistics, between emotion, opinion and cold, hard maths.
The reading of talent is something you feel, something that lies instinctively in your gut. It is a warmth of elation that rises inside you. It’s the nervousness you feel when a pretty girl looks at you. The moment you hear a song that makes your heart skip a beat. The spark inside you which ignites a flame. It is rare, but when it hits, it hits you hard. It is unmistakable and unflinching.
Raw racing talent, pure racecraft is, in itself, a type of artistry. And as art, its judging is entirely subjective and individual. It is an imperfect science because the very concept is personal. What one person sees, another might not. It’s no different to our views on art, music or literature. Wassily Kandinsky is my favorite painter, Edward Elgar and Gustav Mahler my favorite composers. The greatest movie ever committed to celluloid is “A Clockwork Orange.” Extreme, right, is the most underrated rock band in the history of the genre. The greatest album ever recorded was DJ Shadow’s “Endtroducing.” I love The Beatles and tolerate The Stones.
Max Verstappen is a once in a lifetime talent.
These are my opinions. Subjective, individual, personal reflections. Truths I hold as absolute.
Whether the quantifiable of the results Verstappen creates in his career ultimately position him in the pantheon of the all-time statistical greats is a completely different matter.
While I shy away from comparisons, many others have not. I flew back from Spain with some of the boys from Red Bull and what struck me was how immediate an impression he has made. Some told me he reminds them of Sebastian Vettel. He even gets into the car the same way. For those who’ve been around long enough and who worked with him back in the day, they’ve even said he reminds them of Michael. Not the young Michael, mind you. The champion. Helmut Marko says he’s like Senna. My dear friend Sam Posey says he’s like a combination of Stirling Moss and Alain Prost. Again, these are but opinions.
Christian Horner divulged in Barcelona that he believes he now has the best line-up in the Formula 1 paddock, and as I sit here and reflect on his comments, it’s hard to argue against them. That combination of youthful, burgeoning talent, outright speed, intelligence and raw, pure racecraft makes the Red Bull line-up if not the most competitive, then inarguably the most exciting.
What Verstappen’s rise to Red Bull has done, then, is to give us a vision of the future. His contract is secure until the end of 2019. We believe Daniel Ricciardo to be locked in until 2018. So that’s Red Bull Racing set for at least the next two-and-a-half years. But what of the others?
If Verstappen’s ascent and success tells us anything, it is that the youth market in motor racing has never been better prepared for life at the top table. Stoffel Vandoorne, above, gave a glimpse of what youth had to offer in scoring points on debut in a car he’d never driven and whose user manual he’d only read on the flight to Bahrain. That he does not have a seat in Formula 1 is a genuine travesty. One hopes the combination of his debut and the validation of youthful promise that Verstappen has highlighted finally convinces Ron Dennis that the time is right to move Vandoorne into the big-time for real.
Verstappen’s promotion has had another knock-on effect however, and that is to move silly season forward by a good month. So let’s be silly. Or not so silly, as the case may be.
Let’s say Vandoorne gets the overdue nod he deserves and moves to McLaren next season. Whom does Ron keep? And will he have a choice?
Italian reports say Nico Rosberg is in negotiations with Ferrari for a 2017 seat. Is this a well-placed rumor to up his price in his renegotiation with Mercedes for a contract which expires at the end of 2016? He is, after all, the championship leader, and his stock has never been higher. But it’s not as though Mercedes are in a weak negotiating position. If Rosberg wanted to go, I’d wager they’d let him.
Toto Wolff admitted this week that there had been contact with Fernando Alonso at the end of his tenure with Ferrari, but negotiations had gone nowhere as the team had promised not to talk to other drivers while they were finalizing Lewis Hamilton’s new contract. Would they be interested in him again? Absolutely.
Would Hamilton and Alonso work, though? Of course we all remember 2007, but the drivers whose relationship became so poisonous at McLaren are very different today. Alonso admits that 2007, right, is the biggest regret of his career. Had it not been for his ego, he could have won the title that season. He knows that in the years thereafter he and Hamilton could have carved up the championships between them. In the almost decade since, the two have become close and there exists a sincere respect between them – enough to form a potent line-up.
Rosberg, meanwhile, has proved himself a worthy No. 2. Will he win the title this year? Hamilton has overcome a hefty points deficit before. One thing of note is that his fight back in 2014 began after the teammates collided in Belgium. If Rosberg crumbles after their Spanish contact, just as he did post-Spa two years ago, there would seem little reason for Mercedes to keep him if better alternatives existed.
Would two Germans in two Ferraris be of commercial interest to the Scuderia? For Ferrari, winning is all that counts. The team needs results and it needs good PR. If Rosberg wins the title and Ferrari grab him, it seems to be the only conceivable way they’d have the No. 1 on their car next season. And that would be a good news story in Italy. Either way, in the modern hybrid era of Formula 1 Nico Rosberg is a proven race winner. Kimi Raikkonen is not. So let’s say Rosberg goes to Ferrari.
Dany Kvyat’s demotion by Red Bull means his career with them is essentially done. Carlos Sainz kept Verstappen honest and is a clear talent, so Red Bull will not want to let him go. He’ll be given the Toro Rosso seat to keep warm, while Pierre Gasly, fresh off a year in which he fights for the GP2 crown with Prema, joins him.
Over at Renault, Kevin Magnussen is of course re-signed, with the team moving the mega talented Esteban Ocon back from DTM to single-seaters alongside him. Williams thank Felipe Massa for his work, but promote GP2 standout Alex Lynn to race alongside Valtteri Bottas.
And, with Force India keeping its current line-up and Romain Grosjean holding firm at Haas, those are your key seats for 2017.
Imagine it … Hamilton and Alonso, Vettel and Rosberg, Ricciardo and Verstappen, Button and Vandoorne, Magnussen and Ocon, Bottas and Lynn, Sainz and Gasly, Hulkenberg, Perez and Grosjean.
Take a look at that line-up. It is an almost perfect mix of world champions, race winners and the talented megas capable of taking their places. When silly season produces a grid like that … it really doesn’t seem so silly.