Teenage Kicks and Overtaking Tricks: Max Verstappen Thrills in Brazil

Never tell a teenager what to do.  It’s the surest way of guaranteeing they will do the exact opposite.  Toto Wolff, head honcho of Mercedes, clearly doesn’t have children.  If he did, he would have been aware of the contrariness of teenagers and might sensibly have refrained from making a phone call to Max Verstappen’s dad to have a ‘chat’ about him.  Wolff vehemently denied asking Daddy, a former F1 driver himself, to order his boy to stay away from his precious Mercedes drivers, as the drivers’ title race reaches its denouement.  Or perhaps more pertinently, to stay away from his precious Nico, bearing in mind Max’s Red Bull has been nowhere near the front-running Lewis Hamilton in recent weeks, but has got a little too close for comfort with Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes (like two weeks ago at the Mexican Grand Prix).  After all, fearless teenage boy racers can be dangerously unpredictable as well as contrary.

Toto may have refuted the allegation that his phone call to Verstappen Senior was about warning off his son, but the way Junior was gunning for Rosberg during Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the penultimate race of 2016, the youngster appeared to believe it.  He was racing as if it was he, and not the Mercedes drivers, who had a point to prove.  And it was his timely intrepid and audacious racing endeavour that would end up rescuing a race that threatened to dissolve into a literal damp squib.  An unceasing deluge of rain had created a chaos of crashes, safety cars and red flags that caused endless delays, stoppages and a paucity of racing, frustrating the Brazilian crowd into unashamedly voicing their disapproval with a chorus of boos (remember that familiar derisive sound from the Olympics?) and dismissive thumbs down gestures redolent of disapproving Roman emperors.

However, as soon as the racing finally got under way again for the third and final time, Max was hovering on second placed Rosberg’s tail like a seasoned hunter, and in a serendipitous moment as an extra shower spurt from Hamilton’s car spray conveniently blinded Rosberg, Junior grabbed his chance and swept past the championship leader before he could cry ‘water!’  Max got as close as one second behind to the race leader, until Hamilton stepped on the gas and produced a couple of fastest laps to increase the gap to two seconds, before Verstappen suffered a dramatic mishap on the straight that looked for all the world to have derailed his challenge.  He appeared to hit the white line on the track edge which sent his car into a half-spin.  Yet, somehow, Verstappen managed to regain control of his car and avoid hitting the wall, without losing second place to the fast closing Rosberg.  A remarkable save!

While there has, clearly, never been any doubt about Max Verstappen’s raw driving talent, doubts about Rosberg’s ability to drive in treacherous conditions were once again confirmed as he was outshone, not only by Max, but also by his own team mate, Hamilton, who was cruising in front on a waterlogged track as though he were in a rowing boat rather than a racing car.  Of course, Rosberg is in the fortuitous position of not having to win or even come second.  A third here would have ensured he would win the title in Abu Dhabi by finishing second.  In the event, a fatuous tyre strategy from Red Bull (that might have made a cynic wonder whether Toto Wolff had also made a phone call to Red Bull chief Christian Horner) ruined any possibility of Verstappen relegating him to third in Brazil and then repeating the feat in Abu Dhabi to throw open the title race.

Red Bull’s gamble to put intermediate tyres on both their drivers late in the race when there was no possibility of the rain abating and the track drying turned out to be a disastrous decision as Verstappen was forced to return to the pits a few laps later to reverse the team’s tyre choice.  By the time his new extreme wet tyres were fitted and he returned to the race, he was down in 16th place.  Clearly Verstappen felt he had not done enough to prove his racing credentials because he then went on a bender that saw him gain 13 places in 16 laps with some breathlessly daring and extraordinarily clever overtaking manoeuvres to end up back where he had been – third behind Rosberg – when the race had re-started for the third time.  Talk about coming full circle.  It was a fittingly Senna-esque drive in the rain on the home circuit in the home city – Sao Paulo – of the legendary Brazilian racing idol.

Hamilton’s uncontested victory means the title tussle goes down to the final race, if not necessarily down to the wire, in Abu Dhabi, in two weeks’ time.  Thanks to Hamilton’s heartbreakingly unlucky engine blowout in Malaysia five weeks ago, Rosberg has not needed to win any subsequent race.  A second or third place in a far, far superior car to the rest of the field bar Hamilton should ensure he wins the title in Abu Dhabi.  A title that will have been won more because of Hamilton’s wretched luck with reliability that was so remarkable it had many people cry conspiracy, rather than Rosberg’s ability to better his team mate in a straight fight.

Of course, should Rosberg win the world title – as he surely will, with the amount of good fortune he has enjoyed this season – no one is going to place an asterisk next to his name with the caveat that he only won because he got lucky and Hamilton was the superior and more deserving driver.  The annals of sport are brimming with great champions, but they are also full of lucky winners who only won because their rivals somehow contrived to lose.  Sport, like life, isn’t always fair.  The best don’t always win.  But as the rain-sodden Brazilian Grand Prix so vividly demonstrated, the best always steal the show.

Back To Front To Indifferent For Lewis Hamilton

If F1 races in recent seasons have been predictable in their outcome because of Mercedes domination, Lewis Hamilton remains predictable in his unpredictability.  After starting at the back of the grid in Spa last week and coming through a chaotic race to finish an excellent third, Hamilton returned to familiar territory at the front of the grid at the Italian Grand Prix.  He had been a whopping half a second faster than teammate Nico Rosberg in qualifying so should have been on easy street in the race.  But this is Lewis we are talking about.  Straightforward is not his middle name.  What should have been business as usual in a good way turned into business as usual in a bad way.  Lewis has been having trouble with the clutch on his starts all season.  It cost him in Bahrain; it cost him in Canada, and it would cost him in Monza.

It looked like Hamilton had fallen asleep at the wheel as the lights went out at the start.  His Mercedes was swamped as the other cars stormed past, and by the time he woke up, he was down in a disastrous sixth place.  Getting into and out of trouble is Hamilton’s speciality, but here, in front of a fanatical Tifosi, Hamilton was uncharacteristically underwhelming.  Although he was able to pass Ricciardo and Bottas to go fourth, and was assisted by a conservative two stop tyre strategy from both the Ferraris versus a one stopper for Mercedes, to eventually finish second, his wretched start had left him too far behind Rosberg and ruined his chance of a win.

For the second race in a row Nico Rosberg was able to cruise to victory.  He had got away brilliantly at the start and was never troubled again.  It was the drive of the day.  Nico Rosberg looks like the best driver in the world when there is no pressure on him.  When the rain stays away and Lewis is safely tangled up in one of his seemingly endless crises, Nico Rosberg is unbeatable.  Rosberg will need Hamilton to keep toppling off the edge he so relishes living on if he is to win that elusive driver’s title.

Wheel of Fortune Turns Against Rosberg

Back in April, yours truly at Random Towers wrote a blog about Lewis Hamilton’s early season travails and suggested that in order to inject some excitement into the F1 season he should allow teammate Nico Rosberg to gain a massive head start in the Drivers’ Championship and then dramatically claw back the lead and hurtle past to win the title.   Obviously Lewis has been reading my blog!  And followed suit!  How pliable of him.  From 43 points down to 19 points up.  Courtesy of 6 wins in 7 races and now 4 wins in a row after winning the German Grand Prix on Sunday.  Way to go Lewis!

As for Nico Rosberg, he needs to hire a driving instructor to teach him how to steer right.  After driving Hamilton off the track in Austria on the final lap rather than turning into the corner in due time and destroying his own race victory in the process, he tried to do the same to young Max Verstappen at the German Grand Prix.  Now precocious Max isn’t exactly averse to using some iffy defensive tactics of his own, like moving in the braking zone, but Rosberg was never going to get away with shunting a fellow driver off the track twice in four races.  Misfortune though is like buses.  It all comes at once.  Rosberg had already suffered from a disastrous start, dropping from pole to fourth, which is what left him grappling with Verstappen for third.  Mercedes had then tried to under cut the Red Bull with an earlier pit stop for Rosberg, but to no avail.  This left Rosberg trying to get past in his unique way, which cost him a 5 second penalty.  A 5 second penalty taken in the pits that bizarrely turned into an 8.2 second penalty thanks to a malfunctioning stop watch.  You know your luck must be out when German equipment starts conking out!  The unwitting delay didn’t affect the outcome though and Rosberg finished fourth, behind the two Red Bulls, with his teammate serenely coasting to victory at the front.

Rosberg may now find himself 19 points behind going into the summer break, but it’s not all over just yet.  That would be far too straightforward, and since when does Lewis Hamilton do straightforward?  There will be the obligatory twist in the tale.  Hamilton has to take a grid penalty in the next couple of races for using more than the permissible engine parts at the beginning of the season, which could cost him his hard earned lead.  Lewis though has form for making epic comebacks from back of the grid (see Hungary and Germany 2014) so the prospect of a Hamilton charge up the order is enticing.  F1 needs all the help it can get in having more wheel to wheel racing and overtaking, so it is good to know Lewis Hamilton takes his duties as entertainment ambassador seriously.  Well, this is a man whose idea of celebrating a home Grand Prix win was to fling himself onto his delirious fans to enjoy a spot of crowd surfing!  Dull, he ain’t.  And that can only mean more excitement for F1 fans.

Why Hamilton Hitting The Skids Is Good For F1

Lewis Hamilton can’t win.  Not on the racetrack, where archrival Nico Rosberg is on a roll with six consecutive race wins in a row.  Not off the racetrack, where Hamilton’s wannabe rapper lifestyle is endlessly criticised, and his ragged start to the new F1 motor racing season has seen him practically written off less than a quarter of the way through the racing calendar.  Hamilton’s travails, though, are presently the only source of entertainment in yet another F1 season Mercedes are threatening to dominate.  Had Lewis started his races from the front of the grid in the same imperious manner as most of last season the World Drivers’ Championship might already be over.  The fans may as well have tuned out after the opening lap and tuned back in for the chequered flag and champagne wasting podium celebrations.

Still, unless you are a fan of either of the two Mercedes drivers, an internecine rivalry will hold little attraction in the absence of a realistic challenge from rival teams such as Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull and Williams.  With the sport struggling to conjure up any kind of competitive drama, it is not surprising F1 has been haemorrhaging fans and receiving deserved criticism for becoming diluted from its thrilling (albeit extremely dangerous) heyday of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s.  As I wrote in an earlier blog post, sport needs rivalries to generate excitement and thrive.  Unfortunately for F1, its power brokers have not so far discovered an adequate solution to its waning appeal – despite numerous fruitless attempts – and unless something is done soon to make the teams more competitive and challenge each other for both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, then the most kamikaze mishaps of Lewis may not be enough to save the sport.

That would be a shame as motor racing is one of the few sports that Britain excels at and dominates the production of, with many of the major teams – including Mercedes – being based in Britain and making a vital contribution to the British economy.  Britain needs F1 to be successful, and it doesn’t help that the sport is run by an egotistical despotic dinosaur in Bernie Ecclestone, who seems more interested in cynically extracting ever more money from obscure oil rich freedom poor autocratic regimes – Azerbaijan anyone? – and devising ever more contrived crackpot gimmicks to liven up race days.  Poor leadership equals poor stewardship equals poor decision-making equals weak product.  Add to that equation the short sighted decision to accept Sky’s money and take half the races off terrestrial TV, meaning those without deep pockets can’t follow the whole season, which makes it easier to lose interest, especially if the race outcome is a procession.

In a sport where money will always make the difference and single team domination is near inevitable, perhaps the only solution to achieving parity between teams is to introduce some kind of handicap system.  One option that has been suggested is to reverse grid positions from one race to the next, but such a system would disincentivise drivers from winning if they had to start the following race in last place, so would probably only work if each race was split into two rounds with one normal and one reverse grid.  An alternative might be to assign a time handicap to the top 10 finishing drivers in decreasing order, which they would take into the next qualifying round.  The winner would carry the biggest time handicap, which would be added to his qualifying time and reduce his chances of starting first on the grid for the next race.  Rival cars would thus get a precious opportunity to start the following race from the front, enabling them to get a vital head start over the faster car, which would be forced to start further down the grid.  This would engender not only greater equitability, but also provide some much needed spectacle as it would necessitate plenty of overtaking from the quicker cars lower down the order.  Indeed, any kind of handicap system would help prevent the single team domination that has been the blight of F1 (and many other sports), and threatens its position as an exhilarating spectator sport.

However, until (and unless) such a scheme is implemented, currently, interest in F1 depends on the reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton giving us his own version of a handicap system by allowing his teammate to get a massive head start in the Driver’s Championship (and in the process, hopefully, bringing other drivers into contention), and then slowly clawing back the deficit by pitting his boy racer instincts against his more cerebral, but also possibly more brittle, opponent and winning in a dramatic head-to-head charge at the death.  Apparently no driver who has won the first 3 races of the season has failed to go on and win the Drivers’ Championship.  Nico Rosberg has won the first 3 races of this season.  It seems only fair that it should require the surmounting of a monumental challenge from the champion to stop F1 fans switching off completely and sending the sport into the pits.