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.